How Sutter Health Cured a Case of Bland Brand-itis

CMO Spotlight: Arra Yerganian, Sutter Health

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Arra Yerganian, chief marketing and branding officer at Sutter Health.
Arra Yerganian, chief marketing and branding officer at Sutter Health.

After the tsunami of 2003, Arra Yerganian, at the time an executive at a home construction company in Northern California, was approached by a group of mothers who asked if he would match the proceeds of a bake sale they were holding to raise money for victims. When Yerganian later met with the Red Cross to hand over a check, he was struck by the altruism of the volunteers' impending missions. "The fact that they were so selfless in their dedication to humanity moved me in a way that I had never imagined," he says.

Fast-forward nine months, and Yerganian was the chair of the Red Cross board. Fast-forward again, and Yerganian found himself at Sutter Health, recently recognized by IBM's Truven Health Analytics as one of the top five large healthcare systems in America. As Yerganian tells it, he found his career's calling in caring after others. Today, as chief marketing and branding officer, he's working to help Sutter Health do the same.

When so many competing healthcare systems claim the same mission of high-quality care, it's Yerganian's duty to help Sutter differentiate itself, both strategically and meaningfully. His efforts so far have resonated. Yerganian recently received an Officers Award from The CMO Club, a prestigious honor bestowed on a marketing leader who brings his or her brand beyond the typical scope of marketing and growth to other functional areas of the company.

The differentiating diagnosis

"Sutter Health is a remarkable organization," says Yerganian. "We are an integrated team of clinical and nonclinical pioneers who are deeply rooted in our not-for-profit mission." As the leader of marketing and branding efforts, Yerganian has a big ship to steer, given Sutter Health's $11 billion in revenue and staff of 55,000. His hope is to set the organization apart from the sea of sameness that washes over healthcare marketing.

According to Yerganian, the healthcare industry has a problem with brand differentiation because it largely still practices "lowest common denominator" marketing. "People talk about quality and expertise as if they're differentiators," he says. "Seems to me, everyone expects when they go to a doctor that they'll get quality care, and that their doctor is an expert in their field, right?"

For Sutter Health, standing out requires a brand promise greater than just high-quality patient care. "As healthcare undergoes a transformation in America, it's about putting people first, rather than patients," Yerganian says. "It's about understanding and connecting with people and families on both an intellectual and emotional level." In other words, Yerganian and his department are actively changing the conversation towards the real people behind what other providers categorize as "the patient" or any other business would call "the customer." "That's what makes Sutter Health special and different from every other health system," he says. "We are the brand leaning in when others are leaning away."

A targeted treatment

A more humanized approach means that the marketing department spends more time nurturing relationships with existing patients than acquiring new ones. "I call this the 'love the ones you're with' approach," says Yerganian, adding, "and it is a big differentiator for us since so many healthcare companies are just trying to acquire as many customers as they can."

One way that Yerganian's team fosters Sutter Health's existing relationships is by placing more emphasis on marketing for their individual needs. Taking cues from his time at Procter & Gamble, his team spearheaded the effort to create, essentially, a family of brands. "I had a vision when I arrived 16 months ago to create a brand management structure along the lines of service like heart care, cancer services, women's health…" he says. This involved not only big data and research, but also forging stronger ties with medical experts, bringing them into the marketing fold for more specific and relevant content that resonates across the brand. Take the "Smile Out" campaign, modified for each line of service. A person battling a sinus infection sees "Sniffle in, smile out," while orthopedic patients see "Limp in, smile out." This creates a coherent connection across very different practice areas.

"Precision marketing," as Yerganian calls this, also helps the medical professionals and marketing team deliver a better experience for the people Sutter Health cares for. "When I think about emotional access," he says, "it's about how we care about and appreciate the people we work with. It's how our healthcare teams work together toward collaborative care so you are a person, not a statistic. These are the things that we are really striving to do every day that really separate us."

And like a doctor on call, Yerganian anticipates little time for celebration. As Yergarian puts it: "We have in our DNA the spirit of doing amazing things for people every day -- we just need to bring those stories to light."

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