What is a brand? More specifically, what is your brand? Your marketing might articulate a brand promise in its logo, tag line, advertising, and other endeavors.

But the promise, the essence of the brand, is delivered person to person. Every interaction by every employee, physician, and volunteer across the continuum of care is the fulfillment (or not) of your brand promise.

The sum of all these interactions is the lasting impression, and the perception of your patients, your community, and everyone who works within your organization defines the brand.


The community connection
Dr. Jeff Thompson, CEO of Gundersen Health System in La Crosse, Wisconsin, believes that there are only a few activities a health system can do that will not only improve the health of community members and save money, but also engage staff and inspire their communities. A successful sustainability program is one of those activities, and it can play largely into defining a brand.

Gundersen’s sustainability work is directly connected to its mission, core values, and commitment to the community. The company is nationally recognized for its high-quality patient care, but some of its environmental stewardship efforts (under its Envision program) are what’s generating great excitement.

For example, Gundersen recently partnered with Organic Valley, the nation’s largest cooperative of organic farmers and a leading organic brand, to build the health system’s second wind turbine site in the village of Cashton, Wisconsin, (population 1,000). The wind turbines, which sport both the Gundersen and Organic Valley logos, will reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by 12 million pounds each year.

The energy created is enough to power about 1,000 homes per year. It will more than offset the electricity used at Organic Valley’s Cashton distribution center and represents 5% of Gundersen’s energy independence goal.

In July 2012, Gundersen and Organic Valley held an event to celebrate the wind turbine project. With about 250 community members on hand to learn more and see the turbines up close, a bald eagle soared over the turbines—something no one could have planned. The media coverage that resulted from the event showed what a community partnership can accomplish.

Thompson says community excitement is something he’s seen time and again with Gundersen’s sustainability projects. “The village of Cashton is very proud of its wind farm. It gives them green energy and distinguishes them from other rural communities,” he says. Another example Thompson cites is a project on the company’s Onalaska campus.

Gundersen partnered with La Crosse County on a landfill-gas-to-energy project, and wasted landfill gas—methane that results from underground waste decomposition—is rechanneled to power a generator that’s used to heat and provide electricity for a 1,200-person campus. “It’s the first known energy independent medical campus in the country,” Thompson says. “It generated a lot of buzz in the community. The public is amazed with projects like these, the pollution that’s prevented, and the money taxpayers can save.”


Worker and patient engagement
Cristina DeVito is the sustainability coordinator at Yale-New Haven Hospital and she’s kicking off its first single-stream recycling program. She’s been going department by department to educate and place recycling bins, and when she shows up, she says, employees have cheered.

They’ve been so excited for this positive change to the work environment that they’ve started to reach out to her with ideas and questions about efforts being made to create healthier environments.

Cleveland Clinic has a reputation for clinical excellence, and its name is known worldwide. The health system clearly recognizes that the link between human and environmental health only enhances its commitment to providing world-class, innovative, patient-centered care. Cleveland Clinic’s Office for a Healthy Environment emphasizes the importance of a triple bottom line to the organization’s core business of putting patients first.

It isn’t trying to brand sustainability. There’s no green team logo at Cleveland Clinic. The message is simple: Sustainability enhances the service line. The work in the Office for a Healthy Environment has broad appeal, leveraging key strategic relationships, both internally and externally.

Internal connections include marketing, communications, community outreach, human resources, and leadership, to name a few. External connections include involvement in Practice Greenhealth, ENERGY STAR, the Healthier Hospitals Initiative, the Department of Energy, U.S. Green Building Council, Ohio Hospital Association, and Sustainable Cleveland 2019.

Cleveland Clinic aligns its sustainability programming with the organization’s brand. The use of colors, images, and photographs have a distinctive, intentional look, such as its 2012 UNGC Communication on Progress.

How do they engage in sustainability? They listen to the patients, caregivers, and community members about their sustainability wants and needs. They feed their patients with locally sourced foods. They engage caregivers with seasonal contests that highlight sustainability programs, such as annual employee homemade salsa contests that promote healthier diets based on local foods, as well as intra-facility recycling contests. They measure events, analytics, and conduct market research to measure their impact around educating patients and staff on their environmental stewardship activities. They conduct department and site-level assessments to identify ways in which each department can help advance Cleveland Clinic’s commitment to sustainability in its daily operations. They reinforce the role of the individual by asking everyone to take ownership of departmental sustainability improvements and committee involvement. And finally, they celebrate and recognize the hard work and ingenuity critical to program successes through awards like the Practice Greenhealth Environmental Excellence Awards and ENERGY STAR Partner of the Year Award.

As these examples demonstrate, sustainability programming is like a clinician looking you in the eye, like a healing touch, or someone helping you find your way in the complex healthcare setting. That’s what branding sustainability looks like.

Janet Brown, EDAC, can be reached at jbrown@practicegreenhealth.com.