What is this latest buzz phrase all about?


Ilan Geva from the Chicago based branding consultancy, Ilan Geva and Friends, clears up the confusion and explains what destination branding means in medical tourism.

First, branding is not a science...

If it were, there would be no arguments about how to do things, how to interpret things and how to implement things. We would all follow the scientific formula of how to build brands, and the results would probably be similar… same cars, same clothes, and same hospitals. I remember when Eastern Europe was under different regimes and political persuasion, there were no brands to speak of, and destinations there were not attractive despite their heritage, history and amazing sites. Certain countries in the CEE region had common “brands” for all customers to use, they were commodities, and they were served in a very unexpected order: on Monday you could buy meat, Tuesday you could buy bread, and Wednesday you could buy milk…, the clothes you could buy were beige and/or grey…the cars were government manufactured metal sheets on wheels…you get the picture.

Branding gives us the wonderful freedom to express ourselves in different tastes, colors, sounds, expressions, experiences, and satisfy the need of one: you!

It gives us the opportunity to tell the world how different we are and at the same time give the consumer/patient the choice he/she desires.

Since branding is NOT science, there are many opinions, points of view, and obviously every “expert” has a view!

Ah… the experts.

The first expert I encountered in my branding business was my client’s wife. She was called to voice an opinion about a branding project I created for her husband’s business, and she was not amused. She was a consumer, not a branding expert, and she used common terms, not marketing lingo. That made me really furious. How dare she? Without any understanding of our wonderful marketing jargon, all the training and the years we spent sharpening our skills to be branding and marketing gurus…and now comes this commoner and voices an opinion?

Guess what.

  •     You’ll hear opinions of experts, but none “owns” the theories
  •     What’s right for one brand, is wrong for another.
  •     My own experiences are not the absolute truth. No other expert has the absolute truth either.

And the scariest thought for today:

YOU DON’T OWN YOUR BRAND! It resides in the minds of your customers and your potential customers. Think of Pavlov’s Dog.  From experience he learned a whole set of associations when he heard that bell.  It is like the customer’s response to hearing a brand name, seeing the logo, hearing the music, touching the materials, listening to a story, and viewing the scenery.  Everything that comes to mind goes beyond a product or service all the way to an experience. Destinations are an experience.

You can only try to influence what the customer holds in their mind.

Scott Bedbury said:”Products and services will come and go, but the brand that provides them will remain constant.  Brands will be defined as the sum total of those experiences rather than the product and services themselves.”

Obviously that applies to anything that stays in a consumer’s mind.

  •     A country
  •     A city
  •     A hospital
  •     A doctor

Any experience with all the above.

In Britain, Hong Kong and Australia, placing a monetary value on the brand is commonplace.  In the US it is buried under “goodwill”.

Destinations cannot place a monetary value on their brand, but ultimately they either prosper or suffer as direct result of the brand image they cultivate.

It starts with a clear understanding of the essence and the personality of a place. Countries may share mountain ranges, climate and beaches, food and music. But they do not provide a common experience.

Why should a customer choose your destination?

I do not understand all those advertising messages promoting countries with brilliant images of beaches and girls in minimal bikinis prancing around. Hundreds of global destinations can promote the same identical image. Does that build a DESTINATION BRAND?

Destination branding is about image and perception. Sometimes perception becomes reality, we perceive that Italy has great pasta, pizza and wine, and the Godfather came from there too…France has great food and wine too, but it involves frogs and baguettes…

None of the above came from advertising campaigns or “branding” platforms.

They are the result of accumulative perceptions, experiences, stories, anecdotes and realities.

How long do you think it will take to build a similar destination brand for certain countries promoting their medical tourism abilities?

A long time.

So far, no medical tourism destination that I know has succeeded to build a methodical reputation of a meaningful brand to patients who trust that brand, flock to it and refer all their friends to it.

I hear of associations, design firms, consultants and experts who claim to have built a global brand for a medical tourism destination somewhere...

Yet the statistics do not support such claims, and there is no global consensus as to “what is the best place on earth to have a heart surgery, or get a new nose”

I certainly know what is the best destination to get a baguette or a pizza, most people will agree with me. Italy and France are strong tourism destination brands; neither excels in medical tourism.

It’s a question of perception…

Italy and France have not even tried to carve a slice of the consumer mind in positioning their countries as medical tourism destinations.

Like many of you, I have been to dozens of medical tourism conferences, spoken at many of them, and traveled to inspect hospitals on three continents.

Looking at my treasure of promotional items and brochures collected from 40 different countries, I am still at a loss as to my preference between the umbrella from one country and the key chain from another. I certainly haven’t been convinced that one country is better than the other since all those gifts are made in China…

Many destinations are investing heavily in printed media such as expensive brochures, tech heavy trade show booths, exorbitant conference sponsorships, promotional gifts and other similar tactics.

These are not brand builders for any destination. They are adding clutter to existing clutter.

My simple solution is…

… Start with patience, audit your brand and study.

While it may take five years to build a new state of the art hospital, it may take ten years to build a great reputation to the country where it is located.

The first thing is to understand your destination.

Do not let your local politicians or any of your expert local residents do this job.

It has to be done by an outsider!

Understanding a destination from the inside doesn’t build reputation for those who are coming from the outside. It never works, especially in our current world where everybody wants to see results immediately.

Natives never see their destination in the same way as outsiders see it, coming from abroad and forming an opinion, while going through an experience.

While your hospitals may shine and provide a great medical experience, your airport and cab drivers can spoil the experience; while your doctors are U.S. trained and JCI accredited, the nurses in your hospital may not speak English.

Someone coming from the outside will notice many more brand touchpoints than you ever will. Listen and fix what needs fixing, remember the brand is what remains in the consumer’s mind. Don’t let them come to your destination and leave with any bad experience that tarnishes your brand.

Only after you’ve done that, can you start thinking about the right vision, mission, brand positioning and values of your specific destination and medical tourism offering.

The next step is training

Do not leave anything to chance. Make sure all the people who represent your destination in your city, hospital or clinic know how to serve and deliver an unforgettable experience.

Only after doing that, the brochures will look different, the booth design will not be the same, and the people you will send to stand in the booth will deliver a different story.

Your potential customers and patients will feel your authenticity, the value you provide and the promised experience they can expect. Remember, the destination brand is always part of the promise to fix someone’s knee, heart or nose.

Without all this (and believe me, this is easy said than done) don’t show up to the next conference with the same brochure, key chain, CD ROM, or flash drive.

I already have them.


Building an international brand

Resources, 30 April, 2018

Ilan Geva, Managing Director, Ilan Geva & Friends

How the patient experience drives the global brand

Resources, 01 May, 2017

Ilan Geva, Destination Health: The Medical Travel Summit USA

How to build your clinics brand - marketing for medical tourism

Resources, 26 April, 2017

Ilan Geva, Ilan Geva & Friends, IMTJ Medical Travel Summit 2017

Consumer behaviour: The forgotten science of medical travel

Resources, 26 May, 2016

Ilan Geva: IMTJ Summit 2016

What’s in a brand? The art and science of destination branding

Resources, 15 April, 2015

Ilan Geva: IMTJ Summit 2015

The Other Side

Articles, 22 December, 2014

Do governments destroy their own countries' brand?

Controlling destiny

Articles, 03 April, 2014

How are brands shaped by events beyond their control?

Branding & Advertising, Strategic Marketing Thinking

Resources, 01 May, 2012

Ilan Geva: EMTC 2012

The brand

Articles, 08 July, 2011

Ilan Geva talks about what branding means in medical tourism




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