"Cheating Death" & Healthcare Branding: Buzz vs. Blasphemy

It can be a fine line to walk: The line between positive memorability and infamy. Every brand wants attention, to be known and associated with some clever or important idea. Hospitals are no different. However, given their highly public roles in communities (and the nature of their caretaker functions), community standards may understandably clash with edgy slogans.

Enter CaroMont Health and its recent rebranding campaign: Earlier this month, the former North Carolina-based Gaston Memorial Hospital changed its name to CaroMont Regional Medical Center. In light of the county’s poor statewide health ranking, the occasion also was used to introduce a new community health movement, captured by what president and CEO Randy Kelley called an “audacious and provocative rallying cry,” Cheat Death.

grim reapersNeedless to say, this tagline created an uproar, and CaroMont Health announced its retirement a few days later, stating it didn’t want to undermine its goal of improving the community’s health. I would guess that the organization also didn’t want to risk further embarrassment. About a week later, CaroMont’s board of directors fired Kelley.

Ironically, the goal of its rebranding was to rally around the recent poor health ranking of its community in an effort to inspire changes. The first step to inspiring change is to call attention to the need for change, which CaroMont Health succeeded at doing. Despite its awkwardness, “Cheat Death” does convey a kind of urgency, so choosing this slogan can be understood in that light. After all, one of the fundamental goals of advertising and marketing is to be memorable.

How does any company or marketing agency know when the line between harmless and offensive is crossed? Having a giant alarm sound during planning meetings would be helpful. In the absence of that, judgments about what marketing messages are too offensive should depend on the individual organization, its audience, and its role in the community. As desirable as it might seem, no one universal standard can be applied. Another unsettling truth is that sometimes you can’t know until after it’s too late. These are what I would call “marketing realities.”

To summarize the various perspectives on the “Cheat Death” campaign:

What the doctors say: We’re embarrassed. This is unprofessional.

What the religious leaders say: We’re offended. You can’t play God. It’s arrogant to think medicine could perpetuate immortality in opposition to natural law.

What the hospital says: We just wanted people to pay attention to the urgent need to correct their poor health habits.

What the cynics say: All publicity is good publicity (unless you’re the CEO who got fired—although other concerns had been raised previously). Think of how many people now know about the rebranding of CaroMont Health who otherwise wouldn’t. The hospital administration knew the new slogan would generate attention, so the choice was made to go ahead and accept the consequences.

What I say: The religious context aside, the slogan is still at best, distasteful and at worst, offensive. It just doesn’t seem like the kind of message a hospital should be using, despite the underlying rationale and the greater goal (which is good) of spurring the community members’ active participation in improving their own health.

The fact that I’m writing about this subject right now could be perceived as a validation of the cyncics’ calculation. That being said, I don’t think judging this campaign is that simple. The hospital’s goals were noble, but the means by which it got attention offended its doctors and community. Ultimately, the choice to engage in potentially controversial marketing comes down to your organization’s goals and risk tolerance. Marketers engage in this kind of experimentation all the time: Sometimes success or failure comes down to the particular circumstances. (Case in point: This same slogan used by an organization that isn’t a hospital to an audience that is not socially or religiously conservative might be a big hit … imagine a human cryogenic company appealing to wealthy hipsters.) It’s all context.

Speaking of context, among my favorite details of this campaign are the fact that the marketing firm behind the slogan is called “Immortology” and a hospital team wore ‘Cheat Death’ T-shirts and toasted each other with ‘Cheat Death’ smoothies at the introduction ceremony. I have to give credit for originality. Other great details included plans for:

  • Medically approved ‘Cheat Death’ kits for schools, businesses and churches (at least before the slogan was killed). They were to contain “step-by-step approaches that will help people increase their odds of living longer.”
  • Gyms and restaurants with ‘Cheat Death’ workouts and menu specials.

On a less controversial note, the hospital also planned to use social media to share healthcare tips. (Read my colleague Melissa Mathews’ take on good ways to use social media in healthcare.)

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Photo courtesy of Newsbie Pix via Flickr.

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