December Cover Story: ‘Extraordinary’ Marketing

UCHealth's Manny Rodriguez, photographed by Jeff Nelson.

“One of the main things we’re trying to do is break the norm of our category,” says Manny Rodriguez, chief marketing and experience officer for UCHealth, a nonprofit network of nine acute care hospitals and more than 100 clinics throughout Colorado, southern Wyoming, and western Nebraska. “Healthcare marketing is predictable, self-centered, and inward focused. How can you revolutionize a space people have been playing in the same way for a long time?”

Though the UCHealth brand itself is less than five years old, Coloradans are likely familiar with its hub: the University of Colorado Hospital in suburban Denver, which dates to 1885 — and is the first Colorado hospital to make U.S. News & World Report’s annual Best Hospitals Honor Roll, moving up to 15th nationally in 2017. 

In launching the UCHealth brand to showcase its full array of services and locations to those in need of quality medical care throughout the region, the goal seemed clear enough: promote the brand and the strength of its platform. When Rodriguez arrived in mid-2015, he sensed that UCHealth was in a prime position to change healthcare marketing from a focus on service to a focus on patients.

With 25 years of marketing background in “heavily regulated industries,” Rodriguez became UCHealth’s first CMO upon his arrival. “Our CEO Elizabeth Concordia’s focus is on creating best-in-class healthcare,” he says. “While the prior marketing leadership was aggressive about branding and recognition, performance-based marketing — segmentation, a path to care, and more — wasn’t a strength.”

Rodriguez says that UCHealth has become a major proponent of “media mix modeling” and of “measurement and research” during the past two years. That focus has resulted in solid success for its patient-focused 2017 campaign: “Live Extraordinary.”

Centered around video spots — aired on TV and available on UCHealth’s YouTube and home site channels — the campaign includes all facets of media and technology to drive consumers and patients to understand and buy into the UCHealth brand.

Live Extraordinary campaign
Three TV spots and online videos centered on UCHealth patients —
including “Peyton,” above — form the basis of theorganization’s
“Live Extraordinary” campaign.

Mixing Marketing and Experience

Rodriguez’s day-to-day at UCHealth bounces back and forth between his roles as CMO and chief experience officer. 

“As CMO, I’m in charge of branding, advertising, market research, corporate communications, public relations, event marketing, and sponsor and partner marketing,” he says. “That includes our in-house agency, as well as service-line marketing in areas like orthopedics, cardiology, and oncology.”

On the “experience” side, Rodriguez says, “I have regional patient experience groups that report to me, and we’re always working on patient experience innovation and research analysis. After all, any brand is tied deeply to the customer’s experience of it.”

Rodriguez’s 25 years leading up to his arrival at UCHealth started with a six-year stint in finance — his field of study in college — in the pharmaceutical space. But once he shifted to marketing, he was hooked.

Rodriguez spent time with some of the largest pharma marketers in the world: Johnson & Johnson, Schering-Plough, Abbott Labs, Bristol Myers Squibb, and Forest Labs. “Most of my work was on the over-the-counter and consumer packaged goods side of the business,” he recalls. “Though I did do some direct-to-consumer work on Claritin and a few other brands.”

In 2008, Rodriguez transitioned into another regulated space: energy. “I spent time at Reliant, which was bought by NRG in 2009. Then in 2014, I made a stop in the banking business, working with Santander Bank, before I landed here.”

What did he learn on that journey through marketing such distinct products and services? “First and foremost, you can never over-communicate,” Rodriguez says. “Part of that process is finding advocates along the way. When you’re in marketing, the more advocates you have on the senior leadership team, the easier it is to sell the big idea.”

Next, Rodriguez contends, is building the right team. “My job is to stay out of the way — hire good people and let them run the business like it’s their own,” he says. “I’m there to help problem solve, navigate, and define strategy. But if I get in the way, it takes away the power of really smart people. You can’t retain talent that way. Instead, you must trust them to get them to shine and succeed.”

That’s not to say it always works out. Rodriguez looks back at one campaign gone awry as a key lesson that informs his leadership style today.

“A few years back, when I was working in the energy business, we came across the concept of pushing the notion that, today, life does not exist without energy. Nothing works without power,” he recalls. “The idea behind the campaign was to show what life would be like in darkness — with glimpses of light throughout. Internally, we were convinced the campaign was going to be revolutionary, but we lost sight of its downsides.”

He continues, “On one hand, our instinct said, ‘It’s too dark, don’t do it.’ On the other, it said, ‘Yes, it’s a dark campaign, but it’s awesome!’ We went with our heart, which said you have to push the limits — and the campaign failed miserably. It was one of those things where you have the research showing you everything you need to see, but sometimes you let your emotional side take over. We learned that we couldn’t lose touch with the intellectual side. You have to make decisions with a balance of intellect and emotion. Marketing is an art and a science.”

A third overriding lesson remained untouched by this experience: that was to never “squash creativity,” Rodriguez says, adding, “If someone is truly passionate about something, don’t say no right away. In many instances, people will come to you with what seems like a bad idea, but they’re passionate about it. At times, I’ve let that passion take the wheel and see that person turn it into a brilliant idea. Ultimately, even when you reach that ‘chief’ title, you don’t know everything. You’re not the right target for every idea that’s going to work.”

He points to UCHealth’s rebrand and its “Live Extraordinary” campaign as a perfect example. “One of the positive things we learned recently in our rebrand is that we were able to accomplish a lot internally — creating the new logo, writing our campaigns, producing the ‘Becky’ and ‘Peyton’ spots,” Rodriguez says. “In our space, you could have the best agency in the world, but if it’s not emotionally tied to the brand, it’s not likely to be successful. Our employees were more emotionally tied than any agency could be. And we were successful following that passion, rather than what a high-priced consultant could tell us.”

Rodriguez adds that, in one instance, the passion and connection became personal. “One writer became so invested in a patient’s story that they became close friends,” he says. “It plays out in the spot. You could tell it was from the heart. That connection helped the real story come alive.” 

Such a connection is critical in marketing the services UCHealth provides. With hospitals in Aurora (the flagship), Broomfield, Fort Collins, Loveland, Longmont, Steamboat Springs, and Colorado Springs, as well as more than 100 affiliated clinics, UCHealth serves more than 1.3 million unique patients every year. The organization’s stated mission is to improve the lives of people in Colorado and beyond — and, to that end, in fiscal year 2017, it spent nearly $650 million on financial assistance, subsidized care, and other areas to directly benefit the patients it serves.

UCHealth Medical Group directly employs about 500 providers and its partners at the University of Colorado School of Medicine employ an additional 2,800 providers. In addition, thousands of other physicians and advanced practice providers are affiliated with UCHealth and have privileges to practice at its community hospitals.

Live Extraordinary print ad
The “Live Extraordinary” campaign includes 
digital aspects — including email and
pay-per-click retargeting— as well as print
(above) and other marketing media.

The Patient Is the Hero

But it’s not just the scope of what UCHealth offers that creates challenges for Rodriguez’s team. “We’re in a very interesting time for healthcare. For instance, I could market cars or watches and, based on tactics, I can create demand and simply measure executions,” he says. “But, in healthcare, just because we decide to create a campaign to promote cancer care and treatment, thankfully that doesn’t mean the consumer is getting cancer tomorrow.”

That challenge — among others — is why the UCHealth team chose to promote its young brand and the strength of its platform with its patients. This was a surprising choice in a business with a history of promoting its expertise and caregivers.

“Most healthcare industry marketing centers on the doctors as the heroes,” Rodriguez says. “Not us. Our focus is on the patient’s journey as the heroic story. Within that, we can better promote healthier, more active lifestyles — all through our targets meeting our most extraordinary patients. If these stories resonate with you, it creates a relationship with the UCHealth brand — one where we become that brand for your needs, your advice, and more.”

And that’s where the patient experience portion of Rodriguez’s work ties in. “If everything we do is centered around the patient, we must never lose sight of outcomes on the softer side of our services,” he says. “Think about it: when we get on a plane, the most important hard outcome is getting from point A to point B as safely as possible, right? But what do we all complain about? The seats, the Wi-Fi, the food, the pillows, the entertainment service — the softer things. In healthcare, obviously the patient is there for the positive outcome of treatment. But we can’t lose sight of the softer things: parking, food, office presentation, answering the phone. Brand and patient experience are forever tied.”

Beyond the brand, though, UCHealth has evolved as a marketer with the ever-changing media, technology, and commerce landscape — employing all manner of performance-based marketing methodologies to create more targeted (and more successful) campaigns.

“Which tactics work? Which don’t? We are huge believers in measurement and research,” Rodriguez says. “I believe in knowledge over opinion — I like to ‘know,’ not ‘think.’ That’s why our efforts are extremely performance-based, with adjustments made on the fly.”

Rodriguez says UCHealth’s strategic marketing includes extensive remarketing and retargeting efforts, both online and offline. “We’ll use pay-per-click to promote just about any service we offer online,” he says. “But we also still have success with direct mail to certain demos. We do a lot of work around segmentation — just because you’re the same age as another person with the same disease doesn’t mean our outreach to you should be the same. People are very different when they arrive at a health crossroads.”

With an expensive “path to care,” as Rodriguez calls UCHealth’s consumer journey, most healthcare providers have believed in immediate outreach to those affected by certain health challenges. Rodriguez disagrees with that conventional wisdom.

“If you’re diagnosed with cancer, many providers would market to you immediately,” he says. “My philosophy is that that is the worst time. It’s about reaching people all along their path to care — patients at all age groups, and levels of health. You have to continually craft a message to each person for where they are. Sometimes, that means you do target them at diagnosis. But with others, it’s better to target a family member. You simply cannot market the same way to completely different people.”

Rodriguez says that’s really manifested itself in more tightened targets for its email and direct mail campaigns. “In the past, we’d blast away and hope for the best,” he contends. “Now, with more research and better targeting, a direct mail piece — for example — sent to 100,000 people rather than 600,000 gets a much better response rate. Yes, it’s more expensive to be that targeted, but the outcomes are much, much better.”

‘Live Extraordinary’

The centerpiece of UCHealth’s current “Live Extraordinary” campaign are three TV spots focusing on three inspiring patients: Peyton, a 17-year old who is cancer-free after a bout with stage-four ovarian cancer; Becky, who survived a massive heart attack with a heart transplant; and Jandl, a 20-year military veteran who nearly lost a leg in a car accident while driving to work.

Those TV spots also serve as teasers for UCHealth’s trove of videos on both YouTube and its own UCHealth Stories page. “The campaign started in February, and not once, in any of the creative do we mention ourselves,” Rodriguez says. “The patient does it, or there’s the tagline at the end. What we’ve seen from our brand metrics since the campaign started, our unaided awareness, brand perception, likelihood to recommend — really any brand metric you want to look at — have skyrocketed.”

In the past, Rodriguez says,     UCHealth’s TV spots were all 30 seconds in length. These spots range from 60 to 90 seconds each. “What we lacked in our advertising was an emotional connection — you can’t connect with patient in 30 seconds. It takes time to create a connection with a person. Think of how movie directors work to create a connection to a character,” he says. 

But, Rodriguez adds, online video is a powerful tool in allowing UCHealth to expose its targets to these longer spots, making eventual 30- and/or 60-second cutdowns on television media that much more effective.

“We use our video channels to create those connections — we start with 90s and pare back to 30s,” Rodriguez says. “And in the most recent iteration of the campaign, we split it down middle, launching with 60s. It’s a powerful tool, especially considering how effective even longer narratives are in other social channels.”

As an example, Rodriguez mentions a campaign from the spring that launched with a 90-second video teaser online that led to a 12-minute documentary. “We were blown away by the total views — and even more by those who stayed four or five minutes,” he says. “Many stayed to watch the whole thing, but almost 50 percent reached that four-to-five-minute mark.”

In the early fall, UCHealth doubled down on the campaign with those 60-second spots, which Rodriguez says, continued to “turn healthcare marketing upside down.”

He says, “You know the typical ad: talking about patients from the provider’s perspective. Showcasing doctors, talking about how wonderful we are to our patients — then you close with a couple of doctors crossing their arms and a logo. This is not that. Not at all — and others in the market are starting to emulate us.”

But, Rodriguez says, those competitors haven’t been able to take it all the way. “While they’ve emulated the way we tell a story — or some of our visuals — many can’t seem to let go of the traditional positioning to fully focus on the patient,” he says. “We’re uniquely positioned and daring enough to do that, so their payoff isn’t the same as our payoff. Not only are we getting great responses from the communities we serve, but we’re also getting great feedback from our employees and providers, like nurses who tell us it really is all about the patient and they’re thrilled we’re telling these stories.”

Rodriguez reaches back to the idea of being “daring enough” as he adds, “The first step to campaign success like this is having the courage to do it. But the second step is having the research and measurement tools to back up that courage. Will your audience give you the right to go there with something groundbreaking? For instance, look back at the mid-1980s when ‘New Coke’ failed. The consumer didn’t give Coca-Cola the go-ahead.”

How can a marketer push those boundaries then — and get their consumers to go along? “Once you push the boundary when given the right, you just keep pushing a little more each time,” Rodriguez says. “Don’t go so far the audience stops accepting it. Maybe 10 degrees today, maybe another 10 degrees in six months — if you keep succeeding, you can change a category slowly and methodically.”

Another crucial aspect of UCHealth’s marketing efforts: sponsorship and partnership deals with Denver’s four major professional sports teams: the NFL’s Broncos, MLB’s Rockies, the NBA’s Nuggets, and the NHL’s Avalanche.

“We can’t lose sight of the fun and playful side of what we do, and at these sporting events, it’s not the place to have serious conversations,” Rodriguez says. “We want to entertain and not lecture.”

As an example, he points to     UCHealth’s “Broncos Fever” campaign, which is in its latest iteration during the 2017 season. “We started a couple of years ago with these humorous video riffs on a ‘pandemic’ called Broncos Fever,” Rodriguez says. “Denver’s fans are known as some of the most passionate in the NFL, and we wanted to play off that. We engaged with fans and got them to share their stories of Broncos Fever.”

In addition to video spots online and in the stadium during games, UCHealth brings out a “mobile treatment unit” for Broncos Fever to various events around the state, which “has driven great brand awareness,” according to Rodriguez.

One of the biggest promotions took place in November 2015, as part of the annual “Movember” men’s health awareness campaign that results in many men (some of whom you may know) growing moustaches in November.

“We decided we wanted to set a Guinness world record of people wearing fake moustaches, so at a Broncos-Patriots game that month, we did just that,” Rodriguez says. “It served a message that men must take care of themselves — but in a fun and interactive way.”

None of this — from the performance-based metrics and tactics to the brand and experience care to the fun and flighty campaigns — would be possible without a group of outstanding partner vendors. Though Rodriguez rightfully lauds UCHealth’s internal agency, he’s also generous with his thoughts about those partners.

He mentions Denver-based Monigle — a research and branding partner — and Chicago-based Paragon Marketing, which handles many of UCHealth’s marketing partnership assets, as crucial to the organization’s success.

 “From media relations standpoint, Ogilvy simply does things that we can’t,” Rodriguez adds. “They work with our internal team, who handles our local footprint, and take that message out nationally — and even internationally. They’ve extended our boundaries.”

Rodriguez says that UCHealth’s agency of record, the Richards Group (based in Dallas) is respectful of the company’s internal agency, and that respect is returned. “They don’t compete, they work hand in hand,” he says. “They take our vision and tell the best possible stories. If their execution is better on something after working with our team, they’ll take it and roll it out. They create an amazing balance and make our story better.”