SHSMD 2016 & healthcare marketing lessons from “Boaty McBoatface”

SHSMD 2016 & healthcare marketing lessons from “Boaty McBoatface”

boatyIf you’re like me and a little behind the pop culture curve, you may be asking “Who or what the heck is Boaty McBoatface?” It wasn’t until attending Roni Zeiger, M.D.’s entertaining talk at SHSMD 2016 last week that I learned of the delightful story and pondered its relevant implications to healthcare.

I’ll share the back story and two key takeaways for healthcare marketers.

Back Story: Name Our Ship

In March 2016, Britain’s Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) ran an online “Name Our Ship” campaign for the British government’s new, $300M polar research ship. In what appeared to be a refreshingly non-bureaucratic governmental move, NERC decided to crowdsource for the name. The implied social contract was that NERC would embrace the will of the people and emblazon the winning moniker across the bow of the newly minted vessel.

A Meme was born

Over 7,000 names were submitted to NERC by those looking to make their mark on the high seas. Former BBC presenter, James Hand saw so many amusing names on the list (e.g. Clifford the Big Red Boat & Big Metal Floaty Thingy-Thing) that he decided to throw his own “Boaty McBoatface” into the mix. Much to Mr. Hand’s surprise and later chagrin the name took hold, gaining so much of the popular vote that it crashed NERC’s website.

As CNN reported Boaty McBoatface took on a life of its own. Countless silly riffs followed, including UK train service from Portsmouth to Waterloo temporarily posting “Trainy McTrainface” on its electronic transit sign, and a British zoo pre-empted a similar internet takeover of the naming of a penguin chick, banning “Penguin McPenguinface” just to name a couple.

Boaty McBoatface won in a landslide (124,109 votes). It’s no news that the Brits have a sense of humor. NERC, not so much.

In what The Atlantic sited as a Public Relations Case Study and a cautionary tale about the limits of democracy, NERC was faced with a bit of a dilemma; name a $300M 120-meter, polar research ship Boaty McBoatface or look like stodgy, buzz killers. In the end NERC circumvented the democratic process and chose to name the research vessel RSS David Attenborough, with the consolation of declaring on their web page that “The name Boaty McBoatface will live on as the name of the ship’s high-tech remotely operated sub-sea vehicle.”

Healthcare Lessons from Boaty McBoatface

Despite the “bait” & switch,  NERC’s initially democratic, crowdsourced approach in a governmental setting was certainly ground-breaking.

To paraphrase Roni Zeiger, imagine if NERC actually honored the will of the people? Boaty McBoatface could have engaged and captured the imagination of children of all ages, fueled their enthusiasm and interest in NERC’s mission for generations.  Arguably the identity could have resulted in a greater lifetime brand equity than RSS David Attenborough.

Still, the Boaty McBoatface story provides great inspiration for healthcare marketing. NERC was successful in doing something wildly unexpected, initially garnering very positive attention and activating a diverse audience in a highly-charged, emotionally connected way. The combined elements of surprise and emotion created a fantastic story.

From this, we as healthcare marketers can take away two very powerful lessons and apply them to our trade. Shining examples from Northwell Health & Novant Health follow.

  • Think Different
  • Drive with Emotion


Think Different

One of my favorite sessions at SHSMD is the Sunday Thought Leadership Forum. In this year’s Forum, panel member Jeff Kraut, EVP of Strategy & Analytics at Northwell Health, New York’s largest healthcare provider, shared the importance moving beyond traditional thinking to propel healthcare into the future.

Northwell Health has made a commitment to lead and break from health system paradigms of the past. The leadership development group at the system made a commitment to LEAN, which has reduced total cost of care and empowered the system to reach higher performance results, including exceeding impressive Sepsis reduction goals of 50%.

The organization has also made a commitment to drive change by creating a culture of strategic thinking and teaching its people the language of strategy. By defining what “Systemness” means they’re empowering the organization to function as an effective system.

Posing the provocative and scary question “What would your hospital look like if it didn’t own a hospital?” the leadership at Northwell Health look to Walmart’s supply chain, Amazon’s consumer experience and the social interaction of Facebook for inspiration.

 A manifestation of the systems different, forward thinking is Northwell Ventures,  the corporate venturing arm of Northwell Health. Northwell Ventures continually searches for ways to turn innovative ideas into marketable businesses. An example includes Setpoint Medical, commercializing bioelectronics to treat patients with debilitating inflammatory disease. Another great example Northwell’s “innovation Contest” and $100,000 investment, this year awarded to a ground-breaking 3D Bioprinting entry, merging 3D printing and tissue engineering to design and produce “bioprinted” implants (e.g. trachea) that use a patient’s own living cells.

The newly rebranded Northwell Health is a terrific example of a health system thriving by thinking and acting differently.

Drive with emotion

One of the more powerful displays of driving with emotion came during Novant Health‘s SHSMD 2016 break-out session highlighting Novant’s expert work of designing for the consumer landscape.

Research revealed emotional connection was a key element driving Novant Health’s consumer preference.

The highpoint of the session was the unveiling of three emotion-driving one-minute commercials.  I witnessed, first-hand seasoned healthcare marketers tear up as they watched these emotionally stirring healthcare videos. Novant Health nailed it here:

Boxing Ring

Roller Coaster


Future of Healthcare Marketing

The future of healthcare marketing lies somewhere between how things have always been done and anything imaginable, bureaucracy and anarchy, somewhere between the RSS David Attenborough and Boaty McBoatface.

One thing is certain, there’s never been a more exciting or interesting time to be in healthcare marketing!

Interested in exploring? Email or call Rick Zaniboni to set up a free consultation at 978-994-8009.

Eric Brody

Eric Brody is President of Trajectory, the specialist health & wellness branding and marketing agency using every moment as an opportunity to move customers, brands and businesses upward to a new destination.