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Balancing Act: Building Corporate Brand Awareness While Pursuing a Multi-Brand Strategy

By Alan Brew

Wendy Newman joined AMN Healthcare Services as director of ecommerce in 2000, just as the San Diego-based recruiter of traveling nurses was in the early stages of transforming itself into a national healthcare workforce solutions provider. Now traded on the New York Stock Exchange, the $1-billion (2013 sales) company offers a comprehensive suite of innovative workforce solutions to clinical facilities and healthcare organizations. These range from traditional staffing and recruitment to managed services programs and other solutions designed specifically to meet clients’ needs at a time of transformational change.

During Newman’s tenure, AMN has acquired an array of recruitment and other brands including, in 2013, ShiftWise, a leading provider of vendor management and other web-based solutions focusing on the healthcare workforce. As a myriad of factors converge to impact the delivery of healthcare in the wake of the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, AMN is now uniquely positioned to offer itself as a strategic partner that can integrate seamlessly within clients’ models to reduce complexity, drive efficiency and improve patient satisfaction and outcomes.

Now AMN’s Senior Vice President Corporate Marketing and Communications, Newman built the marketing communications department and has led online marketing strategy, corporate brand strategy and corporate communications initiatives—efforts that have differentiated the company from its competitors and helped cement its leadership position within the healthcare staffing industry. Prior to AMN, she launched outreach programs at large nonprofit hospitals before joining a San Diego start-up, Women First Healthcare, where she created and implemented consumer marketing programs and services. She spoke with BrandingBusiness Founding Partner Alan Brew about AMN’s evolution, the challenges of building corporate brand awareness, and appropriate brand architecture at an organization that had become, in effect, a “house of brands” through multiple acquisitions.

Brew: First question, Wendy: What does AMN Healthcare actually do?

Newman: We provide hospitals and healthcare facilities with unique solutions to workforce challenges so they can focus on quality patient care. We place permanent and temporary physicians, nurses and allied professionals in healthcare facilities throughout the country. We handle recruitment and screening and offer continuing education to our nurses, but we also help clients with their long-range, more complex staffing issues. Our clients need a partner that understands how to reduce costs and increase efficiencies. Labor costs are about half the cost for healthcare systems right now, so we play a critical role in helping with their labor issues.

Brew: The A-M-N in your name goes back to your origins as American Mobile Nursing… You’ve come a long way since then.

Newman: We’ve been in business well over 25 years. We started in the travel nursing space, just one single business line. We’ve evolved, through multiple acquisitions and organic growth, into the leading healthcare staffing company and workforce innovator.

Brew: What’s happening in healthcare to make AMN such an important company to customers?

Newman: There are a lot of forces converging, one which is the shortage of healthcare professionals. By the year 2020, there’s going to be a shortage of about 90,000 physicians and, at the same time, 30 million more newly insured Americans. Then, in addition to that, the aging Baby Boomer population—10 million more people, age 65 and older, who will need more care. But the one common denominator is the healthcare workforce. We’re really in a position now to be helping our clients and client facilities, so they can provide that quality care.

Brew: Do they realize the range of services you offer and the impact you can have on their business?

Newman: That’s part of our brand strategy. We really are the first company that has gone out and positioned ourselves in this way, mainly because it is what our clients are looking for: a strategic partner who can assist them with all these workforce challenges. It’s more than just providing a nurse or a physician into a hospital.

Brew: At what point did you realize [AMN] had a branding problem?

Newman: Since the late 1990s, we’ve had 12 key strategic acquisitions. We went out to the marketplace as a single brand but also had a multi-brand recruitment strategy. As we were moving forward and acquiring these other brands, many were going direct to our clients under those brand names. There was very little brand awareness for AMN Healthcare.

Brew: So branding became, I suppose, the central kind of driver at your communication strategy.

Newman: Absolutely. We knew where we wanted to take the business, but we couldn’t figure out how to put all of these brands together and create this vision for our corporate brand.

Brew: How did you go about it?

Newman: First and foremost, we needed to go out and find a strategic partner to help us identify all aspects of our brand strategy. And so we embarked on an extensive research project with all of our key stakeholders: internal customers, external customers, our investors, our board. Then we worked on developing out our brand architecture; looked at capabilities within brands and which brands did we want to maintain and which ones did we need to sort of rationalize out within our portfolio.

I think companies may tend to spend too much time internally trying to figure this out without working with an outside team like BrandingBusiness to help them through this process. As you go through this exercise, you have to continue to do the research externally to help you formulate decisions. We decided to keep our corporate name, but we did have to make a lot of transitions with some of our other brands that weren’t quite in alignment and didn’t have strong brand awareness and brand equity out in the marketplace.

Brew: Internally, I assume you put into place some values that were unifying for the whole organization.

Newman: We did a lot of work internally. It all stemmed from the original work on brand strategy. By creating a set of core values for the organization, we also created an employee value proposition around the brand. The branding provided a platform for work we did with team members, and it was also a platform for engagement. Every year we survey our team members, and we saw incredible collaboration and engagement around the brand—which has created its own sort of organic growth as a result.

Brew: How is the role of brand spread across the organization beyond responsibilities in marketing? Has it become company-wide in terms of its impact?

Newman: It’s part of who we are as an organization now. People will say, “Well, marketing owns the brand,” and maybe they own the exercise of doing the branding. We tend to be the champions, change agents. But at the end of the day—when you go through this exercise and see how team members embrace the brand—it’s owned by everyone.

Brew: One of the things we hear from AMN is this notion of workforce innovator. What was the idea behind that?

Newman: We started off in transactional staffing, which is a commoditized business and provides a quick fix. As we talked about who we want to be and who we need to be for our customers, one of the things that came out very strongly was that we needed to be the number one innovator in workforce solutions. It was an important differentiator for us. It’s taken on a life of its own, and I like to say that when your customers or your stakeholders start talking about you the way that you talk about yourself, that’s when you’ve really reached that point of them understanding who you are as an organization.

I was at a meeting several months ago. One of the gals from a large brand was asking about how we went through this branding exercise. The biggest challenge that I hear is, marketing leaders have difficulties quantifying the value of their brand and determining the best approach for aligning brand strategy with business strategy. Sometimes people feel as though it’s not quantifiable, and in business, obviously, everything’s quantifiable.

I think the other is, you need to be thinking into the future and making sure you gain executive approval and consensus. You don’t always get consensus of everyone involved, but one thing that’s critical is, make sure you have a key champion who will help make those final decisions. In our particular case, it was our CEO, Susan Salka.

Brew: You mentioned quantifying the value of branding. How do you do that at AMN?

Newman: We look at revenue for all of our brands and do a lot of market research as well, on our corporate brand. We want to make sure we’re still relevant, that we’re increasing our brand recognition. Some people will say, “Well, brand awareness isn’t enough.” But when you’re going through a repositioning like we did over the last three years, it’s extremely important. So we have a variety of factors that we look at for all the brands. One thing that is really critical is to consistently keep the brand in the conversation. So when discussions are being made about particular brands—and we still have a multi-brand strategy, even though we’re much more organized under our brand architecture—we consider all aspects of the brand and not just the revenue.

Brew: Any important lessons you’d like to pass on about something you’d do differently in the future? Or an issue to watch out for?

Newman: We spent two years developing our brand architecture and strategy, and when we finished everybody took a bit of a breather. We should have, probably, developed a brand council. We created an amazing discipline along the way, but it’s important to keep that discussion going about new brands, what do you do with old brands, how do you manage the corporate brand, what’s happening in the marketplace that will make us have to change our brand strategy? The business strategy and brand strategy is always going to be changing and adapting. It doesn’t start and stop, and so having that continuous discussion about how to manage brands moving forward is critical.

Also, as I mentioned before, when you go through this type of program, you need to make sure that you do have strong commitment—financial commitment, time commitment—and a trusted partner to work with you at all times, side-by-side.