Lessons from Prada

The branding exercise in healthcare has to be fluid, dynamic and yet incredibly sensitive


When I started my career as an architect in ‘Branded Environments’, I would never have thought that healthcare could  also, someday, be a part of that fabric. Fast forward 17 years to today and it’s something that, as a healthcare focused firm, we encounter quite a bit, especially since most of our current clientele are from the private sector. My mind often goes back to the pilot episode of the popular Tv show “Mad Men” where the protagonist Don Draper talks of advertising (and I am using it interchangeably with Branding… and paraphrasing) …”It’s happiness. It’s freedom from fear…. It’s a billboard on the side of the road that says it’s going to be OK. You are OK.”

As with any other industry the purpose of branding in healthcare is primarily the following –

  1. Establishing a differentiator
  2. Providing the comfort of a fixed locus
  3. Engaging the customer/patient
  4. And finally, for healthcare, broadcasting the message “you will be fine… you will be taken care of”

But healthcare also comes with its unique challenges –

  1. The word “branding” can be a very sensitive topic of discussion within the healthcare fraternity. Unlike other building typologies it deals with the most vulnerable among us and therefore the margins of error in perception management are notoriously low. Nehru’s famous quote about “profit being a dirty word” especially ring true for public perception of healthcare irrespective of the sunken cost of setting up a LINAC bunker or a proton therapy centre. The perception challenge is especially greater given that any industry from construction to hospitality can make errors that can have both human and financial costs but the spotlight that the healthcare Industry has to face from media, politicians and society is especially glaring.
  2. Engaging with a customer who really doesn’t/shouldn’t want to be there; with maternity and some elective procedures probably being the only exception.

Out of the stated purpose of branding, the one this article is going to deal with the most is point two – providing the comfort of a fixed locus. Our sense is that this is the one issue that a lot of energy is directed towards both knowingly and unknowingly and we strongly believe that most of this energy is misplaced.

A lot of contemporary literature on the subject matter in the last two decades has dwelled on the fact that the static nature of branding is now replaced by a more dynamic worldview that seeks to engage with the consumer at multiple levels- socially culturally and most importantly emotionally. The comfort of the golden arches with its familiar red and yellow promising the same meal everywhere is replaced by the emotional connect a brand like Starbucks seeks to make locally. Leading to a store décor which is way more fluid, responsive & dynamic – from materials, furniture, food & reading material to coffee mugs. It is established as a brand that is fluid enough to respond to a dazzling array of cultures it serves with a wide variety of sensory hermeneutics without ever losing its core value.

This is a response to a post-modern understanding of the world. We understand today that the modeling of any human behavior is absolutely nondeterministic. In this day and age of AI & Machine learning, we understand that whether it be analysis of the stock market or trying to codify parametric inputs for design of an Outpatient centre; our coding is incomplete without stochastic inputs. Human behaviour is influenced by a wide variety of factors and trying to engage with people on the back of a unitary solution does not work. And for products that elicit a high level of emotion – and not just from its users but society that always keeps a keen eye on it – it is all the more to understand this. The key idea here is best summarised by Thomas Frank in ”One Market Under God”  –  “Just as the democratized, soulful corporation had arisen to resolve the problems of the hierarchical, elitist corporation, so a new breed of marketing thinker proposed a new conception of the brand. To think of the brand as a static thing, as a rock of Gibraltar or one of the great books, was to miss its dynamic nature. The brand, according to the new cognoscenti, was a relationship, a thing of nuance and complexity, of irony and evasion. It was not some top-down affair, some message to be banged into consumers’ heads. The brand was a conversation, an ongoing dialogue between companies and the people. The brand was a democratic thing, an edifice that the people had helped build themselves simply by participating in the market. The brand, in short, was us…”

So what does this mean for healthcare?  The branding exercise in healthcare in our opinion has to be far more fluid, dynamic and yet incredibly sensitive. It has to start with mapping patients journey and the various touchpoints he/she comes across. The second layer is to understand where and most importantly where they don’t need to engage with the brand. The third layer is to understand what is precisely being communicated at each of those touch points. The fourth layer is of social, cultural and emotional engagement. And finally, we know that different patient have different journeys and we have to respond accordingly.  For instance, a family that is expecting might not mind being repeatedly engaged visually with the fact that they are in XYZ maternity center, but do patients suffering from Cancer need to be reminded at the entrance that they have arrived at XYZ Cancer Center or Oncology Center. My sense is they know that sense of arrival coupled with foreboding probably started at the end of their last chemo session. Just by virtue of this example we can see that the demands of engaging with the patient can be vastly different and for the brand to respond it has to not be way more than a collection of typography, iconography and color.

A response to this can be found in the words of the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas while speaking of his design for the Prada showroom in New York. The design concept was centered around The Wave – a curving space scooped out of the ground floor and opening it up to the basement. The wave is the main element facilitating experimentation in what a fashion store can be. On one side, the slope has steps – ostensibly for displaying shoes and accessories – that can be used as a seating area, facing a stage that unfolds from the other side of the wave. The store thus becomes a venue for film screenings, performances, and lectures. This was based on the idea that customers were no longer identified as consumers, but recognised as researchers, students, patients, museum-goers. The execution was a simple and deliberate blurring of the lines between the display space, activity space and circulation space.

“Basically, I think the discussion about what brands are is held on an incredibly primitive level. Particularly the perception of what a brand is, namely something that is reduced to its essence and can never be changed. I think that is a very limited form of branding. What we have been trying to do with Prada, for instance, is instead of trying to reduce it to its essence, we try to stretch it, so that more becomes possible instead of less. And that’s exactly the same idea that we’re trying to introduce for Europe. It extends the repertoire of possibilities instead of shrinking it.”

For healthcare, we can interpret this to mean that the focus is not on what exists, has existed or what care or service it provides or has provided for a certain number of years but more of a promise of things to come; for both the institute and its patients. It is a strategy – borrowing from Koolhaas again – that needs to very deliberately not only counteract but destabilise all existing notions. The often times unpleasant existing needs to be replaced by communicating the possibilities.

Taking this thought further the spatial design, the engineering all become a part of the brand experiences. To illustrate this with oncology, a patient area that is non typical, the patient privacy mechanism, the chemo chair and even an individual climate control bay with an on-demand entertainment systems all become a part of the brand experience way beyond the corporate logo repeated everywhere. The brand stretches to engage with the patient and the caregivers by simply providing them with a unique experience.

By virtue of its being a basic need and engaging with society’s most vulnerable, the branding exercise has to engage in a process that is far more sensitive, deconstructed and then tailored to incredibly unique needs. This cannot be achieved by a 4’X2’ logo in every corridor and a reception table with brand colours alone. This is not a billboard by the side of the road screaming for attention; it’s an almost inaudible whisper saying “you are going to be Ok…”

Siddharth Puri is Director – Architecture, WardFour Designs.