The One Question SickKids Must Ask

[Cache #230]

By Andris Pone – President, Coin Branding

I sat down at my computer ready to tell you that SickKids, otherwise known as The Hospital for Sick Children, should not change its name, period.  That it should completely ignore the online petition started by a Toronto life coach.

But the issue is more complicated than that.

The argument in favour of a name change is that children are very susceptible to suggestion, and therefore internalize the idea that because they are at SickKids, they are sick – which impedes their recovery, as opposed to a name that focuses on healing or is neutral.  This does seem to make some sense.

The main counterargument is that SickKids would be turning its back on decades of brand awareness – brand equity – built around the globe.  That a name change would substantially diminish the awareness of people – among them the donors, parents, and highly-talented medical professionals SickKids would like to attract – who know the SickKids name and respect the institution highly.  And that this would cost the hospital, and by extension the kids, dearly.

Think of the fundraising implications.  Ted Garrard, President & CEO of SickKids Foundation, told me in a 2012 interview (see it here on page 6) that since 2009, the Foundation had raised $300-million.  This is a truly mind-boggling amount of money.  It is attributable in large part to the Foundation’s board – one of the most talented and esteemed boards you will ever see – the members themselves attracted to SickKids because it is one of Canada’s strongest brands, a bona fide brand juggernaut, which goes hand-in-glove with having one of the country’s most recognizable names.

If you change the name, you will create confusion in the minds of the top-flight medical talent and donors – along with potential board members – the hospital needs to take care of the children.  Because $300-million is a lot of money, but it’s still not nearly enough to save all the kids.

There is also the argument, expressed by opponents of the online petition, that the very considerable amount of money required to change the name, and then promulgate it, would be far better spent on helping kids get better.

Here’s the brand maxim most pertinent in this case:  The only thing harder than building a brand in the first place is trying to change one.

Just ask The Canadian Council of Christians and Jews, which launched in 1947 and changed its name to the Canadian Centre for Diversity (CCD) in 2007.  By 2013, having lost many Jewish donors, they shuttered their educational programs – admitting that “the change wasn’t handled well.”  Although the charity was revived the following year, their new leader acknowledged that “there are definitely some people we won’t get back.  It’s not that they stopped giving, it’s just that they stopped giving to us.”

It is important to note that the CCD changed not only its name, but also its mandate, creating a double-whammy of brand inconsistency.  SickKids would not be changing its mandate…but would it?  People will wonder.  They will wonder if the renamed organization still aligns with their values, and thus if it deserves their money and time.

There is another key angle to consider:  what level of awareness could be created by a name change itself?  For many years, the NFL’s Washington Redskins have been under intense pressure, from First Nations groups, to change their name. Were the Redskins to finally relent, it would yield a priceless amount of positive media coverage.  However, SickKids as a name is not even remotely as hot-button an issue as Redskins, and thus a new name for the hospital would not earn the same league of attention.

This is a highly nuanced issue.  And yet it is not.  Because any decision, although it should take into account all of the above and more, must answer just a single question:  what’s best for the kids?


PS: Any organizer of such a petition would give their cause more credibility if they knew the correct name of Ontario’s premier (it’s Kathleen, not Katherine) and how to spell words such as neuroscientist (not nuero-scientist) and molecules (not molecues), etc.

PPS: And here is a petition to not change the name.

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4 Responses to The One Question SickKids Must Ask

  1. Michael Armata says:

    Great post again!
    This has left me wondering: takeovers & amalgamations happen all of the time (every downturn in the economy seems to leave Chrysler under new ownership) and there has certainly been some successful mergers (TDCanadaTrust for example). In the cases where a company sells a portion of itself off, there must be some instances where the purchaser (or seller!) is left without the recognizable “brand assets” for lack of a better term and needs to handle a difficult situation forced upon them. There must be some lessons that have been learned from such transitions in past decades that can be applied to this case. Perhaps “transition” (and a slow one) is the key?

    • Coin says:

      Michael – you could really be on to something here. Because one never wants to diminish a brand’s equity, a key brand maxim is “evolution, not revolution.” Another is “do no harm.” For example, we had a Canadian client by the name of KingStreet Capital. They ran into a trademark infringement suit from an American firm of the same name. Our client ultimately decided to change their name to KingSett Capital – a “sett” being an ancient paving stone. This evolutionary name change attained the desired effect of not shocking and confusing its target audience, and also managed to carry forward a high level of equity from the KingStreet moniker. And so a similar approach could be taken with SickKids. Actually coming up with the right new name, of course, is complex and will take rigorous process. Thanks for your comment – Andris.

  2. Agree with Michael – another fantastic post. You tackled the situation beautifully. With a sister and cousin who have received care from SK as children, and also with experience working with the brand in a consulting capacity, I argue that SickKids is a poster child for brands that are so much more than a logo. Converse to the petition, any child (or parent) who has received a Wish or spent time in the care of the hospital’s very carefully selected and passionate staff would agree that the SickKids brand lifts spirits and gives SICK children their best shot at getting well. I could go on, but Andris did such a great job so I will stop here.
    PS – appreciate the discrediting of the petition author. Ouch

    • Coin says:

      Jennifer, thank you for your comment. Nailed it – a brand is much much more than a logo, or in this case, a name. People think extremely positively of SickKids as an institution, and that’s what matters most. But here’s a twist: because SickKids is so much more than a name, does that make *changing* the name more viable? Thanks again.

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