An Interview with Ilan Geva
By Elizabeth Ziemba, President, Medical Tourism Training, Inc.
Many people think they know what branding is but do they really? Do you?
Tips from the Expert: Ilan Geva
Ilan Geva certainly understands branding. As a distinguished advertising agency veteran and professor at the University of Chicago and DePaul University, Ilan Geva shares his knowledge of branding, marketing, advertising, and consumer behavior with his consulting clients as well as his students. Mr. Geva assists medical travel clients to brand destinations, corporations, organizations and small businesses as well as offering solutions to internal/external branding strategy and implementation. Here are his responses to questions about branding and medical tourism.
What exactly is “branding” and what role does it play in the international health travel sector?
Branding in its most simple definition is “what customers think about you”, with that in mind, everything a brand does remains etched in our consumer memory. Based on any past experience, consumers will decide if they can trust a brand going forward into repeat purchases. International health travel is no different.
Consumers have an opinion about country brands, destination brands, hospital brands and doctor brands. And that makes branding extremely important in making one country brand more successful than another. Building a good hospital in some country that has bad reputation will not bring any international business.
Which destinations and providers have the strongest medical travel brand and what makes them so good?
With about 70 countries vying for medical tourism business, and claiming ability to provide medical travel services, there is a lot of confusion in the marketplace. I would say that without a doubt, the U.S. has the strongest brand equity in terms of “Centers of Medical Excellence” in the world. Brands like Mayo Clinic, Cleveland Clinic, Johns Hopkins etc. have been busy building their brand equity for years, much before the term “Medical Tourism” was fashionable.
A single hospital in Thailand, Bumrungrad, built a reputation and invested in infrastructure and marketing some years ago, and put Thailand on the map, but does it mean that Thailand is a “Center of Excellence”? I doubt it.
Malaysia is investing in its medical services sector in a unique and significant way, making the entire medical category a preferred area in which the government invests equally for the domestic and the incoming patients. That is evident in both government and private hospitals who know not only how to build facilities but also how to promote them.
Korea has invested a lot in marketing, and establishing government offices to welcome medical travelers, but they still lack in developing a welcoming culture that appeals to patients outside the immediate region. The same applies to Turkey, a country that has invested heavily in the medical sector but stands to risk its investment due to recent social unrest.
What are the major steps involved with building a brand in medical travel?
The most important thing is to make a commitment to build a brand. Brand building takes time and never stops. Branding is not about brochures, websites, or new hospitals. It is about the commitment of an entire country to the goal of achieving a certain brand.
A successful branding effort involves ALL the brand touchpoints. Some of these touchpoints include: Avoiding unscrupulous facilitators; have an airline that offers real medical support; have airport facilities that can easily accommodate medical patients; have a visa process that makes everything easy for medical visitors; have a complete cultural understanding of the patients you intend to accommodate including food and other cultural necessities; ensure that families have comfortable and easy accommodations while their relatives are being treated; prepare an easy discharge process with clear instructions for follow-up; and make sure all billing issues are transparent and clear for all and much more.
There are many other steps involved with creating a successful medical tourism brand. The idea here is to demonstrate that building a brand in medical travel does not consist solely of the medical treatment but rather is defined by the entire patient experience.
Tourism, in general, and medical travel, in particular, are hurt by negative events both man-made, such as terrorist activity, political unrest, and violence, as well as natural events such as tsunamis and floods. What can be done to resuscitate a brand impacted by negative events? Who should direct the activities? Can you provide examples of destinations and/or providers who have successfully turned around a brand that was hurt by negative events?
Negative events could hurt any brand in the world and are not necessarily the result of anything the brand has done or failed to do. Each brand must have an emergency plan to respond, and be ready for such events. Because every brand has a different personality and character, it is impossible to point to a formula; however, a plan should always be prepared in advance instead of being hatched urgently when such an event takes place.
What are issues/approaches to be avoided when developing or protecting a positive brand?
For me, one thing to avoid is politicizing medical travel. As many governments get involved in granting budgets, tax legislation etc. in connection with medical travel, they have a tendency to try and influence the personality and the marketing strategy of such brands. That is a mistake. Politicians come and go, but the actual brand will stay there forever.
A recent example took place in Turkey, where the prime minister shuffled his cabinet, and released a health minister who had spent 10 years building a great medical travel industry in that country. As a result, advanced negotiations to create an exciting medical travel brand in Turkey came to a standstill. Recent political unrest may further set back the international travel sector in that country.
The entire branding effort should be a continuous effort, executed by the direct stakeholders of the brand, and the professionals who can assist them in building a long-term lasting brand.
The second issue is allocating realistic marketing budgets for medical travel that will allow for success. As a general rule, any commercial entity interested in building or maintaining a brand is going to spend between 5-10% of its revenue on brand related marketing. The medical travel field is not even close to that number.
To succeed in a competitive market (and this is a VERY competitive market!) countries, destinations and hospitals must realize that spending on marketing is as important as building a new wing at the hospital or buying the latest DaVinci robotic surgery equipment.
Very few countries allow professional marketers to get involved in consulting and helping them build a long-term, positive, sustainable brand, the way it should be done. As a result, the marketing efforts are amateurish at best. No one wants to seek treatment from an amateurish doctor but judging by the brand image and the marketing materials common in the international travel sector, most of the branding efforts to date do appear amateurish.
Does your organization or destination need help building or maintaining a strong, positive brand in the international health travel sector? Ilan can put his experience to work for you. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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