The NHS – A Reluctant Power Brand

Today marks the sixth week that we will stand on our doorsteps, by the rainbows on our windows, cheering and clapping our NHS heroes.

We’re in the middle of a pandemic and the National Health Service is in the eye of the storm. Yet despite the clear challenges it faces, in a matter of weeks the NHS has become the power brand of the moment.

I imagine some people would feel uncomfortable calling the NHS a brand. But it is in every sense of the word. It is in many ways a beacon for other brands who want to connect emotionally with the public and be sources of cohesion and forces for good.

Evolving consumer attitudes create a new landscape for brands

Consumer attitudes and beliefs will be so seismically changed by this experience, and the future landscape will be so unpredictable, that I believe a new kind of brand will emerge from this crisis. Over the next few months we will see organisations pivoting to respond, to refocus and prioritise different characteristics and attributes to be successful. The NHS – thrust reluctantly into the spotlight – is providing a blueprint for others.

Relevant. Responsive. Responsible. Resilient. Impactful. True. Uniting. Magnetic. Emotional. Authentic. Story-led.

These are all words I would use to describe the NHS brand today. I may not have used them before, but today definitely. And they are all attributes that other brands would aspire to have and need to have in spades, as we all move forward into a new reality.

Right now, there is no other brand more relevant, more loved, more true. The pandemic has brought into sharp focus that many of our lives will depend on the NHS and that we need to come together to protect it. This is reinforced by government slogans and campaigns ‘Stay home. Protect the NHS. Save lives’, but we feel it naturally and deeply because the NHS has always held a special place in our hearts. It’s one of our greatest collective endeavours and woven into the fabric of the UK.

A focus on real people and stories

But the paradigm shift that has occurred because of this crisis is about people. And in this the NHS has ‘rediscovered’ it’s true purpose and currency. The people who are the NHS, their experiences and their stories, have risen to the top and are dominating the narrative and our public consciousness. Unintendedly and reluctantly they are the central protagonists of this crisis. And because of this, the more negative perceptions of the NHS – as a monolith, often complex, cumbersome and bureaucratic – have been pushed aside and replaced by the faces of the people who make it the vital national lifeline/resource that it is. And that’s transformational.

Usually NHS professionals are not strictly allowed to speak so candidly and publicly about their work, but we are in unusual times and the real stories of doctors, nurses and care workers are now being shared openly, freely and with such natural rawness and emotion across social media. The pandemic has been a catalyst for a new kind of storytelling and a different way for people to experience the NHS – to see behind its doors – and it is shared experiences and understanding that bring us together.

This is all supported by a powerful media narrative which uses warlike language that speaks deeply to our national identity – ‘frontline workers’; ‘the national fight; ‘the unseen enemy’. Even the Queen evoked this when she said in her public address, ‘We will meet again’.

Other brands – big and small, British and Global – have realised the powerful social currency the NHS now has and are ‘hero-ing’ NHS workers within their own campaigns, in place of the usual celebrities and influencers. Almost every organisation that has a public profile and is able to, is finding ways to connect themselves to the NHS, whether by innovating and evolving their business to manufacture essential items, to volunteer, or to raise money for NHS charities together.

Sustainable change and radical transformation

The question now remains how long the NHS will remain in this position and whether the shifts it has made will be sustained. I would hope so. At the very least it has shown that people are its true currency (and true value) and that it has the power to unify and inspire incredible collective action at a time when we are all physically divided.

The NHS has had to reluctantly transform itself to meet this emergency head on. From a cumbersome bureaucratic behemoth, it has shown how it can be truly agile, responsive and deliver some incredible things under enormous pressure. I hope NHS leaders will draw on this experience and see how so many of the brand traits exhibited in this crisis are critical components of the longer-term transformation that is needed to create a modern health service fit for the challenges of the 21st century.

Brands must learn from this experience

This pandemic will accelerate change and create a new reality whether we want it to or not. Brands need to learn from the NHS and find a better way of doing things. And this doesn’t mean changing a word or two in a brand platform, creating a new ‘universal truth’ or a bland essence. It’s about redefining purpose and looking at how to become more relevant, responsive, responsible and resilient; to be more human and emotionally intelligent; to tell better stories; to be the brand everyone wants to unite with. Fundamentally, to be more meaningful to society, and to be loved by that society.

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