December 15, 2022

Is This Thing On? Ep. 10 with Northwell Health Chief Marketing and Communications Officer Ramon Soto

In our latest episode of “Is This Thing On?” Northwell Health Chief Marketing and Communications Officer Ramon Soto and GALE Chief Innovation Officer Ben James discuss Ramon’s approach to differentiating the Northwell brand as a people-first and purpose-driven brand.


A Business Agency

Healthcare brands require a more personal, intimate approach to marketing. Northwell Health’s Chief Marketing and Communications Officer Ramon Soto sought out to bring a people-first and purpose-driven approach to establishing the company’s brand. In this episode of “Is This Thing On?,” GALE host Ben James and Ramon dive into how Northwell took a differentiated approach to marketing healthcare to consumers.

They discuss:

  • (6:51) Northwell’s strategy to build a destination healthcare brand and the importance of establishing a relationship with consumers well before a health event
  • (8:26) Launching docudramas and documentaries as a way of engaging with consumers
  • (12:10) How being mission-driven has allowed Northwell to create messaging around social health issues such as gun violence
  • (16:53) Their communications strategy to provide as much information as possible to New Yorkers during the start of the COVID-19 pandemic
  • (23:29) How Ben and Ramon worked together to create an impactful marketing campaign geared towards veterans

We’ve included the full transcript of the conversation below for easy reading, and please make sure to have a listen on Amazon, Apple Podcasts, Audible, iHeart, Spotify, Stitcher, TuneIn, or wherever else you get your podcasts!


Speaker 1 (00:01):

Is this thing on?

Speaker 2 (00:06):

Welcome to Is This Thing On?, a podcast from GALE, exploring marketing, life and random thoughts with business leaders from around the globe. On this episode, GALE chief innovation officer Ben James speaks with the chief marketing and communications officer of Northwell Health, Ramon Soto. Let's join the conversation.

Ben James (00:32):

You've been at Northwell Health, New York's largest healthcare provider, for almost eight years, but before we dive into your work there, I'd just love to back up a little bit and hear how you got there, hear how you got here, and a little bit on your personal experience and the soup of challenges you had to navigate within the healthcare system, both personally and professionally.

Ramon Soto (00:58):

I'll tell you a little bit about kind of my story and what attracted me to healthcare.

Ben James (01:03):


Ramon Soto (01:05):

There's a couple of ingredients. I'm a lifelong marketer. I started on the agency side 30 plus years ago. Had a wonderful initial stint working on Madison Avenue. Really learned the power of storytelling, the power to targeting, the power of putting stimulus in the market and getting consumers to react to that. I was delighted to move over to the client side initially at General Electric and seeing how to put that in action in the service of a big brand.


Mid-career, I moved over to Aetna, and I moved over to Aetna really from a recruiting opportunity. But shortly after I got there, I personally went through a health event and it was kind of a scary moment. It was this thing that was coming over me that was affecting my ability to just move. I remember painful moments in bed, just confused and scared, was literally plopped into this mystery and spent a lot of time engaging with healthcare, trying to demystify and the journey was really difficult.


I did all the traditional things that most people do. I went to Dr. Google to self educate. I talked to family and friends. I talked to family members who were doctors. Everybody had a different opinion. I engaged with specialist physicians. I found that their process was also trying to demystify, literally crossing things off the list. Having successfully gotten through that and to a better state of health over a couple of years, it was literally this reflection that we need to do a lot better than this, that when somebody at their most vulnerable is... They have to self navigate through healthcare.


Physicians are there to get you to a better state of health, but their process is they don't know and they're trying to understand just as much as we are, but they come at it from an educated standpoint. But the journey is just really... It's choppy, it's difficult. You're coordinating things with specialists. I saw a really interesting window to apply the marketing and communication skill to moving the industry in a different direction.

Ben James (04:03):


Ramon Soto (04:05):

Literally to engage with consumers differently. Healthcare, we're not really great marketers. Competitors tend to focus on the transaction and accolades. We as humans deserve better and we deserve more. So that that's led to my current role and I've been pleased to be at an organization that really is a change agent and believes in taking the journey with individuals differently. It has allowed us to experiment a tremendous amount and really rethink the power of storytelling, unleashing the power of purpose, digging into data on the clinical side and putting that in service of taking the journey with consumers differently and helping build a really differentiated brand.


So it's been kind of a pleasure and I'm so happy that you and I work together to accomplish quite a bit of that. In our early years when we were just setting up the platform and establishing the brand, we got to do some really interesting work.

Ben James (05:25):

I mean, I can say firsthand from doing some of that work, that's what's so amazing about your approach is that it's so human centered. As data driven marketers, I can say that sadly a lot of the data driven discussions that we have, it just seems far too often that we stay rooted in the data, and the unlock is realizing that there are people at the other end of that data. That is the thing that we're really after. I think a lot of groups and marketers out there say people first. All of you at Northwell are in a special place where you are in the most intimate setting possible with people where you really have to put them first.


You mentioned the accolades of your competitors. I mean, I think everybody's used to seeing this, the medals and lists that we put on billboards and things. I'm not even sure that the audience digests all that because what really matters to them is that they're healthy and that the community's good. I think Northwell is so special about that, about being people first and a purpose driven brand. Can you kind of unlock that for us a little bit?

Ramon Soto (06:51):

Yeah, sure. Absolutely. By the way, I agree with you. The research that we've done on the rankings, if you're number one, there is a differential. If you're anything other than number one, you're in a tough place. You're a follower and it's not a great game to play. We don't play that game. We think we have a stronger message. We do a couple things that I think are different that I think are really powerful. The first is strategic intent. From a brand standpoint, we really tried to build what we call a destination healthcare brand that has a relationship with consumers well before the health event.


We spend a lot of time trying to think that through because I don't want to fight for mind share when somebody's at their most vulnerable going through a health event, trying to really understand what's going on. I want to have a relationship with them before that. I will still fight on the transactional side, I have to, but I really want consumers to be predisposed to use us. That means I can't shout at them. I have to have conversations with them. So when we go to market, we try to go to market really differently than most of the health systems. I try to invite you in and understand the special things that happen behind the glass to differentiate myself and I try to really engage with you differently.


So we do things like docudramas, we experimented with Netflix back in 2019. We launched the docudrama called Lenox Hill. It's a nine episode docudrama. Did really well on their platform. We found that their ability to target or ability to get the message out, but most importantly, the ability of the platform to have consumers see what we do, experience what we do outside of the 30 second spot that's just talking at individuals was really kind of profound and gave us some special sauce on the engagement side that's led to a number of additional projects.


We did a COVID documentary with a company called Our Time Productions, a producer-director named Matthew Heineman. Guy's brilliant. That was an important artifact of history to document what happened in the first wave and the title of the show was the First Wave. It aired on Hulu in collaboration with National Geographics. Another powerful chapter for us. We're on our second project with Netflix on a program that will air in February next year. It's an eight episode docudrama. We're currently wrapping up filming with HBO on a behavioral health documentary because there's a burgeoning crisis that's happening in America that's just underneath the surface that really needs to be addressed.


I bring these examples up because we have to think about differentiated ways, different ways to engage with consumers and we take inspiration from industries that do it really well. Data driven shops like Amazon who really kind of analyzes and unleashes the power of the data that they have on your and my engagement with them to elicit all these interesting touch points that build strength and stickiness to the relationship.


We took inspiration from entertainment and how they engage with consumers. We took inspiration from retail, how they engage on the experiential. We wrapped that into a different marketing model that really seeks to have a different relationship with the consumers. I think the cherry on top for us is kind of the purpose driven brand that we are. You would think healthcare, everyone in healthcare is very purpose driven, but it's a really thin margin game and many of our competitors focus on the margin aspect of what they offer. So they limit the product set. So it's only those things that are going to be able to fuel their business.


We truly are mission driven. Northwell loses north of $200 million a year on providing behavioral health services to the communities that we serve. Why? Because we need them. We subsidize the translational research that we do to fuel these new discoveries that work their way to the bedside to get consumers better because we need to, because healthcare has to move very powerfully in a different direction. I think that purpose driven brand allows us to move into territories that others stay away from.


So we do quite a bit of messaging on social health. We have a campaign right now on gun violence that's in the marketplace. I just took a peek at the data on it, really putting us in a powerful place, but more importantly it's doing societal good. Most of your listeners right now don't know that gun violence is the leading cause of death of children. It's this kind of absurd place that society, American society has gotten to really starting in 2019. Used to be automobile accidents. It's crazy. We're better than this.


Because we are a purpose driven, we think we have brand permission to enter into this conversation and talk to parents and educate them and get them to act in a different fashion that helps their children and helps society get to a very positive place. It's good for the brand. It's good for us. Interestingly enough, when we presented out that campaign to other health systems, they were very interested in taking part of it.


This is another area that Northwell's a market leader. We had 167 health systems asked to be part of the campaign. They used the creative that we created, they're marketing it in their markets to create a nationwide movement, not just the New York movement to better healthcare. So a lot going on, but I think, I hope the audience takes away, we really try to dig deep and look differently at the category and apply the best of what marketers do as opposed to just the limited silo kind of transactional view of relationships.

Ben James (14:06):

Can you kind of help us understand the New York market and what you have to do in it, kind of one bite at a time, kind of way of looking at it?

Ramon Soto (14:17):

Sure. Yeah, let me start this and then I'm going to actually ask you to reflect on a project we both worked on for veterans and specifically another kind of brand act that was very differentiating called The Fin. We'll circle back to that. But New York is a special place. New York is a different place. It is the financial capital of the world. If you're a New Yorker, you have a little bit of a different attitude on everything. What's interesting about the New York market is New Yorkers have great access to care. Our competitors are literally great institutions.


New York Presbyterian, it got its charter in the 1751, literally signed by King George. I as a brand don't have that. I can go down the list of New York and competitors. So how do you compete in that environment? It is not to follow others. It's really to carve your own lane, but you have to do that in light of the people that you serve. Our most important market is Queens. There are 144 languages spoken in Queens. I was in a meeting with Mayor Adams recently and he described New York as its own country, as complicated and as sophisticated as any country in the world. That's really the mindset that we have.


It's how do we lead in terms of being engaged with the communities that we serve? How do we think differently about offering our services? Then on top of that, unleashing the power of the data we sit on on all that diversity. It's just a rich dataset that allows us to go on the performance side to personalization of message to you, where you are on your health journey. So we've seen some really interesting touch points and moments of engagement that can bend to how you consume care and the direction that you go in terms of that care consumption.


I will tell you one of the most proud moments that I've had in my career was during the heart of COVID. I realized that society is beyond COVID now and we're all tired of it. I don't think there's anybody more tired than healthcare. I actually saw our organization run towards the flames to keep New Yorkers safe in this moment of uncertainty, provide clarity and direction and partnership and confidence that was born from the top down of our organization. Our CEO, he is super hard charger and really made sure that we all understood our role in being there for the existential mission for New York.


It led to this marketing engagement model that we built. Literally the first week that New York was starting to shut down, our comms plan, we mapped it to the epidemiology of the disease and we knew that there was going to be this arc. The first chapter was all about the uncertainty of it and to provide clarity to New Yorkers. Our strategy was to flood the zone with information. I think you guys remember the dark days where nobody knew what the hell was happening and it was this health event on a mass scale and we had brand permission and we had the confidence in New Yorkers to step into this place and provide information.


So we created a speakers bureau of a hundred doctors, we unleashed them on media. We were everywhere sharing with them what's going on. We created a content engine that created thousands of pieces of content. We became the official content supplier digitally to Google for the Northeastern United States. It was all to build confidence that that information was healthy, fear was not, and we needed to be there. We knew we'd peak. Our comms strategy then took advantage of that peaking and it was resiliency there. We saw this cultural phenomenon of these healthcare heroes being clapped out society, putting them into this place.


We wanted to be part of that. We wanted to give back to society and say thank you and to drive resiliency of our healthcare workers. On the back end, it was about recovery and vaccination and how do we get that out to society. We had to think really differently. There were pockets of society that were just very untrusting of the vaccine. It was interesting because it was bifurcated. Part of it was political. The other part was socioeconomic. We literally had to partner with church organizations and pastors to build the confidence within the communities that we served to get people vaccinated and very proud of where we came out.


Half of that was the communications mission and this different mindset. The other half was just being there for New Yorkers in terms of how we provided care. Then I want to circle back to that veteran's analogy. Maybe you can talk a little bit about what you saw and what we did that was so powerful.

Ben James (20:43):

Yeah, I mean, at first I want to just say just it's the depths of facts in healthcare events that you bring to things that's so amazing. First, I just want to talk quickly about the pandemic part of things and what you did there. I mean, here I was in Brooklyn, New York in a very personal event like anybody else. My wife was entering the second trimester with our first baby as the pandemic hit. Just as a marketing leader and somebody trying to figure out how comms worked for so many different organizations at that time, to think about what we felt like was support for what we could do in Brooklyn, New York was stand outside and bang a pot and pan at 7:00. To think of the work y'all were doing is incredible.


I can say that at that time I thought a lot about you and you all because of work that we had done before. Because I had seen truly firsthand this people first approach. I think one thing that's really special to know about working with you and your team and Northwell is just your open mind to where solutions can come from. Where I saw it firsthand was, and we're going in the way back machine back seven years kind of a thing where people can look this up, Fast Company wrote about it. It made the cover of your annual report, which is actually the thing I bring up as the proudest thing that we had out of that, but it was also very proud of what we accomplished. What you're referring to is The Fin and The Return, Northwell Health's The Fin.


I think that's a special thing for people to understand about you and the marketing organization at Northwell. The job that you have to do is to pull together the way that your healthcare system really looks at health for people. It actually doesn't matter where they are. Because New York's just the beginning of it. It can be where they're coming from, where they came back from, where they're going. There's so many different pieces that you actually pull together around people. So I can remember this moment about seven years ago where your brief to the agency was, "Hey, we need a print ad to talk about our innovative approach to veterans health." We said, "Cool."


But it was really looking at a comms strategy and looking at people first and being intimate with your business and saying, "Hey, wait a second, we could deliver this print ad but what it seems like you are capable of doing is why don't we 3D print an amphibious prosthetic leg for a veteran who's returned from war looking to get back into the water for whatever reason." Those are the kind of bold, brave client, brave agency moves that I think so many of us on the agency side... We try this all the time. It's like the back of the deck stuff that we present where we go, "Oh, what if we, pie in the sky, do this crazy idea?" I think the wildest thing about it is you all said, "Yes, let's go do it."


It's from that that this group of people on all sides just truly rallied around the person and looked at veterans health not as just an announcement of, "Hey veterans, we got you." Which you could simply do and simply say, but it was to actually put a person and people in the center of that where we want to pull you together and the solution that we brought was not just a print ad. We ultimately delivered the print ad, but we also created an amphibious prosthetic leg. The story of that is that it goes into all kinds of different mediums that haven't even been invented and it went for a few years on earned media approach.


But I mean, I think that that's special. Kind of to what you were previously saying, I appreciate the grace for the other healthcare systems out there and all that, but that's what I've noticed is even... I personally have made family healthcare decisions all over New York City. I have a sense of what is actually out there, but just what you actually are pulling together daily. Help us understand the presence of Northwell Health and what we're really talking about when you pull people around. What is the system that you're pulling together around people to deliver for them in New York?

Ramon Soto (25:58):

Yeah, so let me comment on our experience and then let me address your comment. I think your reflection back to amazing days are instructive in a bunch of different ways. First of all, so much of this is kind of how you approach the marketing and communications domain. For us, we really do believe in partners. We don't believe in vendor relationships. We have this strong belief that we may have a good idea, but we appreciate diversity of thought and unity of action and the debate to make an idea better, and thus we're really open to all these externalities that can push a message into a really profound place.


That's where an agency brings you an idea to build a prosthetic leg, and I can tell you our leadership was like, "Hmm, that's interesting." But we were able to sell it through and I think you did a fine job reflecting on the challenges there. But we had aerospace engineers coming together with material scientists coming together with orthopedic researchers to create this NASA team to run at this thing. They were really heady days.


So let's get back to the differentiated brand. The brand love that that created was profound. We did it by benefiting society. There are veterans now that have more mobility that can do things with their kids that they could not before. That's like the win-win-win. Our agency partner wins. We as an institution win. The consumer wins. That's like the secret sauce that we search for as an organization. So to your broader question about who is Northwell, we're a pretty large shop. We have 81,000 employees. We have 22 hospitals. We have five what we call tertiary care facilities. This is where the highest form of medicine is practiced.


We have 5,000 employed physicians, another 16,000 affiliated physicians. We have 19,000 nurses. Those are all big numbers, but the more important piece is where the number one provider of primary care in New York market. We are the leader in cardiology in the New York marketplace. We lead from a volume standpoint and an outcome standpoint in just so many categories of healthcare. We're a fast growing shop. This year we'll surpass 16 and a half billion in revenue. We add about a billion to a billion and a half top line to our organization. Scale's just very important in terms of where the market's going.


That's great. Those are all big numbers. What do we stand for? That's the more important thing. This is an interesting conversation. This is where as a marketer, putting on my change agent hat, it's like how do you unleash the power of that army to do better? I remember when I started at Northwell, we inherited this value proposition. It was transformative leaders driving the future of health, wellness and quality of life. Those are really fascinating consulting words that don't mean anything to the consumer and it was kind of-

Ben James (30:11):

Human words. Yeah.

Ramon Soto (30:11):

There was such an opportunity to simplify that and then amplify it. We spent a lot of time honing, honing, honing that language. Our value proposition centers around better health for all. Better health for all, super simple. We want to democratize access to great care. We want to use the strength of our network so that whatever port of entry you come in, whatever physician office, research facility, outpatient facility, emergency room or hospital, you literally have the best chance to get better. That's not by using what a number of our competitors do, this hub and spoke model where you come in here and they send you here for care. It's provide great care at these different points of entry.


Think of the flexibility of that value proposition. You can take it and flex it in a lot of different ways in terms of how we provide better health for the communities we serve. It's also a challenge for consumers to better their own health. There's a need for all of us to stand up and grab care and wrestle it to the ground. Healthcare is one of these interesting categories. It's low interest until you need it and then it's super high interest. When it becomes super high interest, sometimes that's a little bit too late. So how do we take the journey more upstream? How do we intercept where you're going to be?


I personally would love to put ourselves out of business so that nobody needs health systems anymore. I say that jokingly. Our CEO says it all the time. Our job is to make sure that people don't need us. That just requires a different mindset. Too many of our competitors try to grab the transaction. Again, it's about the journey, man. It's about can we create a better place, a better world, a better New York where New Yorkers are really in a different state of health? To your point about personalize, it's about you and what your definition is and what it means to you and your family.


Think about all the things that health empowers, your life, your love, your passions, your career, your aspirations. As a marketer, think of the rich territory that those lend themselves to you to engage with consumers. I was at a marketing event, this was pre-COVID, so it was probably '19. It was sponsored by a head hunting firm. It was a senior person from Hershey's and AT&T and GE and Xerox there. The topic was about customer centricity. One was talking about how they're going to make chocolates more customer centric. The other one was talking about how they're going to make satellite TV more customer centric.


I got to talk about how we're making healthcare, how we get health more customer centric. If there's a category that deserves it and there's a category that needs it, it's healthcare. So I love the fact that we can partner with great minds like yours and unleash the power of this discipline to help consumers.

Speaker 2 (33:51):

This has been Is This Thing On?, the GALE podcast. For more information about this or any other episode in the series, visit gale.agency/ideas. To learn about GALE and how we can help you with your marketing efforts, visit www.galepartners.com. On behalf of the entire team at GALE, thanks for listening.