As healthcare organizations continue to expand beyond their primary markets, building new facilities or acquiring existing ones, it’s vital that patients and staff have the same brand experience—no matter the location. Delivering a consistent experience in the built environment helps establish an organization as an authentic brand. When patients know what to expect from an organization, regardless of what service they’re receiving or where they’re receiving it, they’re more likely to trust that organization to answer future needs and to recommend it to friends and family.

This is called creating “experiential consistency” and it includes all the interactions a user has with a space, beginning the moment he or she walks in the door. Experiential consistency can serve as a touchpoint within the physical space, regardless of location, that helps develop long-term relationships with users.

Importance of consistency
Achieving experiential consistency begins with a strong understanding of a brand internally. All organizations have a brand, whether they proactively manage it or not. A brand isn’t what they say about themselves; it’s about what patients, staff, and visitors say or think about them. It’s not a logo or a tagline, but a promise about an experience someone is going to have.

Most sophisticated healthcare organizations have spent the time and resources to develop a relevant, emotional brand that might include everything from marketing materials to signage and graphics.

But problems occur when that brand development doesn’t move beyond the walls of the corporate offices and into the walls of healthcare facilities, where users have the most direct interaction with it. Furthermore, as organizations grow beyond a single site, it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain consistency due to multiple teams managing service lines and locations. Inconsistencies occur when leaders make decisions based on personal preference versus sticking to strict design guidelines.

Successful retail brands have been focusing on experiential consistency for years. Shoppers know that when they walk into a Target store, it’s going to look and feel the same in every location. Coffee drinkers pay more money for their Starbucks latte because they know it will taste the same in Dallas as it does in Tokyo, and they’re comfortable with the ordering and pick-up experience.

Healthcare organizations can learn from successful retailers to implement experiential brand consistency. This doesn’t mean that every single building or interior design needs to look and feel identical, but they all must bring a brand promise to life in a way that feels familiar and consistently connects with your patients and staff. Experiential guidelines define areas by their intended user experiences, such as ensuring the reception area is friendly and approachable or exam rooms are designed to make the patient feel informed and in control, in addition to their functional characteristics. Most importantly, they include brand-defining elements that are key features and spaces within the overall space that reinforce an organization’s key brand attributes. This could be anything from soft music playing in reception spaces to warm lighting in the exam rooms to vibrant artwork in the public corridors—each of these affects the way a user experiences the environment.

For example, in 2013, CallisonRTKL began working with Saint Francis Health System in Tulsa, Okla., to help the organization establish experiential consistency for its Warren Clinic outpatient locations. The design process began with site visits, competitive reviews, and stakeholder interviews, followed by an immersive design charrette. One of the key learnings was that while Saint Francis Hospital was highly regarded in the region, the Warren Clinic experience was found to be inconsistent and users frequently weren’t aware it was part of the Saint Francis integrated health system. To address these issues, CallisonRTKL developed experience guidelines that touched on everything, from the arrival sequence to the waiting room to the operational model, to reflect the Saint Francis brand values.

One of the brand-defining moments in this concept is natural light, so every public and staff area was intentionally designed to have direct access to light and exterior views of nature. The exterior and interior designs were also heavily influenced by the guidelines, with the exterior featuring a prominent “glowing light” of the Saint Francis brand color pink and the interior featuring a dynamic pink glass wall.

Operations were also considered when developing experiential consistency, and a clinic prototype based on a “plug-and-play” concept created a standard model that allowed for growth and flexibility. It also gave patients a sense of comfort and confidence when visiting different Warren Clinics, as they knew what to expect from every location.

Utilizing these guidelines, the Saint Francis team was able to create a consistent clinic experience across the Tulsa metroplex, with four new locations opened and 10 more planned for the future.

Getting it right
Developing experiential guidelines to create consistency can seem daunting, but it doesn’t have to mean a complete design overhaul of a space. The most important step is to begin with an audit of the current built environment:
• How does the built environment currently reflect the brand?
• What’s working?
• What detracts from the brand?
• What could be done to the built environment to better reinforce the brand?

Once an audit is completed, organizations should work with brand and design teams to break down the user journey by spaces and establish main characteristics and intended user experiences (both functional and emotional) for every part of the journey. Experiential guidelines should suggest a visual look and feel for these spaces that align with the core brand values, highlight high-level requirements for the space, and outline brand-defining elements.

For Warren Clinics, the guidelines outlined a warm, natural style at the entry and exit points to help patients feel welcome, while the clinical areas feature a high-tech, modern aesthetic to remind patients of the technical excellence of the Saint Francis Health System.

Approaches like these will yield a high return on investment when it comes to brand loyalty. An effective experience program creates hard-to-copy differentiation, more engaged staff, and patients who are willing to pay a premium for services because they know their expectations will be met every time they walk in the door.

Sarah Wicker Kimes is a vice president of brand strategy at CallisonRTKL (Dallas) and leader of the firm’s environments studio. She can be reached at