Nick Ragone, JD, explains how Ascension’s marketing strategy is guided by the organization’s mission and its emphasis on storytelling.
Everyone has a story worth telling, and healthcare organizations can use this tool to connect with their patients and consumers.
One organization that looks at storytelling is Ascension, a large nonprofit health care system headquartered in St. Louis, Missouri. Nick Ragone, JD, who has been Executive Vice President and Director of Marketing and Communications at Ascension since 2014, uses the inspiring stories of patients and staff in the organization’s marketing.
Ragone recently spoke with HealthLeaders about how Ascension’s marketing strategy is driven by mission statement advocate for “a just and compassionate society through our actions and words” and emphasize storytelling.
The transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.
HealthLeaders: What role does marketing serve for Ascension?
Nick Ragone: The way I envision it is for marketing and communications, our job is to tell the amazing stories of our inspiring caregivers, and the patients and communities we serve. This is our true North when it comes to marketing and communications.
Ascension has a mission that guides everything we do. When most companies talk about a mission statement, they can change every five or ten years with a new leadership team or new strategic direction. But our mission has been with us for over 100 years, and it’s pretty straightforward. It is about providing care for all, especially those in need, and advocating for a just and compassionate society. Our marketing priorities stem from this mission.
My title is executive vice-president and director of marketing and communications, but I do my job as a chief storyteller, and it’s a great roost. It’s a privilege because I can tell some of the best health stories, especially over the past two years during the pandemic.
HL: What stories have you shared over the past two years during the pandemic, and how have you used them in your marketing?
Ragon: In recent years, marketing has focused solely on gratitude to our caregivers and the safety of our patients.
When the pandemic hit, like most organizations, we had to reorient a lot of what we did, including how we market ourselves. We weren’t so focused on marketing the service lines or whatever. We distilled it to show our gratitude to our caregivers and to make sure our patients know what we are doing to keep them safe and healthy.
There are two years of pandemic and that is still the goal of our marketing. About a year ago, we launched our Carer Gratitude Campaign, which has been an amazing campaign. We use an original composition of Kelly lang, who is a Nashville-based singer-songwriter, and was actually one of our patients 10 years ago. She had breast cancer and spoke about it publicly. She wrote an inspiring song 10 years ago based on her experience with us called “I’m Not Going Anywhere”. Last year, we paired it with visuals from our caregivers who, at the height of the pandemic, were truly a lifeline for many patients and inspired this campaign of gratitude.
We just launched the second phase of this recently, called “Hope and Healing”. It features the voices of our associates explaining why it is important for them to be on Ascension to care for our patients.
We track our brand awareness and reputation in all of our markets on a daily basis through a brand tracking survey, and over the past 18 months our reputation and trust have grown to double digits in almost all of our markets. It was very positive that we took the right approach to focus our storytelling on caregiver gratitude and patient safety.
In addition to that, we continue with this idea that patients want to know that they will be safe in your care site, and you are going to make them healthy and well, and focusing on that aspect.
These two themes will extend beyond the pandemic. We will continue to find vignettes, personal stories of individual caregivers who have done amazing things and individual patients who have overcome obstacles. We are fortunate to have many powerful examples and testimonials from amazing caregivers and patients, and we will continue to use them as the foundation for how we tell stories.
HL: In what other ways do you measure the return on investment and the success of your campaigns?
Ragon: The brand tracking survey is the primary way because it is quantitative data. These are consumer surveys on the strength of our brand, which is an algorithm of a lot of things, but mostly awareness and positive attributes or reputation. It’s powerful because it’s a consumer survey, so it’s not based on experience, it’s based on your understanding of our brand in its specific market.
We’re also looking at engagement on social media. This can give you an idea of the direction to take in determining whether or not a campaign is landing the right way; with the attributes of the comments, whether positive, negative, or neutral, you can get a feel for it as well.
Over the past 18 months to two years, all of these steps have been really positive for us.
HL: What media do you find most effective for your marketing initiatives?
Ragon: We take an omnichannel approach and we look at it two ways.
One is qualitative marketing, which I would consider more awareness. Usually this tends to be what we think of as “traditional media”. We still do a lot of TV advertising, it is an important medium for us in all our markets, and especially during the pandemic, people have stayed at home. We do a lot of what they call pre-roll on YouTube and other video sites, both TV commercials and online videos. We are still investing in billboards and printing. In some of our smaller markets, printing is still important and very powerful. And the radio too.
And then the other part is quantitative marketing, which is more data driven and more direct to the consumer. We have this great qualitative awareness, and now underneath we have this strong CRM (customer relationship management) focused directly on consumer marketing, where he talks about using data, and then trying to talk directly. consumers of the type of care they might need from us, whether they are of a certain age and need colorectal screening, or we have opened a new emergency care center near them and they should check that out, or we have these different service lines in our local hospital, or have they signed up for a primary care doctor. You have to take that brand awareness and then try to be direct with consumers and patients about how we might meet their care needs.
Over the last year, we’ve invested a lot in this digital CRM marketing to partner with this qualitative awareness, and it’s taken us from good to great when it comes to making sure we’re not just creating brand awareness is essential, but then we target consumers to a care site or to help them somehow meet their care needs.
HL: Given that Ascension has such a large footprint, what challenges have you encountered in marketing across different communities?
Ragon: We’re in 19 states, we have 2,700 care sites, so we have a big footprint, which is great, it means we can touch so many lives.
As a marketer, as a chief storyteller, it presents challenges, which is why about five years ago we joined the marketing team. Before that, marcomm was dispersed and each market had its own approach, its own team, its own partners and suppliers. We’ve integrated and consolidated that, so we have a marketing team now. It has allowed us to be much more consistent in the way we tell our story. It’s consistent; it is the story of Ascension. The way we adjust it from market to market is based on the omnichannel approach in which we will pay more or less attention to channels depending on the needs of that particular community.
Having a consolidated and integrated marketing team has made all the difference in the world. We’re in a much better place to speak with one voice and act quickly and act with agility and be effective as storytellers.
HL: How will Ascension execute its marketing vision in 2022?
Ragon: We will continue to tell the story of our caregivers through the gratitude campaign and focus on patient safety and well-being. These two themes will continue to be our main themes.
As we build this quantitative side of marketing, the CRM approach, we’re going to continue to look at that. As we hopefully continue to overcome the pandemic, our qualitative marketing themes won’t really change.
We will familiarize ourselves with how to connect with patients and consumers at this individual level and refine this model.
Good marketing, to me, is like harmony. You have certain notes like qualitative marketing and quantitative marketing, and when it’s done right, you hear all the notes of that harmony, and when it happens, you feel it. Through our brand tracker and other metrics, we will know when we click all cylinders on it.
Now that we have this national brand, we have started looking for iconic brand moments as part of our marketing to bring our brand to life. From a qualitative marketing standpoint, it’s not just about TV, home, billboard, radio and print commercials, but now also looking at iconic brand moments. One of them in September was the Ascension Charity Classic PGA TOUR Champions event, which we hosted in North St. Louis County which has been underserved for a long time. All proceeds from this event were donated to North St. Louis County charities, the Urban League, the Boys and Girls Club and Mary Grove, which cares for abused teens. We exceeded all of our participation and sponsorship models, and because of that, we were able to give back a million dollars.
It opened our eyes to the possibilities of the power to have these iconic brand moments, not only to raise awareness of the Ascension brand, but to reflect on our mission to create energy around social change.
Melanie Blackman is the chief strategy editor at HealthLeaders, an HCPro brand.