Northern Light Health Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, pictured in May. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik

It’s been a year since the names of nine hospitals stretching from Presque Isle to Portland changed to reflect the new identity of their parent group, Northern Light Health.

Blue Hill Memorial Hospital became Northern Light Blue Hill Hospital as part of the change, for example, and the system’s flagship hospital in Bangor became Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center.

The hospital system shed its old name, Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems, in part to send the message that an organization that started more than 25 years ago in Bangor had grown beyond eastern Maine.

[As Northern Light looks to borrow $34M, credit rating agencies more confident it can repay it]

A year later, the Northern Light Health name is becoming more recognizable across the state, according to surveys done by the system. But the widely noticed marketing initiative created tension in its first year, as doctors questioned how it would help them better serve patients and a credit rating agency singled out the rebrand as a “significant” cost to the 12,000-employee system as it looks to repay outstanding debts and borrow more money.

More than appearances

Northern Light is in the midst of a three-year rollout of its new brand, which has involved launching marketing campaigns with the new name and changing hospital and medical practice signs to include new names and the system’s new logo, which is meant to represent Maine’s 16 counties. Over the next year, hospital system leaders plan to focus on getting more staff on board with the new identity, they said.

Credit: Gabor Degre

Leaders say the new brand is about more than appearances. Rather, it’s tied to a series of other changes that Northern Light has already been making that they say will improve its operations.

“The branding is less about the external message and it’s more about the internal impact that it’s having,” Senior Vice President and Chief Strategy Officer Matt Weed said.

Now, a patient who visits Northern Light Inland Hospital in Waterville or a Northern Light Primary Care clinic in Stonington can expect the same level of care as at any other system hospital or medical office, according to Northern Light President and CEO Michelle Hood. Their medical information would be available at all those locations through electronic records the organization is rolling out, and some patients could also remotely receive treatment from specialists at larger Northern Light hospitals through telehealth programs.

“You can go down the line and apply that thinking to every kind of service. When a patient is in our care, you can begin to see the power of systemness,” Hood said. “The name is symbolic. It’s an important piece of symbolism, because it says we’re all working together.”

Roberta Clarke, an associate professor emeritus at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business who focuses on health care marketing, said that rebranding a hospital system doesn’t bring any direct benefit to patients, but that it can indirectly improve their experience if it’s accompanied by other systemic improvements.

“The easy thing to do is to slap a different name onto the various hospitals,” she said. “All that is is money. The hard part is getting all these other changes in place. That requires a lot of resources and managerial work that lasts for a very long time.”

At Northern Light, not all employees immediately embraced the identity change.

Soon after the rebrand took effect in October 2018, a consulting firm that interviewed physician supervisors across Northern Light’s facilities found that few “could speak to how the brand ties back to their own service and, more importantly, to serving Patients,” according to a report the firm B.E. Smith completed in January.

A more recent survey of Northern Light’s staff, however, suggested that they are starting to embrace the change, according to Weed.

“It’s a strong foundation upon which to build,” he said. “We were very thrilled.”

Now, the system plans to communicate with staff over the next year about the importance of the new identity.

Credit: Gabor Degre

‘Credits and debits’

Weed and Hood declined to share the costs of the rebrand, which was based off consulting from the Colorado marketing agency Monigle. But they said that the system was already due to replace some of its outdoor signs at the time of the change and that the investment will allow it to cut $750,000 in annual marketing costs.

Hood said that it would be “almost impossible” to break out the new costs from what the system would have spent on marketing without the name change.

“You’d have to have credits and debits in that,” she said. “Honestly, we’ve never sat down and said here’s all the costs that were in year zero, and now we’re doing it differently in year one of our new brand, and compared the two.”

But Standard and Poor’s Global Ratings this past summer identified the rebrand as one of a couple “significant” costs that have cut into Northern Light’s earnings in recent years as the nonprofit system looks to repay $391 million in outstanding debts and borrow another $34 million next year to pay for the construction of a consolidated campus at Northern Light Mercy Hospital in Portland.

The system, which had $1.7 billion in operating costs last year, is also in the middle of merging with Mayo Regional Hospital in Dover-Foxcroft.

Besides paying Monigle for its consulting and replacing outdoor signs over the course of three years, the Brewer-based system has also replaced its website, email addresses, stationary and other materials to reflect the new branding scheme.

Hospital systems generally pay millions to rebrand, although the price tag can vary greatly depending on the extent of the work, the size of the hospital system and the region in which it occurs.

For example, six-hospital Lee Memorial Health System in Florida said in 2016 that it would pay just $2 million to change its organization name to Lee Health but leave the names of its individual hospitals unchanged, according to HealthLeaders Media.

In 2015, North Shore Long Island Jewish Health System expected to pay at least $25 million to rename its organization Northwell Health, according to Crain’s New York Business. Like Northern Light, the New York system received consulting from Monigle, but it did not rename its more than 20 individual hospitals.

It could cost Partners Healthcare, a Boston-based system with more than a dozen hospitals, more than $100 million to rebrand, according to The Boston Globe. Unlike Northern Light Health, which wanted to bolster its system identity, Partners this summer was contemplating a rebrand that emphasized the identity of its prominent individual hospitals.

Drag or necessity?

John Morrow, managing director of Franklin Trust Ratings, a firm that analyzes health care industry data, questioned the wisdom of a health system investing so much money into something that doesn’t affect patient care.

“It is a drag on finances,” Morrow said. “With margins as tight as they are and capacity where it is, they need to be very careful about making those kinds of decisions. That money is not going to help an uninsured person. That money that’s spent on advertising, it’s not going to help with outcomes. It’s not going to save any lives.”

But as Northern Light faces competition from more nimble health care organizations around the state along with less traditional providers such as Walmart, it could use the edge that comes from a recognizable brand, according to Stephanie Burton, director of health care marketing at the Milwaukee firm Core Creative.

“Instead of marketing separate hospitals, it means only marketing one health system brand,” said Burton, who previously managed public relations for Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin and has helped systems implement new brands. “It really makes it easier for the consumer to choose your health system. Right now, it’s all about clarity.”