Hospital systems find marketing through sports is winning strategy
By Alex Nixon
Published: Saturday, Oct. 12, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
UPMC CEO Jeffrey Romoff stood beside Pittsburgh hockey legend Mario Lemieux on a dusty construction site in Cranberry this month, both men smiling and posing as they flung dirt from silver-spaded shovels for a gaggle of news photographers and onlookers with smartphone cameras.
The two, who rarely make public appearances that draw the media, might have appeared an odd pairing to the casual observer. But a subtle yet powerful message was embedded in the picture that sports fans across Western Pennsylvania may have seen replayed on television or captured in a newspaper.
Whether those fans realize it or not, when they love a sports team, they're much more likely to love and buy from its corporate sponsors.
UPMC — the official sports medicine provider for the Penguins and Steelers — has had a particularly strong grip on this type of marketing for the past decade as it has grown into the region's largest hospital system and those two teams won championships in their respective sports.
But UPMC's not the only one playing the game.Highmark Inc.'s Allegheny Health Network, which debuted this spring as the chief rival to UPMC for hospital patients, couldn't have timed the launch of its brand any better. As the official sports medicine provider to the Pirates, Allegheny Health Network rode a wave of excitement around the region as Pittsburgh's perennial loser caught fire on its way to its first winning season and playoff appearance in more than two decades.
The marketing of sports medicine programs and team sponsorships by the two Pittsburgh health care giants reflect their fierce competition. Dueling ads have bombarded local airwaves — focusing on specialty medical services they provide, such as cancer care and transplantation — as they fight for patients and their health care dollars.
Allegheny Health Network, with financial backing of the state's largest health insurer in Highmark, has ratcheted up its marketing to try to level the playing field with the much bigger UPMC.
Health care companies, which tend to have weak brands in the minds of consumers, benefit substantially from a connection to a winning sports franchise, said Kirk Wakefield, a Baylor University professor and expert in sports marketing.
“What they want to have happen is the fan passion transfers from the team to the brand,” he said. “Among the team's fans, they are more likely to use the team's health system.”
Research shows that exclusive sponsorship deals with sports teams are much more effective than other types of advertising, Wakefield said. Many sports fans don't realize it, but their passion for their teams and engagement in watching their teams play make them much more receptive to marketing messages.
Many Pittsburgh sports fans unconsciously transfer their love of the Penguins, Pirates or Steelers to the brands that sponsor those teams, he said. “And why that matters is ... the things that we're more passionate about, we're more likely to buy.”
Both UPMC and Allegheny Health Network declined to discuss the terms of their sponsorship deals.
Albert Wright, a UPMC vice president who oversees the system's sports medicine programming, said UPMC's sponsorship of the teams was a two-way street that was about more than simply getting its name plastered inside Consol Energy Center and Heinz Field.
“The partnerships with the teams really highlight the fact that we have top notch physicians and caregivers who take care of the best athletes in the world,” Wright said. “And those same doctors are treating you and I.”
Dan Laurent, Allegheny Health Network's spokesman, was a little more frank about his system's motives.
“The Pirates, in particular, they are an extremely family-friendly franchise,” he said. “It enhances the visibility and reputation of the entire enterprise.”
And that was more important than ever this year as Highmark sought to grow recognition of the hospital system it formed from the purchase West Penn Allegheny Health System and begin the long process of cutting into UPMC's dominance of the health care industry here.
“We have ground to make up,” Laurent said.
“The story of our hospitals has been largely muted due to a lack of marketing resources. And UPMC took full advantage of that vacuum,” he said. The extreme imbalance in marketing between the former West Penn Allegheny and UPMC, he said, “skewed perception in favor of UPMC as the sole provider of quality health care in Pittsburgh.”
Allegheny Health Network is running a series of TV commercials highlighting its specialty medical services — another area of health care marketing in which UPMC has been strong.
Laurent said the system is focusing on five specialty areas — cardiac, neurology, orthopedics, cancer and transplantation.
“You can't succeed if your customers aren't aware of what you have to offer,” he said.
It helps that those medical services can be highly profitable for hospitals. The former West Penn Allegheny hospitals have been bleeding patients and money for years and are in desperate need of a financial boost. Financial reports have shown that the hospitals are on track to record a net loss of $130.9 million for its last fiscal year. That comes on top of a loss of $84.7 million the year before.
“Specialties bring in more money,” said Anthony Cirillo, president of Fast Forward Consulting in Charlotte, N.C., and a former hospital marketing executive. “When you add on all the ancillary services that go along with that ... those are still the lucrative services.”
Alex Nixon is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7928 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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