The dangers of not continually supporting your brand were brought home to me this week in an unusual fashion; the US attack on our beloved National Health Service (NHS).
It’s funny but I hadn’t long finished reading Gordon Hochhalters piece on the problems some US brands face abroad when this story broke over here. From a UK perspective it seems that the British National Health Service is being used as an example of how not to have a healthcare system. The UK media has ran headline stories this week telling of US senators attacking our health service, American TV commercials painting it as evil and future presidential hopefuls using it as a stick to beat the incumbent with. In the UK we’re both perplexed and appalled. How dare the Americans of all people disrespect our beloved NHS! If you fall ill in the US and you haven’t got any money you are left to die in the street in a puddle of your own filth whilst Texan billionaires and Manhattan socialites step over you on their way to the plastic surgeon, everyone in Britain knows this, we’re just too polite to mention it. Oh yes America you’ve touched a nerve over here!
You see our NHS is something of a holy cow, politicians meddle with it at their peril. It’s roots stretch back to the 1940s and the end of the Second World War. Britain was nearly bankrupt (the more things change…etc), it had thousands of returning servicemen who had lived through the great depression of the 20s and 30s, seen the rise of both communism and fascism in Europe and wanted no part of either and were both mobilised and determined to change the society they had left at the start of the war. They promptly voted out the great war leader Winston Churchill by a landslide majority and in his place elected a left leaning government with fresh ideas (any of this sounding familiar?). Amongst a number of innovative social reforms they introduced through The Beveridge Report the creation of a free health service for all was by far the one that has had the profoundest effect on the UK. Suddenly every citizen had access to the same quality of healthcare no matter their personal circumstances or social background. This was truly revolutionary and utopian in scale.
Three generations later we now take the NHS for granted in this country, it is a birthright. In polls people continually put its perceived underfunding as their biggest political gripe and there is nothing like a local hospital closure to mobilise the normally apathetic voter. Anyone visiting the UK this week would assume that the NHS is a national treasure and we’ll be declaring war on the US very soon if they don’t cease knocking it. The reality is of course that every other week of the year the NHS is knocked, disrespected, ignored, complained about and used as a political football by us. It has grown from a utopian ideal to a gargantuan behemoth, swallowing money, much of it wasted, seemingly employing more accountants than doctors. Many of the professionals who work in it are underpaid, undervalued, over worked and under appreciated. I’ve witnessed at first hand the abuse nurses take from patients they are trying to help. Because, for most of us, it has always been there and because it seems to be free we have allowed ourselves to put little value on it. We demand certain services and medications no matter the cost, we get patient charters and the right to complain, and boy do we use it.
From a marketing point of view it is important we see the lessons in this. For the record the NHS is a staggeringly great service. All three of my children were born in an NHS hospital, as was I. They had the finest paediatric specialists in the country on call, less than 50 feet away, during their deliveries. Our longest serving employee and dearest colleague was diagnosed with cancer two years ago, he’s sitting upstairs from me just now thanks to the NHS. Everyone in the UK has stories like this yet we’ve allowed ourselves to forget just what a great service it is. By not properly marketing the NHS brand, by not continually reminding ourselves just what a lucky bunch we are to have it, by not eulogising the NHS and all it stands for we’ve allowed a generation, or two, to forget how lucky they are. Marketing to most is probably anathema to what the NHS stands for however without it the brand has been devalued. Every organisation needs marketing because every organisation has a story to tell and if you don’t tell it people will make up their own version, and that is rarely a good thing. It is the ultimate irony that it might take someone else knocking it to make us realise it. Perhaps we should be thanking America for that.