Helen Edwards: Why the NHS brand won't travel well

Government plans to promote 'the NHS brand' around the world mistake domestic affection for market strength

If Danny Boyle's Olympic paean to the NHS had been conceived to reflect the typical user experience, it would have taken up the entire opening ceremony and nothing would have happened.

In hospitals and surgeries up and down the country, accessing NHS care is a waiting game. Your outpatient clinic appointment card might bear the encouragingly precise time of 16.05 but you'll be lucky if the consultation is faithful to the designated hour, let alone the minute.

It is why NHS premises, along with those of post offices and railway stations, display that sign declaring 'our staff have the right to do their jobs without menace or verbal abuse'.

These are process-heavy environments with the power to rile. Infuriated by delays and the need to repeat the same information several times, even the most mild-mannered, socialist-leaning, middle-aged patient can be seized by an urge to head-butt the walls, if not the staff.

Sense of forbearance

That most of us were nevertheless moved by those nurses in 40s uniforms and their Busby Berkeley-style routine is testament to an almost familial sense of forbearance we feel for a national institution with which we have grown up. Like the kin of a rogue, we know the flaws yet can't help but feel the closeness.

Trust the politicians to misread this well of affection as market strength. Last month it was announced that a new body, Healthcare UK, would be set up to promote 'the NHS brand' worldwide.

When stung by critical response, aides pointed out that hospitals such as Moorfields and Guys were already established abroad, and that BBC Worldwide was a parallel example of a British public institution globalised for commercial success. Health minister Anne Milton weighed in with the more general observation that the NHS was 'world class'.

This is misguided on so many fronts it's hard to know where to start, but we could opt for the picky level of brand architecture. Famous hospital brands are sub-brands of the NHS; for foreign expansion, though, they neither need nor will reward the masterbrand.

As Moorfields has shown with its extension into Dubai, small profits are possible, but these are returned to its own ample coffers, not directly to the NHS. The BBC's commercial body, BBC Worldwide, does return profits to the corporation, but they remain meagre despite the wealth of licence-fee-funded content at its disposal.

Market success

Compare its most recent £104m profit with the $8.04bn generated by Disney. That kind of market success demands constant reinvention and risk. The BBC establishment has the stomach for neither, as the Worldwide board discovered when lambasted for its 2007 acquisition of Lonely Planet. What the BBC shares with the NHS is the market blindness of an organisation reared on coercion funding.

Lastly, beware the politician who declares an entity 'world class' before it has been tested in the heat of free global markets. As even well-run British businesses have discovered, strip away the domestic brand affection, and global reaction to the raw offer can be brutally harsh.

On a world platform, the NHS will be found wanting and its globalisation will be quietly dropped. For once, we probably won't have long to wait.

Helen Edwards has a PhD in marketing, an MBA from London Business School and is a partner at Passionbrand. Follow her on Twitter: @helenedw


- Tesco has faced many troubles abroad, ending its foray into Japan this June. The brand had to pay rival Aeon £40m to rid itself of a money-haemorrhaging line of stores, when almost a decade of effort and £250m of investment reaped only a 0.1% share of the world's third-biggest grocery market. In South Korea, partnering Samsung and using a separate brand name - Home plus - has proved much more successful.

- M&S has a rich history of foreign failure. In 1973 the retailer invested in 50 Canadian stores, following up two years later with two Parisian flagships and 37 other branches around Europe. By 2001 all had been closed. Today, the first point in the M&S 2012 Annual Report is 'Focus on the UK', with international stores being mostly franchises.

- One of the most resounding brand-export flops concerns a very familiar-sounding situation: a UK government trying to take a healthcare system overseas. NHS Global was launched by Labour in March 2010, with the former Department of Health commissioning director claiming it was 'capable of earning £50bn'. His estimate turned out to be £50bn off, as the scheme failed to bring in any money at all.


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