Corporate Communications in Middle East Healthcare: It’s All in the Translation

By Mark McPhee, M.D.

For Western models of healthcare to succeed in the upwardly expanding environments of the Middle East, superlative external and internal corporate communications are essential. These represent the basic building blocks allowing accurate translation of your brand identity in this region. It is fallacious to assume that “plug & play” will work for your brand in healthcare as it has for dominant Western brands in other sectors: automobiles, fashion, entertainment, sports and technology, for example. The reasons are rooted in historical failures to succeed in transforming healthcare in the Middle East, a history that now mandates accurate translation of your brand to fit the local markets with great precision. Failure to successfully accomplish this in multiple past ventures has led to a widespread climate of skepticism that major Western healthcare brands are willing or able to be transplanted in the region. Given economic realities plus the status and quality in local healthcare markets, large percentages of local nationals and expatriates simply leave their country of origin, when practicable, to receive their healthcare abroad. Reversal of this trend will require proven success in brand translation and brand enhancement in what has been an arid environment. Here are four keys to achieving brand identity success in this region:

The Medium is the Message

Market segmentation is very different from traditional Western models in Middle Eastern countries, so you must know and understand your potential local markets in detail. Usually, local nationals are a significant minority of the population. Often relatively youthful and well resourced, specific messaging aimed at this “upwardly mobile” segment will require attention to brand building using web-based and social media as well as broadcast and press PR. The older “educated influencers” and the “decision makers” holding important positions in tribal cultures, sports, entertainment, government or royal family are two additional segments requiring special attention in local populations. Because of the lack of a reliable postal service plus the traditional importance of word-of-mouth communication through family, tribal and majlis systems (which allow almost universal face-to-face access by nationals to important decision makers), communication with influencers or decision makers should be simple, direct, frequent and (when possible) tied to familiar, prestigious organizations, symbols or brands of already proven success and popularity with locals. Because of the existing climate of skepticism in healthcare, every effort must be made to keep communications honest. Any promises made or implied must be rigidly kept. This reliance on word-of-mouth communication and patriarchal decision-making has been only enhanced, not diminished, by mobile phones, social and web-based media to date, so special care must be taken with these forms of communication in the Middle East.

As in other markets, Western expatriates look for data and outcomes-related measures much more than word-of-mouth, so reaching them will require traditional press PR as well as sophisticated, searchable and comparative web-based technologies to translate your brand to this segment. Arab expatriates fall between the locals and the Westerners, often responding best to brand messaging aimed at their country of origin for word-of-mouth success, as well as press or web-based messaging in a very brand-conscious market segment. Asian expatriates form a very complex and diverse segment (often very large) loosely divided into the “have-nots” who comprise construction, service and industry laborers, balanced against the “haves” consisting of executives, white collar, education and technology workers. Within the huge “have-not” segment, healthcare options are usually sharply limited or restricted by the employer, so this is a difficult segment to reach or rely upon even in Middle Eastern countries, which have adopted universal health insurance principles. Marketing here would be to the employer. The Asian “haves” are usually best engaged with press as well as with web-based, data-driven techniques, as with the Western expatriate segment. With all segments, remember that the local language is Arabic, but the lingua franca is English, so the polyglot of other languages is rarely required for success in translating your brand within complex market segments.

Keep It Simple

It is important to keep in mind that very complex messaging will not translate well into any of the market segments enumerated above, and it should be axiomatic that your healthcare brand may mean little or nothing outside of your home country. Despite the universal success of big-name Western brands in other sectors, in healthcare as in politics, “all is local.” Given this axiom, “tagging” your brand to local icons with high visibility and prestige may well be key, if this can be achieved. Inflated claims from Western healthcare have been seen many times before in the region, so try to develop sincere, believable, credible and achievable brand messaging – and stick to those messages. All market segments will begin and remain in a “show me” mode until your brand has proved out in the market place, and almost all market segment will wish repetitive reassurance that, with your brand, “the quality went in before your name went on.” You will not slowly sidle up to success with your brand in these markets.

Do Sweat the Small Stuff

It is vital to keep in mind that Middle Eastern cultures place very high value on hospitality and the qualities of exceptional, personalized service. This specific emphasis has been a key driver for success in a wide variety of other business sectors in the region, but not yet in healthcare. Yes, the “tech” aspects of your brand remain important, but consider that a real emphasis on the “touch” may be of greater importance – widely touted, but rarely experienced. Also remember that the level of expectation for a great healthcare experience is very high among virtually all market segments. Pent-up demand being what it is, great communication at all levels of your organization aimed at smoothing and enhancing every aspect of the patient and family journey through their healthcare experience should be a primary focus of your branding efforts. This principle is especially important given the lack of a traditional Western continuum of care (safety net, post-acute, long-term, home and often follow-up care often absent or extremely limited by Western standards). Coupled with the comparatively very high levels of service in other customer-focused industries, detailed orientation and indoctrination of your workforce to deliver a great experience as well as a great outcome may be a paramount factor for success. After all, the healthcare consumer is usually sick, scared and suspicious, so the patient experience begins with alleviation of suffering and ends with seamless, flawless, compassionate care at every point in the patient journey. If your brand can truly deliver in this arena of patient experience, success is virtually assured.

Whistle While You Work

Let’s not forget about the vital importance of Internal Corporate Communications to the creation of a great work setting in which great healthcare can be delivered. Your workforces, of course, become your primary ambassadors so the success of your brand identity requires an internal as well as an external focus. Your employees must “get it and live it” if you advertise it. In the Middle East, you will have a diverse, complex group of employees operating in a very socially and technologically complex work environment. Rigorous attention to internal communications will be the major pathway to maintaining an engaged, contented pool of employees. Respect for diversity and celebration of cultural differences will be vital, so high expectations should be set and measurably delivered against in all units. It does little good to have a sophisticated system of external communications if your internal systems are underdeveloped or (more often) underutilized.

Successful internal communications are a primary responsibility of the entire leadership team, not just those working in Human Resources. Simple messages of importance to your organization designed to reinforce your vision, mission and values should be communicated regularly, repetitively and using a full spectrum of internal communications modalities. Every employee should understand your brand vision, and their individual role(s) in helping to achieve that vision. Appearances really count in these communications, so every effort should be made to be clear, concise and cogent. Praise and reward those who are worthy examples to others, and make every attempt to avoid confusing or conflicting messaging. The great principle is simple, but all too rarely achieved: “The best place to get care is the best place to give care.”

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