In the spirit of those insights, we present our Meet the Marketer series where we discuss the careers and tactics of marketers behind industry leading brands.
In this episode, we chat with Cynthia Neiman, Chief Marketing and Experience Officer at CHOC Children's Hospital of Orange County. Yes, she's both the CMO and CXO, a trend that's quickly catching on. Under the CMO plus role, Cynthia leads a 30 person metrics driven marketing, patient and family experience, and employee experience team. Tune in for a deep dive into her day-to-day, the challenges of working in healthcare, and look into the future of the industry. Stick around for stops along her incredible career journey from introducing IKEA to the West Coast to leading Mattel's first digital efforts, and turning Barbie into pure social media gold.
Tell us a little bit about your role at CHOC and your journey to get there
Reid Carr: Absolutely. Well, this is exciting times, obviously marketing and healthcare. I mean, healthcare has been certainly the subject of most people's attention for the last few years. But you're doing other things before that. Why don't you tell us a little bit about your role at CHOC, and then go into how you got there.
Cynthia Neiman: My role at CHOC is, my official title is Chief Marketing and Experience Officer. And what that includes is not only marketing and communications, but also patient experience, associate experience, customer service, concierge nursing, and just a whole lot of other things that just seem to come my way. When I'm asked, particularly with other healthcare marketing colleagues, how long I've been at CHOC, I've been there for five years. But I don't come from healthcare. And as I think about my career, there's probably three common themes. I've always worked in the kids and family space. So that, I think, is for me has always been important. Because I've always wanted to be in a role where I felt an emotional engagement to the products and services that I was marketing. So I've worked at Mattel. I've worked at IKEA. I've worked in the consumer video games and software space, always for kids and families. And so that's kind of one major thread.
Second thread is that I've worked at both large companies and small companies. And I really enjoy both, and I actually believe that working for one really helps the other, so that when I came to CHOC, having come from a smaller baby products company, I think when you come to a large organization, you can bring in a sense of urgency, thinking outside of the box, and questioning why things are done a certain way when people have done it that way for a really long time. On the flip side, I've been involved in two startups in my career. When I've gone to smaller companies from larger organizations, I think you can bring in a sense of discipline, strategic thinking, and just a real love of process that helps smaller companies grow.
The third thread I should probably see a psychologist for, I have left and returned to three different companies in my career. And what I like to believe about that is that I've always left on good terms and that people have wanted me back, or maybe there was some unfinished business. But it is unusual, but I oddly take a source of pride in that.
Reid Carr: That is unusual. So when you go from one... Have that little gap there. When you return, do you find things have changed or do you feel they're much the same? Or is there no real consistency there?
Cynthia Neiman: To things always change. So in the three instances where I've returned, oftentimes I've returned to new roles, which is always interesting. Or a new hierarchy or environment. But it goes back to that first thread of feeling emotionally engaged with the particular business. So I mean, Mattel was one of the companies that I went back to. And I left as the VP of Video Game Marketing and I returned as the VP of the Games Group, which was super interesting. And that ultimately, evolved into heading up digital marketing. And I think that the digital marketing piece for me has been just such a great boom to this second part of my career, because I jumped in pretty early. I think that the way I would describe it to people 15 years ago was word of mouth is the most powerful marketing you could ever have. And really all social media is, is word of mouth on steroids.
And I remember being in a board meeting at Mattel 15 years ago. And trying to explain to the board members why we needed money for this fledgling digital marketing department. And if you can only imagine, presenting in PowerPoint, and stopping the meeting, and going to a browser. And I had them pull up Amazon. And I had them pull up dental floss. And at the time there were... I mean, it's hard to believe, there were probably 2,200 reviews for dental floss. And my pitch to the board was, if you can imagine that there's 2,200 people who think enough about their dental floss to write a review, what they're going to do about a toy or a favorite game, I mean, it's just going to explode. So you really need to double down in this area because it will be big. And it didn't need to be a genius to make that call, but I just remember back in the day, it felt like I was taking a big leap.
From your experience, what has remained consistent in marketing?
Reid Carr: Yeah, I can imagine. Now with all the varied roles, and now you're talking about digital versus traditional where you started your career, what would you say is consistent, I guess, about marketing with all the variability?
Cynthia Neiman: That's a great question. I think for me, in the places where I've worked, it always starts with consumer insights. It doesn't really matter what I think or my preference, it really is the heart of the consumer. And whether you're marketing today, or 10 years ago, or 20 years ago, or 50 years ago, if you don't really understand what the consumer's looking for or make that connection to them, you really won't have a successful product. And I always love to look at the example of Apple in so many ways. But I think that oftentimes, they were not first in developing a technology. They just did it better in a way that the consumer could understand. So, I remember back in the day, my first job at an educational software company at a business school. And I had a computer because my roommate worked for Xerox. I had a personal computer and it was very complicated to use.
And I was put in an office, my first day on the job at this educational software company. And there was this rectangular box I'd never seen before. And there was this cord and there was this little small thing next to it. And my boss, who was the founder of the company said, "We have a bet going. We want to see how smart you are. You need to write a memo to me in 10 minutes, and figure it out." And I kind of looked at this thing, I went, "Okay." And I started playing with the little thing connected. And needless to say, it was the first Macintosh I'd ever seen. And the thing was a mouse, which I'd never knew what that was. And I started clicking and it was so intuitive that I was able to write the memo in two minutes.
And for me, it really shows really how brilliant Steve Jobs was with making something that was so easy for someone to use. And years later, when I was at Mattel, I remember going to their house of the future, they had this house of the future. And it was so bizarre. But you walk in the door and all these famous paintings are up at the really digital representations. And there was this massive table that was probably the size of a pool table, maybe even larger. And you could touch things, and they could move, and all these great and wonderful things. And later they told me they made a slightly smaller version. And for me, as the head of games at Mattel, would I make games for this thing? And I'm like, well, "How much is this table?" And they said, "Well, it's $10,000." And I said, yeah, that's so not happening. This is not feasible for any normal person.
Fast forward a few years later, I mean, Apple made the iPad. I mean essentially it was the same thing that Microsoft had developed years earlier. But they figured out how to do it in a small format where people could use it and found other uses. And I think that, for me, is just really the secret of marketing. It's making things that do things for people that they enjoy and want in a very easy to use format, where there isn't a lot of explanation.
Can you talk a little bit about insights that are changing the experience or improving the experience for patients at CHOC?
Reid Carr: And that speaks to your role as Chief Experience Officer, which we know is kind of a growing trend. But in your particular case, what you're talking about is that using these insights, building this relationship between product or service to the consumer. Can you talk a little bit about insights that are changing the experience or improving the experience?
Cynthia Neiman: I think for me, not coming from healthcare, I was maybe a little bit critical coming into the role saying that marketing and healthcare was maybe 10 years behind consumer products. I think, to a large extent, that that's changing very rapidly because people were willing to accept healthcare being that outlier, and being antiquated, and being sort of difficult to navigate. And once you start seeing Apple, Amazon, Google going into the healthcare fields, I mean, it's just been a huge wake-up call. And these are companies that really understand consumer insights. So for me and my role, it's always about the kids and families and how do we come up with ways to make things simpler, to make the navigation... To make an appointment easier, to get your records easier. And once you're in the hospital... Or we have two hospital locations as well as 22 primary care clinics. We want to make it a positive enough experience that you're not only going to enjoy it for you and your family, but that you are going to write that good review so that others will be able to want to enjoy it.
So for me, merging that the two together is so important. I come from very much a retail background growing up. And certainly my work at IKEA, I mean IKEA, it's all about the customer experience. I mean, it really is how they build those stores all over the world so that it fuels the imagination to see that the blue and the sofa, matches the blue and the rug, matches the blue and the curtains, so that they've just sort of taken the guesswork out of it. "Oh, by the way, you should buy everything right here." So I think kind of long story short, for me, it makes all the sense in the world that experience and marketing is put together because if you're making a promise through the marketing, you need to deliver it through the experience.
What are some of the tips and tricks you have for developing the insights that improve the customer experience?
Reid Carr: Yeah. So what would you say are some of the tips and tricks you have for developing the insights that improve the customer experience?
Cynthia Neiman: So some of it is learned by walking around, but more and more it's being done digitally. So we've just incorporated a new tool called Feed Trail. And it really allows us to get at the moment feedback from our patient families while they're in the hospital, and do service recovery immediately. For the last, I would say, from probably August through November, we had this massive tripledemic surge with RSV, flu and COVID. The numbers that we were seeing in our emergency department on a daily basis were roughly double what is normal. And it was very much kind of all hands on deck. But just the sheer number of people was making everything just so difficult for us. Implementing this tool that allowed us to see, "Gosh, there's somebody waiting in the emergency room whose child is freezing cold, and can we bring them a blanket?" Or that, "Someone's in our radiology department and needs a cell phone charger to be able to make a call."
Just those small things to be able to react instantaneously. We saw our scores go from a place that we never hope to see them again, really surge up quickly. And to be fair too, we really called on all of our team, not only volunteers, but even folks in administration. We were running coffee carts, and giving little games and toys out to kids who were waiting, sometimes up to eight to 10 hours to be seen in the emergency room during this horrible surge. So I mean, again, another long-winded answer. But I think getting those consumer insights has to be instantaneous as well as we do a brand tracker every quarter that really helps us identify awareness, perception, and really helps us benchmark against others.
Reid Carr: So taking that information and then providing blankets, and so on that you're talking about is that's also a dimension of trying to create alignment that people understand, "Therefore, if I have this information, what do we do with it?" And how do you get that threaded through the entire experience to the people who are delivering it? How do you create that alignment from end-to-end, people who have the insights down to the people who are delivering that exemplary service?
Cynthia Neiman: A big part of it is having a more cohesive and comprehensive team working together. So my team is now up to about 40. So having customer care and patient advocacy, I see insights of problems every week from that team. That really gets translated into our patient and family experience folks so that they know what to look for, what to watch out for. And when we get those weekly reports of issues, we go right to the physician or right to the department if there's a trend or an issue. It's pretty immediate because again, healthcare being what it is, while not everything is life and death, in some cases it might be. So the sense of urgency is very important. But another facet of healthcare that I really wasn't aware of before I entered the field, is it has a very deep culture in process improvement.
And there's a group that's called, performance excellence, in the hospital. And specifically, there's another piece to that where the person who runs that group invites associates to come in with projects to learn how to use performance excellence best practices to fix process. And that's also been hugely helpful that we see some issues. There was one in particular with a certain kind of, I guess, getting babies who were born across the street at St. Joe's who had some sort of emergency medical issue, getting them into the hospital even more quickly. And it was as simple as... In this case, I'm probably oversimplifying it, but it was pretty astonishing. Moving the label maker for the baby's wristband down to the appropriate floor, so that they could be exited to CHOC that much faster.
So when you really understand process improvement science, you look at every single step. And my days at Mattel, working with some of the factories to squeeze up a few pennies out of a product. I mean, you really look at where people are standing next to each other on the line. Same thing in a hospital. And we have a new physician, Dr. Sandip Godambe, who is an expert in process improvement. He's done a lot of work with Toyota and other organizations. And he's really leading the charge in this across the entire organization.
What are some of those things that you think are particularly unique to healthcare that are either a challenge to overcome or a major opportunity?
Reid Carr: That's fascinating. It's interesting that that's such a culture. I didn't realize that about healthcare. We know that there's some other dimensions of things that are unique to healthcare related to privacy and compliance, and some of the other things too. What are some of those things that you think are particularly unique to healthcare that are either a challenge to overcome or a major opportunity?
Cynthia Neiman: I think one of the first things I noticed is just how large the constituency is of people who you have to communicate with as part of marketing. So I think in my old life, it was very much kind of the internal stakeholders, my boss, including my boss, a board of directors, that was pretty much it. At CHOC, it's your internal stakeholders, which are many. There's associates, there's physicians, there's volunteers, we have donors, our board community leaders. Oftentimes we do a lot of work with the schools, the Orange County Department of Education. State and county leaders when it comes to advocating for specific needs that we have as a healthcare provider often for underserved communities. So just having to recognize and balance the number of audiences, I think is very, very unique. To healthcare, that isn't something I think a lot of people really think through.
Reid Carr: Yeah. It's tough to have so many voices in a room, particularly when it comes to anyone in marketing or whatever when you talk about messaging. But everything else you have going on, that's some complexity right there.Cynthia Neiman: Yeah, very much so.
What do you foresee in the future of healthcare?
Reid Carr: So, the final question I have, we talked about now what is consistent and where you've been. What do you see in the future related to... I mean, healthcare is so dynamic of a space with so many stakeholders, that's amazing, it is that dynamic, I think. What do you foresee in the years ahead?
Cynthia Neiman: I think there's really two big themes that for me, keep recurring. I think first and foremost is what we've all done as a society in the last three years with COVID. And it's a defining moment for a generation. And the need for mental health services has become... Not has become. Has been acute and has become even more acute, particularly I think for kids. We at CHOC opened the first intensive inpatient mental health unit for kids, I don't know, four or five years ago now. It was a hundred percent full then. So you can only imagine what's happened now. And it's not only the intensive inpatient unit, but also the ancillary services that the communities need. I mean, we just need more service services for kids and families in that mental health space. People are still recovering. Some of the anger issues that, you see on the road, imagine that being in a hospital.
So there's that piece for patients and families. It's also for the people that work at a hospital and work in healthcare. You can't diminish, I think, when you always look to hire people who really have that deep emotional connection. I always say we look for people who willingly drink the Kool-Aid. And when you care so much and you're giving so much yourself, it's a lot of sacrifice with your friends and family. And how can we provide more support for those folks is something that's always on our mind. So having a wonderful mascot in our beloved Choco. We've really had to change and pivot how we look at marketing to our own folks. So it used to be that when we would have hospital week or nurses week, it was just in the hospital and we just did a little something.
And now when we do some of these events, it's across our entire enterprise. And we take Choco everywhere. And even pivoting with new ways of celebrating folks has just been a wonderful challenge that... I love my team. And one of the great benchmarks has been how many folks are wearing CHOC branded gear. So we have a wonderful person who manages our events and also our gift shop, who uses great retail strategy of doing new branded merchandise and small runs so that they run out, so people can't wait for what's the next thing. And when I came to CHOC, I mean we were doing probably $2,000 a month in the gift shop. We're probably, gosh, well over 20. I mean, we had our first a hundred thousand dollars month in December. So I think that shows a sense of pride and something where we really do look at as a measure of what's going on internally.
I think the second big trend that I'm seeing is just how important telehealth is. And it's certainly made all the sense in the world during the pandemic, but there's some things, like telehealth, that can't put that genie back in the bottle. This is something that people learn to expect. Personal story when my husband was recently diagnosed with COVID, home task, whatever. And he was just like, "Well, I guess I'll go..." It was on a weekend. And he said, "I guess I'll go to urgent care or call my doctor on Monday." And I'm like, "Hell, no. Not happening." I said, "You need to get on your telehealth platform right now so that you can get the Paxlovid today. And that you can get that all started." And he's looking at me, "Just because you work in a hospital doesn't make you a doctor." Okay, fine, whatever. But he did it, got the prescription, got it started that day, and I would like to believe that it really helped him recover so much quicker.
Reid Carr: Yeah. Well, I mean, it's clear that you have a ton of passion for this as well as such an interesting background that brings a new perspective. So really appreciate you sharing all that with our audience. And if people want to... I mean, obviously CHOC is opportunity to donate to the cause. Is there anything that people should know about that?
Cynthia Neiman: Oh, wow. Thank you, Reid. Always, we have a really big appetite for adding more and more services for kids and families. And we've just are in the process of kicking off a new capital campaign to raise $500 million to add more services, including more mental health, more other types of preventative and clinical care services for our folks. But I think one of the things that we've also tried to do it at CHOC, and certainly with your help from a marketing perspective is, so many children's hospitals show sick kids who are really going through the worst of it. And I understand that, and that's their perspective. We made a pivot a few years ago to not only treat the sickest of the sick, but also to try to keep kids healthy. And so, I think by donating to CHOC, this philosophy of keeping kids healthy is really underscoring all that we do. And I love that a few years ago we launched a campaign called Long Live Childhood, because we feel so passionate about making sure that injury or illness just doesn't interrupt that magical time for kids.
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