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Building a Successful Internal Marketing Strategy with Jeff Stewart

Today Jenny welcomes Jeff Stewart, VP of Strategic Marketing at CHRISTUS Health. Jeff discusses CHRISTUS Health’s strategic journey to grow brand equity through streamlining each of CHRISTUS Health’s twelve distinct health systems under one united strategic vision.

Jeff offers advice for striking the right balance between consolidating marketing initiatives and finding the right partners who perform specific functions really well, as there is no single agency that can do it all really well, each has its own strengths and weaknesses. 

Finally, Jeff shares his advice for marketing leaders who are tasked with consolidating teams, agencies, and initiatives. Jeff shares a “both and” strategic approach to marketing that enables CHRISTUS Health to drive a unified brand message at a large scale, while also offering unique, localized selling points for each health system within CHRISTUS Health.

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Jenny: [00:00:00] Hi friends. Welcome to today’s episode of We Are Marketing Happy, a healthcare marketing podcast. I am your host, Jenny Bristow. I am the CEO and founder at Hedy and Hopp. And I am so excited to have with me Jeff Stewart. He is the VP of strategic marketing at Christus Health. Jeff, welcome.

Jeff: Thanks for having me excited to talk to you.

Jenny: So we, my team fell in love. We saw you speak at a conference this year and you’re just a very succinct and eloquent speaker. So you and I connected afterwards. And one of the things that we really got into some detail on is the strategy around building an internal team. So as you joined Christus and began you know, over the last few years, kind of reshaping things together, talk to me big picture about some of your objectives in doing that. And some of the key steps you’ve made. 

Jeff: Well, I think the motivating factor comes from what will be familiar to everybody in the industry right now, which is cost pressure and labor pressure. Right. When you have labor costs that are [00:01:00] skyrocketing with no end in sight, really, even when they plateau, I doubt that there’s any real significant reduction to come.

And obviously, the first priority is always our clinical staff, which means that marketing becomes something that gets a real hard look. And so that cross pressure was very real. And it justifies, I think, in the minds of the executives, why we do things. But when you look at the strategy part of it, Christus has helped at a real opportunity to grow our brand equity and to have a tighter control.

Essentially we had in, in each of our sort of individual health systems, we had a marketing team that was dedicated to that area and they were empowered to certain levels over the years to execute what they needed to do to market for that individual health system. They had our brand guidelines. They could go to any agency. They knew what our logo was, but they could kind of use any logo on any piece depending on whatever. So it really created as we now step [00:02:00] back in a digital world and think, you really can only have one brand identity in a digital world in healthcare. But yet we have 12.

And so how do we begin the work of pulling that together? And I think that starts by getting us all on the same page and getting us all under the same structure, all under the same authority. And then bringing in a lot of that work that was out. And we also transitioned from treating our brand guidelines as a set of rules.

And that if you possess these rules, you can therefore stick that into the marketing machine, pull the lever and out comes Christus. And I think if brand guidelines, are just at that, they’re guidelines. And so we have rules, but the rules need to be stretched and broken and grow and evolve. And you can only do that with a more central authority.

So we did it to answer the labor pressure, the cost pressure, to deal with the reality of the fact we were never going to have staffs of five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10, 12 in any particular hospital at any given time. But we also recognize that was creating [00:03:00] strategic problems for us on the other side.

So we have a goal of being a strong brand of Chris’s health. We weren’t going to get there. As a bunch of independent teams. 

Jenny: Absolutely. Over the last eight years at Hedy and Hopp, we’ve seen a lot of systems centralize their marketing teams. What balance did you walk as far as centralizing everything versus maybe leaving a little bit of the tactical or execution work at the location level? Where did you fall?

Jeff: Oh, Yeah. So, and I think we’re still on that journey and it continues to be a journey. But what I would say is, our executive vice president, chief strategy officer is such a great guy. And we really appreciate the guidance and vision that he gives us. One of the things is he really views that, like, get everybody on board, right?

Like make this a positive thing. And I think so often, and I hear this, and it was a tendency to do this of like, Well, system says so, right? Corporate says so. And if they become edicts and that didn’t, then everybody feels like they weren’t heard. They didn’t have the chance to talk about why they want to [00:04:00] do what they want to do or how it’s set up that way.

And so we’ve really focused on bringing the things along one at a time with a compelling case. And so we’ve gone back a number of times and done some additional research on any particular consumer, narratives. One great example is we recently moved the Children’s Hospital of San Antonio, which is a Christus hospital.

And it’s a wonderful freestanding academic children’s facility, women’s and children’s hospital in San Antonio. We moved them over to be Christus Children’s and bring them into the brand part of the centralization part of bringing them close to the family. But in order to do that, we could certainly, I guess, tell them to do it, but that.

No, but it’s never going to go well right, but instead, we conducted research and one of the key things that came out as we asked 100 people in San Antonio, who owns Children’s Hospital San Antonio, what network are they associated with? And the answer was not Christus. What we were first. We weren’t second.

We weren’t. We were third, right? And so that [00:05:00] becomes clear. We got to make it Christus Children’s. They’ll give them the why. And so, we did that on the marketing people, right? Moving our teams, re centralizing our teams here out of Irving, Texas, and the why that made sense. And we’ve made a number of other, we’ve centralized our creative services.

We give the why, and it makes sense. And now, we’re on, we’re in the process of looking at it. media planning, media buying, budgeting, but all of those continue to be a series of successive conversations as they make sense so that we’re never doing too much at any time. 

Jenny: That makes a whole lot of sense.

One thing that I think was interesting that we hear all of the time is that again, 12 locations have the freedom to choose their agency partner. That may mean you’re working with 24, 36 individual agencies, so as you’re going through and cleaning things up right like how are you choosing and selecting how many partners you have, the areas of expertise that folks are leaning in on [00:06:00] versus what you’re keeping in house?

Yeah, sure. I’d love feedback. 

Jeff: Yeah. Right. So, we didn’t want to get down to one, we know one is too few, right? But we know 11 is too many. So where’s the in between? And really we just work with the people that we’ve had a really successful and great relationship with. And one of our partners we use for a decent amount of creative work has been with Christus.

Christus turned 25 in three months and I believe he’s actually done 30 years worth of work because he was with one of the systems prior to Christus. And he’s great. He really knows us and understands us and knows our challenges and has had the opportunity to work with a number of different ministries, health systems over the years.

And we have a strategy creative agency that we’ve used now we brought that I brought on after I started here we did an RFP and found them and we continue to use them, and they have gone through other systems on this journey that we’re on as well and so you’re getting a lot of understanding of how other systems have tackled service line planning and transitioning or involving corporate led campaigns with.

With health system led campaigns, what that blend and [00:07:00] process looks like. But then on the digital side, I think that’s where we had some real opportunity that since I’ve started I’m a big believer that you’re never going to find one agency who does it all. And you got to find the agencies to do certain things really well.

And so, I’ve had the opportunity to work with an SEO agency over the last 10 years that I just think is, just hands down, not just healthcare, across everywhere, one of the smartest agencies around. And so they’re really good at that, but they’re not, they may not be our best option for say web development.

And actually we use a couple of different web development agencies, some that are better on the infrastructure side, because we’re an Azure SAS world, and that’s its own animal and then some that are better on the Sitecore side and some that are actually better on integrating with Sitecore. And then we have a mobile app partner.

And that, is that a pain too? Sometimes it is, because sometimes you have overlaps and how do you make the decision, but also that creates competition and helps keep us on our toes. But, I think specifically [00:08:00] digital niche is the right move.

Jenny: Absolutely. I think one thing that’s really interesting and that successful leaders do is really viewing their agency and vendor partners as humans and extensions of their teams, because everybody has strengths and weaknesses, right? In areas that they really shine in. I think you talked about bringing multiple agencies with you.

I think that’s the biggest compliment an agency can get is when somebody leaves, goes to a new organization and chooses to bring you over. 

Jeff: When I use the word partner advisedly. We mean that, right? We’ve had a recent conversation with one of them.

I said, if anybody, any agency partner who listens ever worked with me, I tell you all the time, if I’m wrong, I’m counting on you to tell me. And if we get to a point where you can’t tell me I’m wrong, this relationship won’t work. Right? It absolutely has to work. I depend on you. 

And in fact, where I look back where things haven’t always gone well with agencies. One of, one of the challenges we find is they don’t want to challenge us and, or they get to a point where the [00:09:00] communication begins to break down and we just really struggle, then, to ever get to a point where we’re benefiting from them or where they’re not able to say, like, we’ve worked with other partners who’ve done this, but don’t have to be healthcare.

Right? It might be somebody who says, look at the web. The best way to schedule appointments on the website is actually to take from say A service some sort of service industry, like a moving service, sorry, like scheduling, moving vans, like scheduling an appointment. And, we solve that challenge for them this way.

We think it could apply here. I need that to come inside. Cause if I just talk to the group sitting out here, I’m not getting that right? 

Jenny: Absolutely. Especially a number of folks have been in healthcare for a long period of time in house, it can be really difficult to be exposed to innovation. So that definitely makes sense.

So last question I have is for any marketing leader that is being charged with doing a consolidation of their marketing teams, agencies, initiatives, what advice would you give them?

Jeff: I’m going to [00:10:00] plug something real quick, but it’s a book that I’ve recently been reading. It’s called Both/And Thinking and it’s by Marianne Lewis, who I actually took a classroom at the University of Cincinnati and Think very highly of her, but it’s that. We really, this is a paradigm that I’ve tried to bring to the team is how do we make both things true?

Because quite often the centralization conversation is an either/or conversation, right? Which is either we’re going to do it all locally. Or we’re going to shove system stuff down, down their gullet. Right? And that’s not the way to look at it. It’s both. Right? And so if we can understand the dilemma that we’re faced with the competing sets of goals and incentives that exist at the local level and existed at the system level.

When we think about it in that sense, we can find a way to make both things true, right? So we look at, we’re on the verge of launching in the first quarter, it’s all approved, ready to go. Our first system led cardiology campaign. Now it’s [00:11:00] my, or my first slide. We’ve done it a few years ago and they did it the way that I think a lot of places do it, which is here’s your heart commercial, or I think it was actually oncology, here’s your cancer commercial, and it’s going to run in all our markets, and that’s it.

Or maybe, well, we could swap out the logo at the end. That’s not answering the real need. And so when we came back, it’s not answering the local level where they really want to feel like the reason to buy locally is there, right? We got the system, we got the brand, but we didn’t get the local. And so, and I think oftentimes you hear presenters, we can do a localized campaign or we can do a system and that’s not true.

We can do both. Right? Because we look at where your greatest efficiencies are in a system led campaign. They are in the top level broadcast, right? And the broadcast multimedia doing the big shoots, where you get, the lighting trucks and sound, but you do the whole deal, right? You only want to do that once.

You don’t want to do that 12 times, but we think about further down the funnel. And as you get from the far away to the [00:12:00] closer. When you get down to social and when you get down to search, you have the ability to present unique reasons to buy for each of, in our case, for each of our ministries, right?

So we can say, we can do the hard work up top to say Christus equals heart. We just want to drive that emotional connection. Christus and heart care are linked together and that we are there to care for you and your family. That’s easy to do and broadcast big dollars that work in all of our ministries because that’s true across all of our ministries.

But when you get down closer and closer to the point of conversion to the point of care, you have the opportunity to increase your localization of reasons to buy, right? So there we have in, let’s say, East Texas. We have the only dedicated heart hospital in all of East Texas. That matters. If you’re doing a heart commercial, that’s not mentioning that you have a hundred bed heart hospital in Tyler, Texas with almost 50 employed cardiologists to support it.

You’re [00:13:00] that’s almost a criminal negligent, right? Like you have to do that. But for somebody who is in Corpus Christi or in Beville, Texas, Alice, Texas, they’re a little bit further out. There’s not really a connection to that, but they have their own local reasons to, to understand where Christus provides dedicated heart care in their area.

And so we’ve focused on making both things true, high level system, brand efficiency and localized assets that matter at the point of care to the consumers. 

Jenny: I love that. It makes me think of a huge access to care campaign that we did a few years ago where it was similar it was very large, not nationwide, but as nationwide as systems get, and it was large, big production, creative. 

And then whenever you would actually begin going down that digital experience, individual landing pages with the access to care information that then could point out the individual differentiators. So there’s a way you have to get really [00:14:00] tactical in the execution of it down into the weeds.

But that’s such a great reminder that both/and I’m definitely going to buy that book.

Jeff: So it’s really good. I appreciate it. And I know Dr. Lewis or took her class but it’s really helped. I think our team reconceptualized, I had many of my team come up and go, I’m an either or person.

I didn’t, I guess I get that. And I’ve always sort of accepted it with this both and it’s like there, and we keep coming back to it. And it’s so fun when you get an idea that lives with the team and they can take it and say, Hey, Thanks. And let’s make two things true. We can make two things true at once.

We can look at a dilemma and face the paradox and find ways to get through it. 

Jenny: Oh my gosh, Jeff, this has been such a fun interview. Thank you so much for being on today’s episode of We Are Marketing Happy listeners. Thank you so much for tuning in. I’m gonna put Jeff’s LinkedIn link down in the show notes.

So if you have any questions for him or want to connect, find that information there. And until next week have a fabulous time, go make a difference. And we’ll see you on [00:15:00] future episodes.



About the Author

Jenny Bristow is the CEO and Founder of Hedy & Hopp. Prior to starting Hedy & Hopp, Jenny launched, grew and sold a digital agency in Seattle and worked at Amazon. She was named one of St. Louis Business Journal’s 30 under 30, won a Stevie Award for Female Entrepreneur of the Year in 2018 and speaks regularly at healthcare marketing industry events.

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