Branding doesn't make you a better doctor, just better at advertising that you are.
In an editorial to introduce the JACR Speaking of Language series, Bruce J. Hillman, MD, reminds us, "Words matter." The series was born of the recognition that jargon and ambiguous words in medical imaging reports can result in avoidable referring provider misunderstandings and patient anxiety.
So, coming across an article about branding in JACR, I scratched my head about that word choice. The first image "branding" conjured in my mind was that of a cattle rancher searing the hide of livestock with indelible evidence of ownership. Then remembering the other definition of the word "branding," I pictured the "swoosh" that immediately identifies a multinational athletic shoe and apparel company known for highly compensated celebrity spokespeople and stylish ad campaigns.
This second definition seems more benign at first, but thoughts of crass commercialism come to the fore. For an example of branding gone bad, look no further than the recent debacle involving a now-defunct start-up company that made a $400 juicer and became a laughingstock after it banked on the perception of quality, the promise of value, and the allure of convenience but didn't actually deliver on any of its promises. This company experienced a downside of aggressive branding: the more you put yourself out there, the greater the risk of scrutiny and public downfall. But even if that pricey juicer had lived up to all of its hype, it doesn't make that sort of ballyhoo appropriate for physicians. It just evokes smarmy product-peddling telegenic doctors appearing on daytime talk shows. There is something intrinsically distasteful in the self-promotional quality of the word "branding" for a group of service professionals who make life-and-death diagnoses for human beings every single day.
Growing up, my family physician worked hard, was respected in our community, and inspired me to want to be a doctor. He didn't seem to care about his "brand" or the "marketplace." However, he did care about me and my family and his other patients. Of that I am absolutely sure. The thought of someone like Dr. Mayer having to brand himself saddens me. Many other hard-working, dedicated, competent, caring physicians, including radiologists, work quietly without a brand and are nevertheless trusted and respected members of their local medical institutions and communities.
Perhaps the problem isn't any of the individual elements of what is being collectively referred to as branding by the article's authors. Maybe it's just that the word "branding" itself that has too much baggage associated with it, givens its two definitions. Furthermore, there may not be an optimal word to substitute for all the things that "branding" supposedly encompasses. Every now and then — to be completely unambiguous and avoid having to proffer definitions, explanations, and caveats — you may be better off ditching the one word, instead providing a short string of words or phrases. But those words and phrases may be too mundane to get a manuscript published or receive an invitation to give a presentation. Maybe you can repackage it as something novel, something slick, corporate, and catchy, like the word "branding."
In a Harvard Business Review article, journalist Mitch Joel writes that internet shopping and technological advances have created the environment for the ascendant maker movement, with worldwide on-demand bespoke manufacturing (a.k.a., peer-to-peer e-commerce) and widely available small-scale technology (picture 3-D printers). The individualized and brand-less characteristic of the do-it-yourself, design-it-yourself, made-to-order marketplace is disrupting modern shopping experiences and is even influencing changes in how well-known brands and big-box stores behave. "The more unbranded traditional brands become, the more humane and interesting they seem to be," writes Joel.
The health care equivalent of the maker movement may be patient-centered care, where patients scrutinize the value of care, the timeliness of its delivery, and the choices that match their expectations. How mutable, adaptable, and nimble you and your organization are in meeting the evolving needs and demands of patients may be the best gauge of success in health care delivery. Change in ways that are authentic and consistent with your own professional identity. Perhaps it's better not to box yourself in too much into a brand, unless your brand is one that doesn't rest on its past laurels, but one that evolves to serve patients more than it does to promote yourself. Embrace unbranding.