The demands of a competitive business landscape often call for moral ambiguity, but Karam, also a president and CEO, was hardly acting with blasphemous intent. This is not a story of compromised beliefs and shunned value. It is one of identity.
Take Karam’s “cow.” Hers was not the golden calf of biblical allusion. It was a name that she held dear: The Sisters of Charity of St. Augustine Health System.
Since the health provider was established in 1982, that name has represented 20 entities spread throughout Cleveland, Canton and South Carolina. In the past year alone, it’s represented $307 million in annual revenue, $1 billion in total assets and the work of more than 10,000 employees. ∂ Most importantly, that name has represented the identity, history and mission of a 156-year-old religious order.
Given what it stood for, Karam’s playful pseudonym is not surprising. The fact that she finally gave it up, on the other hand, might be until she explains the impetus:
“A needs assessment revealed a lack of awareness with regard to our collective ministries,” she says. “It also said that my sacred cow, the name, was cumbersome.”
That initial assessment was the first phase in a larger image campaign designed to unite the 20 scattered voices of the system’s 20 scattered entities.
“We want to be able to leverage our cause on who we are,” Karam says. “We have something to say about the care of the uninsured. We have something to say about faith-based health care.”
To say those things in a singular, collective voice, Karam let go of her cumbersome sacred cow for the more compact title, Sisters of Charity Health System.
But turning idol into identity was no effortless task. Karam and her steering committee endured a four-phase “image enhancement” initiative before creating the stronger, more unified brand.
Understand your image
At Sisters of Charity Health System, the image enhancement wasn’t an end unto itself. Karam and her executive staff set out with the goal of leveraging the influence of 20 separate entities to yield political clout within the realm of health care reform. The criteria for the branding campaign stemmed to meet that end.
“You need to have a real clear sense of what your goals are, not just to have an image campaign to have an image campaign,” Karam says. “Dollars are too short. Understand the goals front end.”
Understanding those goals can be as simple as revisiting your strategic plan. If you already have a concrete vision in place, examine whether or not your company’s current identity inhibits your ability to get there. Karam engaged her management team in this process to secure the necessary buy-in before moving forward.
Karam says before you take your first step in that forward direction, you must understand where you’re starting from. Your company cannot take on a new identity without comprehending what it is at present.
At the health system, she engaged outside consultants during this phase to conduct a thorough environmental assessment.
“We brought together representatives from each of our 20 entities to talk about who we were as a collective ministry,” Karam says. “One of the key ways to do that is to begin telling stories about the ministry, and that’s what the consultant helped us to do.
“They also did an audit of all of our communication strategies of all of our entities, and they saw significant diversity in how we communicated who we were.”
Throughout these initial steps, Karam was adamant about maintaining a constant channel of communication with as many crucial stakeholders as possible.
“They were saying to me, ‘Well, how are we going to use that information that I gave?’” she says. “You come back to them and say, ‘This is how we used the information that you gave us.’ That provides more buy-in.”
From this group of stakeholders, the consultants then formed a steering committee, which included representatives from each entity that would drive the rest of the branding campaign. Conspicuously absent from this group was Karam.
“Even my internal staff was not present,” she says. “That’s critical. Give independence to the thought and to what the public is thinking, whether it’s good or bad. We have no ability to control it. It is what it is.”
Without her presence, the consultants were able to elicit unbiased feedback from those representatives, a necessity before entering into the campaign’s next phase.
Sift through the feedback
With the environmental assessment complete, another firm began to test market perceptions and develop creative concepts that told the health system’s collective story.
In addition to the feedback gathered during the first phase, the consultants gathered 59 individuals to participate in four internal focus groups. An additional 43 external stakeholders partook in comprehensive phone interviews.
Internally, the focus groups were composed of board members, management, employees and volunteers a wide range on the corporate spectrum. Their insight, combined with that of the external stakeholders, provided an adequate sampling of feedback with which to make change.
“They basically began expressing issues relating to the communication of the name of the health system and our logo and how dated they felt it was,” she says. “They said about my sacred cow that, ‘It’s too cumbersome.’”
Karam says it’s important to suspend your own biases throughout the process. Like the system’s cumbersome name, you must be willing to sacrifice your own sacred cows, especially when feedback overwhelmingly points toward change.
At the same time, you shouldn’t blindly accept these conclusions. Karam held regular meetings with the consultants, her senior vice president and assistant vice president to assess the feedback and discuss emerging themes.
“All along the way, I had regular meetings on how this process was going,” she says. “You need to have those solid periods of time, like one or two hours. You need adequate time to really listen to the input from the consultants to be able to digest and then give input.”
Create your new name and logo
When it came time to finally create the new brand, Karam opted to hire a firm with a proven track record in creative design.
Bringing in new consultants midcampaign can prove problematic if they’re not first brought up to speed. Before any logos or brand mock-ups were proposed, Karam and the steering committee made sure to revisit their earlier discussions, retell their collective stories and present the findings from the first two phases to the new firm.
Based on those discussions, the consultants developed a brand statement that communicated emerging themes with a new, singular identity.
“They took the themes that came out and started working on a statement of who we were,” Karam says. “From that came a theme of ‘A true devotion to healing.’ And we all said, ‘Ahhhh. That’s it.’”
To arrive on that chosen brand statement, Karam, her steering committee and the consultants engaged in numerous roundtable discussions until consensus was achieved.
“The perspectives of each of those people around the table were very important,” she says. “With that task force, we were able to test out our different ideas.”
Having chosen that one idea that one statement that encapsulated an identity the health system now needed that one logo and name for representation.
“We were presented with a significant number of different logos and iterations,” Karam says. “We had five different proposals regarding themes and the mark.”
From those proposals, the health system’s leadership team chose two logos and two names that were brought before the steering committee for further input and slight modification. Feedback on the final options was then sought through roundtable discussions, focus groups with external audiences, and an online survey that was completed by 120 community leaders and internal stakeholders.
The collected input ultimately pointed toward the less cumbersome Sisters of Charity Health System moniker, as well as the “radiant cross” design that comprises beams of light reflecting outward service to those in need
Implement the brand
The logo and its meaning are inconsequential without the proper implementation. For this tricky process, Karam chose a firm that specializes in such strategic planning.
The consultant’s first task: get internal buy-in of the brand. This chore was made considerably easier given Karam’s insistence on stakeholder involvement throughout the campaign.
“Getting them involved front end, getting them engaged through the entire process, that enables us to be successful in implementation,” she says.
Still, those involved in the steering process represented only a fraction of the health system’s total personnel. To reach every employee, the consultants helped produce “With Devotion,” a DVD that told the collective story of the health system and reiterated the reasoning behind the image campaign.
“We had round-the-clock meetings to communicate with our employees,” Karam says. “We started every meeting with the DVD.”
In addition to showing “With Devotion” at every board meeting and every new employee orientation, the health care provider communicated the brand using a variety of other methods.
On Aug. 28 the feast of St. Augustine, the patron saint of the founding sisters all Sisters of Charity personnel received an e-mail blast with the official brand announcement, cupcakes featuring the new logo, invitations to a celebratory breakfast, and new letterhead and business cards featuring the new name and logo.
This internal celebration also coincided with the official public announcement. Here again, the brand was implemented through a plethora of channels.
First, Sisters of Charity sent aloe plants known for their healing properties with attached copies of the DVD to more than 160 key community leaders. To engage the general populace, it took out advertisements in various local papers and distributed more than 150 press releases. A new Web site, www.sistersofcharityhealth.org, was also launched. Finally, representatives from the health system personally delivered press kits to select state and federal government officials.
Though the implementation plan took a variety of approaches, it ultimately succeeded through repetition and inclusion. Karam says by repeating changes to every stakeholder or vendor and it helps to first list them all you can eliminate the confusion that usually results during any rebranding initiative.
“You’ve got to think about who are your major stakeholders that you need to communicate to so that you don’t skip a beat as far as your ability to collaborate, partner and provide high-quality care,” Karam says.
In the end, that’s what an image campaign should aspire to achieve communicating a better representation of your company to the necessary stakeholders without skipping a beat.
Karam did so by seeking the ongoing opinion of internal and external representatives. She also adapted to this feedback even when it contradicted her own preferences.
“You need to have an open mind as far as listening and an openness to where you might end up,” she says.
And, of course, you’ve got to be willing to sacrifice your own sacred cows.
HOW TO REACH: Sisters of Charity Health System, (216) 875-4609 or www.sistersofcharityhealth.org