Crain's: $8 Billion Health Care Giant Rebrands

Crain’s New York Business -- November 2, 2015

By Jonathan LaMantia

North Shore-LIJ Health System is about to lose its Long Island accent. In a rebranding years in the making, North Shore-LIJ in January will shed both its Long Island and Jewish heritages. Its new name, Northwell Health, is a nod to its regional expansion and aspriations to become a national brand. 

The Affordable Care Act hastened a wave of hospital consolidation. Market share is now concentrated among five supersize systems in the metro area.North Shore-LIJ is the largest, its empire flung far from its historic roots on the Nassau-Queens border.

"I can't tell you the number of people over the years who said, 'You're just a Long Island system,' " said Michael Dowling, North Shore-LIJ's president and chief executive since 2002.

The name's "north" component suggests a journey or destination; "well" evokes the system's new focus on preventative care. "A neutral name that has a meaning can be very helpful as we continue to build the organization," Dowling said.

The system will spend $10 million to $12 million next year on marketing. Its typical budget was $2 million to $3 million, pocket change to competitors like New York-Presbyterian Hospital, a Super Bowl advertiser.

"If we don't define who we are, our competitors will define us," said Ramon Soto, whom Dowling hired in March as chief marketing and corporate communications officer. "That's the worst place to be," said Soto. "Then you're just known as big. And who wants to be the Walmart of health care?"

North Shore-LIJ's 122-member board of trustees is packed with power players like New York Mets co-owner Saul Katz and Viacom Chief Executive Phillippe Dauman. Some trustees held an emotional attachment to the old name, the result of the 1997 merger of North Shore Health System and Long Island Jewish Medical Center. A more recent merger spree created the current network of 21 hospitals; the notably large board is a patchwork of trustees from these acquired facilities.

The hospital system was a 'well-kept secret'

It took nearly eight years for North Shore-LIJ Health to convince the board that only a re-engineered brand could reflect a $7.8 billion system that spans New York City, Long Island and Westchester County and owns an insurer, CareConnect.

Consensus-building was difficult. After its March 2010 acquisition of Lenox Hill Hospital, the system hired Landor Associates to select a two-word name. Northstar, an early favorite, was already trademarked. Then several longtime trustees balked because of "strong allegiances to our existing name," a hospital spokesman said in 2011. The system had spent heavily to rebrand Lenox Hill as part of North Shore-LIJ, an investment wasted if it changed its own name.

"Branding ourselves was never a high priority," said board chair Mark Claster. "It only became more important in this competitive landscape we're in. We were a very well-kept secret."

Its competitors did not hold back on marketing. NYU Langone Medical Center advertises on Hampton Jitneys that barrel through North Shore-LIJ's turf, emblazoned with the Manhattan hospital's "Made for New York" branding.






By early 2015, North Shore-LIJ had to act because of industrywide changes in reimbursement. State and federal policy started shifting health care to a payment model that penalizes hospitals when they lose patients to other providers.

"We had to convince the board that for the future, we have to compete fiercely for people coming into our facilities," said Soto. "The name is an impediment."

Dowling told Soto he needed to treat rebranding like a political campaign. Soto commissioned Interbrand and Monigle to develop a name, logo and brand identity. As 600 proposed names were whittled down to Northwell, Soto tried to build consensus. He says he visited board members' homes to "whip the votes." Claster made calls to ensure Northwell would pass a full-board vote. Each hospital--such as Long Island Jewish Medical Center--could keep its name, which sealed the deal.

Northwell has its detractors. It sounds like a diet snack, as in "Hand me a package of those Northwells," wrote one Long Island columnist.

Dr. Edward Halperin, chancellor and chief executive of New York Medical College, a Jewish institution, views the loss of "LIJ," for Long Island Jewish, as the latest in a string of secular name changes. As for the timing of the Northwell press conference on Sept. 14, Rosh Hashana, he said: "Someone who is respectful of Jewish tradition does not make business announcements on the Jewish New Year." A name that stripped the system of both geographic and religious limitations was a smart choice, argues Margaret Wolfson, founder of Manhattan branding agency River + Wolf. "In a secular age, those religious affiliations sound exclusive, even though these institutions are inclusive," she said.

The Northwell name, said Dowling, is a launching point, "a new beginning. It's an opportunity to think about who we are and what we want to be."


FOOTPRINT: Northwell stretches from Northern Westchester Hospital in Mount Kisco to Peconic Bay Medical Center in Riverhead, L.I.

SIGNS OF THE TIMES: Northwell will spend an estimated $15 million to $20 million over two to three years to replace signage on 800 vehicles and some 2,000 external images, and take other actions to erase the North Shore-LIJ name.

TRASH PILE: The names Laudica Health and Dedication Health were rejected.

GO FISH: Designed by the firm Monigle, Northwell’s logo is meant to evoke a school of fish all swimming in one direction. The varying colors and sizes in the logo can represent the diversity of its assets and its workforce.


A version of this article appears in the November 2, 2015, print issue of Crain's New York Business as "An $8 billion giant rebrands".

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