At a macro level, the U.S. healthcare system is broken. On measures of affordability, access, outcomes and equality between the rich and poor, the United States ranks at the bottom when compared to similar countries. Bringing the conversation into the marketing realm, hospital systems and medical practices are infamous for lagging in the adoption of leveraging digital as a mechanism for acquiring new patients, largely because they haven’t had to. That dynamic has changed…but that’s a whole different topic.

While all of the above is well documented, there is a key lesson the retail industry can take away from something that hospital systems do an admirable job of, and that’s putting mission, values and purpose in the forefront of their communications.

Clearly, making a medical decision is not as transactional as buying an ink cartridge. And up until recently, retail brands could take a highly transactional approach to marketing and be very successful. But that reality has changed. The symptoms are everywhere. RadioShack, J.C. Penney, Sears, Macy’s…all announcing 100+ store closures. Five hundred malls closing since the mid 90’s with hundreds more sure to close over the next decade. And all of this occurring while the U.S. GDP has been steadily growing for the past eight years. What the hell is going on?

Yes, online commerce, smartphones and of course Amazon are major causes at play here. So what exactly can a retailer do to survive? This brings us back to what so many hospital systems have done so well, and for so long. Elevating mission, values, and purpose.

Trying to compete on benefits of speed, inventory, selection and price is a losing battle. Unless, that is, you’re selling product that a consumer cannot buy on Amazon. It’s estimated that 4 in every 10 dollars spent online in the U.S are spent at Amazon. Let Amazon and the big box retailers battle it out at the top. For the foreseeable future, Amazon will continue to win.

As for the rest of us, seize the opportunity to give consumers something else they are seeking – a brand they identify with and believe in. Understand that surviving today means accepting the fact that the transactional “last-click” mindset is no longer sufficient.

How are retail brands elevating purpose and values to connect with a customer base in a way that Amazon is not designed to match? Here’s an example in action.

Outdoor gear retailer REI does this exceptionally well. They take their mission of “a life outdoors is a life well lived” and infuse it into experiences that their customer base can get behind. From their gutsy move of closing brick and mortars on Black Friday to encourage employees and customers alike to spend that time outdoors with family and friends, to a more recent initiative where they are making the public aware the current administration is conducting a review of our national monuments and public lands. REI stands firmly behind its mission, and is offering the public ways to take action with them. This elevates the brand far beyond a transactional retailer, putting it in a distinct class with its customer base.

Now consider the 80 million Millennials who represent that largest segment of the population and workforce. These “kids” are expected to be transferred $30 trillion U.S dollars in the largest wealth transfer the world has ever witnessed.

Their generation, often described as the “purpose-driven” generation, values brands that are mission-based and who prioritize “making an impact” on the world around them. Retailers who understand how to activate their mission, purpose and values will not only have a defensible strategy to differentiate from Amazon, but one that will speak to the masses.

This is real, and it’s happening. And while much of the dialogue in marketing today is “those hospitals have so much to learn from retail marketing,” perhaps it’s time that retailers take a step back, and consider well-founded principles that successful hospital systems have understood for decades.   

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