Designing for Health: The Brand Experience

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As consumers, we all know the power of branding and the resulting emotional connection we feel to the brands we support. We buy our coffee at the same coffee shop because we feel good about how the staff treats us. We frequent the same hotel chain because we like that it feels like home. We buy the same brand of car because it makes us feel important.

The feelings we experience when we interact with brands aren't by chance; rather, they are the result of very conscious and concerted efforts by the brands themselves to elicit those feelings and, as a result, create loyal customers of us.

While branding is an age-old means of driving awareness, sales, and profitability in industries from retail to hospitality to automobiles and more, it has not been a driving force in healthcare. Historically, healthcare providers have assumed that patients would find them when they need them; and, since nearly everyone needs medical treatment at some point or another, branding was considered somewhat superfluous.

Not anymore. With consumers coming to expect convenience and accessibility in nearly all other service-related industries, retail health clinics hit the marketplace in record numbers offering just that.
With little to differentiate one clinic from another—many are located within big box retailers; most offer competent but limited health services and screenings; a majority are non-descript, bare bones facilities with little in the way of amenities; and nearly all compete on price as much as they do on convenience and accessibility—health providers turned to branding to make a name for themselves. They embraced colorful logos, catchy slogans, and interruptive signage as they vied for patients.

Breaking away from the pack

Recently, a leading national health services business with no direct patient care decided to enter the competitive retail health space with doctor-staffed urgent care facilities in several states. While their competitors were busy targeting patients wanting low-cost, walk-in healthcare, this company decided to target patients seeking not only convenient, accessible and affordable healthcare, but a premium healthcare experience. The company's belief was that retail healthcare providers all offered comparable competent healthcare services, convenience and so on, so the way to stand out was through the patient experience, building a consumer-facing brand from the ground up that was highly experiential in nature.

The company took several critical branding steps as it broke away from the pack. First, it recognized that its patients were not just patients but discerning consumers—consumers with access to a plethora of healthcare options ranging from primary care facilities to urgent care centers to retail health clinics. Second, it understood that to effectively appeal to its target market, it needed to embrace branding not just as a logo, a slogan and signage but as a means of designing the collective patient experience.  Third, it hired a design partner with a reputation for creating branded expressions, experiences and environments.

The design team recognized a need to research non-healthcare businesses and brands that also provide a premium experience and identify what, specifically, helped create that experience. They turned to boutique hotels, spas, restaurants, and concierge services, and noted everything from the color palettes and furnishings to the check-in process and use of technology. The design team identified every touch point that would or could impact brand perception and the patient experience, and they took the best of what they saw in other service industries and translated it all to the delivery of healthcare.

A healthcare experience by design

With a simple and soft color palette, marble countertops, wood wall coverings, porcelain floor tiles, and even throw pillows and beautiful floral arrangements, the resulting clinic design exudes the level of sophistication, refinement and timelessness common in a luxury hotel or high-end retail setting but atypical for a healthcare setting. Because well-appointed materials are used sparingly and colors are used conservatively, the clinic design lends an inviting, approachable and comforting impression while keeping built out costs at a minimum.

While the delivery of healthcare must be personalized to the patient, this clinic takes personalization to a new level. One suggested design component was the use of patient recognition software that would allow a concierge to greet patients by name upon arrival and present them with their beverage of choice based on their preference profile. While that idea has not yet been implemented, the lobby design does allow patients to check-in privately via tablet or more traditionally via a concierge at a reception desk. Patients can enjoy a cappuccino or a bottle of mineral water as they work at a technology bar or relax in a hospitality-like arrangement of modular sofas that accommodate individuals or entire families.

The clinic also offers a number of unexpected customer service extras such as tablets for patients and family members to use throughout the visit to replace outdated magazines and loud television sets, and a program that rewards loyal patients with spa services and treatments, such as massages. In addition, the clinic provides both triage and diagnostic services to ensure patients are catered to as much as possible during a time of discomfort and need.

In the end, this new retail health provider has embraced the mantra that "brand is king," and, in doing so, has created a highly differentiated retail healthcare experience that is sure to win loyal patients who will equate the brand with a feeling of being pampered and well cared for. It's the kind of feeling that could very well create long-term change in how other healthcare providers go to market in the future.

Anne Smith is a project designer and Associate with the Perkins+Will Minneapolis office.  She has over 10 years of design experience in a wide range of interior architectural projects including healthcare. Anne is a Certified Interior Designer and can be reached at