How I Used a Bird to Build a Brand

Karen Hitchcock is the former Chief Experience Officer of healthfinch, a Wisconsin-based EMR Automation software company.

Read on for a transcript of her presentation from our January 27, 2017 Here’s How Startup Marketing Conference, where she describes how she used a mascot to power her startup branding.

So today, I'm going to talk about a branding story from healthfinch. I was the Chief Experience Officer at healthfinch after being the Director of Marketing there for the last two and a half years. When I accepted this speaking engagement, I was still there, but I recently accepted a job at Care Wisconsin, which is a nonprofit health care plan that serves the most vulnerable population. So people who are on Medicaid, Medicare, frail elderly, people who are cognitively or physically disabled. I hope in a year I'm going to be able to tell a story about how I knocked it out of the park with marketing in a highly regulated environment, but it's really fun to talk about healthfinch so let's go back to that. The title is How I Put a Bird on Something to Market and the story is about branding and creating a cartoon character to help us market healthcare IT.

First, let me tell you a little bit about healthfinch. Healthfinch is and was, at the time, building a clinical workflow application that seamlessly integrates with the electronic medical record. So if you're at your doctor and they're taking notes on the computer, that's the EMR, and healthfinch actually builds clinical apps that make workflows for doctors and nurses and people in these systems much smoother.

If someone said, "Hey, go market a workflow app,” it's really not a sexy thing itself and it also has no UI. So product marketing and trying to dress it up is really a challenge. When I came to healthfinch in 2014 it was at a really great pivot point. The flagship product was in a couple of major health systems and so product validation had already happened. Health systems were really happy. They were getting 10x, ROI both in efficiency and also in cost savings so healthfinch was really poised to take their flagship product, at the time called Refill Wizard, to a national level. That was the situation with the product. They also, based on that success, were ready to design and launch additional apps with the hope of building a platform that would become really sticky in major health systems. So they were sort of on the cusp of major growth.

They also knew that in order to do this they needed to hire a lot of top talent. I'm sure people here who are in any sort of tech startup will know that engineering talent is probably the hardest thing to get, secure and also retain. So in order to build this suite of products, to build this platform, they knew that they'd have to get a Series A round of many millions. It ended up being $7.5 million, with actually a couple Chicago people leading that round, and that was how we could afford the top talent.

And then there was this recognition that we have to add marketing staff. We have to add somebody who can help us, to essentially, as I would say at the time, make things pretty. The COO turned out to be a great supporter of marketing and branding, but at first, as a biomedical engineer who started the company, he was pretty skeptical about what marketing could do. He had these associations that, "Oh, marketing doesn't tell the truth," or, "They're trying to spin product," or, "It's not really authentic. We don't really need to do traditional advertising."

So really, I like to think that they brought me on as the minister of fonts and colors. But what they really needed is to build a story around the product and why? Why did they have to build a really unusual story? Why did I convince them that they had to sort of go big or go home, from a marketing perspective?

And that's because healthcare IT is a really saturated space. So pretty much any marketing that you see is always an iStock photo of a physician by a patient bedside or something. Almost everybody has the same value proposition. We want to connect patients and we want healthy outcomes. We want all these things and the marketing looks very, very similar. The largest association that healthcare IT firms are a part of is called HIMSS and in their annual conference, which now can only be hosted by I think three major cities because it's so large, it's 45,000 people, which means tens of thousands of vendors there. And if you think about it, how on earth does a tiny little company from Madison, Wisconsin, differentiate itself in a ten-by-ten space at a conference that size?

I loved the name healthfinch. I was really blessed when I came in that they actually had a creative name, but their product was called Refill Wizard. So the first thing that I wanted to tackle was how to start bringing the brand story. How do we start bringing product names? Even as minister of fonts and colors, how do we start bringing all those things into line with the company name? Because there's a huge disconnect. So it didn't take much convincing, they knew that Refill Wizard was not going to be able to stick as they added new things because then what do you do? Lab Wizard, Coumadin Wizard? You can only add so many Wizards to your line.

So we talked about building something around “healthfinch.” When our CEO started the company, he was thinking, “I want to be a part of the evolution of healthcare. IT is the next step in healthcare and I want it to be adaptable and to evolve.” And so Healthfinch is kind of a nod to Darwin's studies of the Galapagos finches, which is where by studying their beaks, he was able to explain his theory of evolution and adaptation. And I hear this and I'm thinking, “this is amazing.” This is the best name ever. It wasn't some really generic tech name. So I knew I could build a brand around that and I just needed them to help me make the connection between product names.

The first thing I actually did was products. I did some research and talked about, “Okay, what are things that birds do? And can our apps be named that?” So, swooping, like a bird will swoop in and swoop out to maybe grab a seed or something else if it's a bird of prey. So we renamed Refill Wizard “Swoop,” because that's essentially what our app is doing, swooping into the EMR, grabbing the information it needs and swooping back out to deliver it.

We just named all the products, the individual products, about birding type of things. And I'd like to say it was on purpose but it was a really happy accident that all of those things can be used as nouns and verbs. My product name Swoop can also be for creative writing. I can also use it as a verb. There’s a lot of flexibility and it all matched back to the idea of the finch. So we had cool names with some cool visuals to go along with them but we were missing that platform level. One of our salespeople said that when he’s on the phone he wishes he could say "Hey, Bob the Refill Guy is going to take care of this for you." He's like, "Can't we have, Bob the Refill Guy?" I thought, "Shit. That's awesome." So I decided we were not going to have Bob the Refill Guy but we were going to have Charlie the Healthfinch.

1.  Develop the “Charlie” concept to match the healthfinch story

And so we developed a line drawing of a bird named Charlie and started sort of dipping our toes in the water with using him as kind of the avatar, as sort of the company brand. At first, though, I would say that most of the 16 to 17 employees were a little reticent about going all in with Charlie. Because we are using him as our main marketing tool, we're selling to chief medical information officers, chief medical officers, CFOs of major health systems, I mean we're talking about like Kaisers and things like that, and a lot of our employees said it might be a bit patronizing. These are very serious people with very serious challenges, and we're trying to sell them in a very serious way. And there's just this idea that maybe it was going be a little too flip. I wish I could say that it was fact-based, but I just knew in my gut that it would be okay if we went all in but we first tiptoed in.

2.  Pay close attention to customer response and feedback

But then we paid attention to customer response, which I'm sure all of you do. We were tiptoeing in with this and using Charlie more as a little design element, not talking about what Charlie can do for people or about Charlie as a platform or as a product name. We weren't totally personifying him yet.

But I threw this party, this VIP party for prospects. It had huge attendance and really surprised everybody. I made a six-foot Charlie cut-out and put it at the opening of the door to the event, just so that people wouldn't miss where it was. It was just a way to indicate where we were. And at the end of the event, a director of informatics came up to me and she gave me her phone. She was like, "I want you to take a picture of me with Charlie because I want to tweet it and I want to show everybody back at the health system."

You can't plan any better for something like that. So I took a picture of her. She is locking lips with a cardboard cut-out of the first iteration of Charlie that looked like a fat parrot. And then the CEO came over and our eyes got really wide and we're like, "Yeah. You know what? We've been too conservative. We have to go all in on this. This is going to be really effective, and why not be playful, right? This is the way to differentiate ourselves in a very crowded marketplace.” So we did a go all in because we paid attention to the customer feedback. We had some validation there.

3.  Make a strategic hire to execute our concept

I was a marketing party of one. I was so jealous of Josh saying that he had a whole team. That would be so amazing. I can't wait until I grow up one day and have a team. But I did have one hire allotted and I knew I needed to hire a graphic artist so that I could stop making things pretty on slides as my full-time job. I was initially thinking just a normal graphic artist. And here's where my advice is: "Be really strategic about that hire."

I knew that we had to go all in on Charlie. I knew that the line drawing was not going to lift him from the page. It was not going to let me really fully connect with people. I needed to bring this bird to life and go all in with him. So I hired somebody who is primarily a game illustrator and designer. He had some graphic design skills, but he hadn't really done page layout or web design or anything, but he had game design skills. And I was willing to sacrifice my slide decks and all those other things to bring on staff the person who would give the voice and the look to the brand, to Charlie.

To me, that was the best money I ever spent because I probably could have spent a couple hundred grand with an ad agency trying to come up with this character and we did it in-house in a week. So that little guy was a strategic hire and then I was able to do all sorts of really fun stuff with him because I had that graphic artist on staff.

4.  Go – unapologetically – “all in”

And when I say “go,” go unapologetically all in. I feel like this should be a drinking game: Every time I say “all in,” everybody take a drink. But I started writing from Charlie's tone. We made him a resume, we made him work badges so that when our customer implementation team went in, they were like, "Hey, this is Charlie's badge. He's now working for you full time."

When you're trying to automate a human job, to come in with just some really generic tech name feels really threatening. But these nurses, they love Charlie. They had these stuffed animals and they just really embraced him and they were like, "Yeah, what can Charlie do for me? How many more of my odd jobs that I don't like can I give to Charlie to take care of?" I also, pre-election, kudos to my CEO for letting me go crazy like this, I had this big VIP event and I was playing on the whole election theme and no one had won yet.

So I made a finch with Hillary Clinton, like a pant-suit on, hair slicked back, and then I made a Donald Trump finch with tiny wings and a long red tie. And the party invitation was, "Vote for who you think can fix healthcare in this year's election.” So it was either Charlie the Healthfinch, Hillary Finch, or Donald Finch. And that got great opens. It was like a 40% open rate. We had really good attendance.

5.  Have a lot of fun

And so, once you do something a little nuts, I think you have to just totally keep going and don't apologize for it. And I think people have a lot of fun with it, we have a lot of fun with it. Charlie now, as a character, has become a team mascot too, so it's sort of like a rallying point for the staff. It's the way we talk about our values, like, "What would Charlie do?" And so, it's fun for our customers, it's really fun for our staff and I think it's been a really refreshing take on the traditional healthcare IT marketing.

So the results. I don't have really fancy numbers like everybody else, but I just want to say, because this is about brand-building and brand awareness, I don't think I can necessarily track my web hits just to developing a character. But what I can tell you is that this is a picture of a nurse at a conference who came by our booth and just so ecstatic about this little guy. I mean, there's just so much dry marketing out there that she took that back.

I heard about a joke brawl that broke out in another health system because people were trying to figure out who had the most Charlies. And then, that picture on the right. I'm not a narcissist, I'm not putting that there because I want you to look at me, but this is another thing that my colleagues looked at me like, "You are so crazy. There's no way that's going to work." But at that huge trade show that I told you about, where 45,000 people go, how do you, as a small company, get noticed? And so Charlie is like my mechanism. I invited some media over to our booth and then I made these fascinator hats that the British wear for special events. And I made it with Charlie on it. And the media person loved it, took a picture and then it was a real coup because healthfinch was mentioned in the same article as Judy Faulkner, who is the billionaire owner of Epic, which everyone wants to do business with.

They probably have tens of thousands of subscribers to that particular post. And that came out daily, so then people were coming to our booth the next day and they were like, "Hey, we saw something about Charlie. Tell us what you do." So, he's not the be-all end-all but he was just a really fun character who serves a good purpose. It’s a great conversation starter, too, at healthcare conferences.

I'm really proud of this work and I would encourage you, if you can, push the envelope a little bit. It doesn't always have to be provocative, but maybe it's just playful. I mean, my marketing budget was $80,000 my first year and that included all the trade shows I had to go to, so I think I probably created Charlie all with in-house talent for a few thousand dollars and then about $10,000 worth of swag.