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Why the 'Phoenix Hospital' never rose from the ashes.

Before construction had even begun, Dublin's new €1bn children's hospital ran into immediate difficulty at home and abroad. Niall Corcoran takes a look at the importance of naming and the considerations that should have been prioritised in the branding of this major piece of public infrastructure.

This is what gives branding a bad name in the eyes of some people, what really sticks in their craw. Spending taxpayer’s money on naming the new children’s hospital Phoenix, only to find out it can’t be used. Some have argued that not only was it a waste of taxpayer’s money (reportedly €40k including design services) but it didn’t even need a brand name. National Children’s Hospital or some other derivative would have done nicely. Indeed, it’s hard to argue against that logic; albeit there is already a hospital in Tallaght called The National Children’s Hospital, which is one of the three major hospitals merging to form this new children’s hospital. Who said naming was easy?

Regardless, just call it what it is and then there’s no need to spend monies branding it. Except, that whatever it is called, whatever signage is put on the buildings, whatever communications are released, is, in effect, branding. A brand is formed. 

“The Children’s Hospital Group (CHG), who are overseeing the integration of these three hospitals, have an amazing opportunity here to create a brand with a strong, overarching purpose”

Children First

Ireland has not always done right by its children. In recent years we have become aware of the states and other institutions failings when it came to looking after our children. So this new state-of-the-art children’s hospital is a definite big step in the right direction.

But a hospital can be a scary place, especially for children. It’s an adult’s world, run by and staffed by all knowing grown-ups. For some incredibly sick children with terminal illnesses, it may become their final home. Therefore, it is our duty to create an environment that helps allay their fears, their worries and fulfills their needs. That speaks to them in a way that say we get them, we really do, that we care about them above all else. Above state, above doctors, above adults, above all other stakeholders. And this is why branding matters. The Children’s Hospital Group (CHG), who are overseeing the integration of these three hospitals, have an amazing opportunity here to create a brand that not only resonates with children but which sends a clear signal to everyone, that Ireland has a world-class hospital that has a singular purpose of putting children first in all that it does.


Unfortunately, by getting caught up in a public debate with the already established US hospital in Arizona called Phoenix Children’s Hospital, the CHG finds itself embroiled in controversy. There have also been many public arguments over where the hospital should be located.

Choosing to call it Phoenix suggests a lack of understanding of how valuable trademarks are and how costly infringing them can be. A simple Google search immediately throws up Phoenix Children’s Hospital in Arizona and of course any trademark attorney worth their salt most likely would have advised against the adoption of the Phoenix name. It was reported that Phoenix Children’s Hospital wrote to the CHG three weeks prior to the official launch, requesting them not to use their name, as to do so would result in legal action being taken. They still went ahead and launched. This has created, I’m sure, a vehicle of grievance for their detractors to beat them with. A public climb down has now ensued with Minister Simon Harris stating that they have agreed not to use the name. Unfortunately, this may only further fuel the opinions of those who believe spending on public branding is a complete waste of taxpayer’s money.

Most Important Stakeholder

By choosing Phoenix as a name, I feel the CHG were possibly ignoring the most important stakeholder in all of this, the children. Although the Phoenix bird symbolises long-living and regeneration, it also carries with it many other conceptions, some not quite so positive. Apart from sounding corporate and already widely used in this arena with the likes of Phoenix Gas, it is also suggestive of fire with the mythical creature dying in a show of flames before rising from its ashes. Possibly not the best conjecture for anyone having to spend time in a hospital. Going to hospital as a child, especially for major surgery, is a particularly frightening experience for parents and children alike. Surely starting with the name, CHG should have signaled that above all hospitals, above all other places, this hospital is a safe and welcoming haven for them.

Even if it is named The National Children’s Hospital, an overarching visual brand identity with meaning and purpose, created with children in mind to help make their stay in hospital a less frightening experience, should be the ultimate objective. When we look at somewhere like Great Ormond Street, a shining beacon in world-class childcare, we can learn a thing or two about how to brand a children’s hospital. Bernard the teddy bear with his purple hoody emblazoned with the recognisable GOSH kiddie-like drawing of a child crying is an icon of familiarity and comfort for children everywhere. It’s an added plus when your name forms such a child-friendly acronym.

Environmental Branding

The celebrated British designer Morag Myerscough brought her famed bright colours and Harlequin prints to the wards of Sheffield Children’s Hospital. Her renowned palettes are perfect for children’s bedrooms, but like all great designers, she really considered the ultimate user and therefore some of the rooms use a paler scheme to suit children with autism. She also considered older children, who mightn’t necessarily see themselves as children. “I also wanted to create somewhere parents would be happy to spend time too”.

Consideration was given to the materials chosen, working entirely with plastic laminate so as to be sterile and easy to clean. Besides these incredible colours and patterns, a defining feature of the space is its relative lack of visible medical equipment (cables and devices are hidden behind the Formica), giving the space a more homely feel. Creating an environment where children don’t have to be frightened. A child-centric place. Now wouldn’t it be amazing if we could approach the design of our National Children’s Hospital in this way. I’m sure CHG will. 

“A good name should be part of an overall identity that signals a brand’s purpose”

The Importance of Naming

Naming is not easy. When considering a name for a brand, it’s not just whether it sets the right tone or whether it helps with the identity. There are, of course, lots of other commercial considerations such as domain names, the requirement for trademarking and, most importantly, ensuring the infringing of other existing trademarks is avoided. A good name should be part of an overall identity that signals a brand’s purpose, that helps give a sense of meaning. When working on the brand for Ireland's new child and family agency, Tusla, we created a name that came from the organisation’s core purpose of Children First. By changing the name from CFA (a cold and somewhat faceless acronym) to Tusla, the werging of Tús, Irish for new beginning and Lá meaning day, the organisation was signaling to all that it intended to distance itself from the past (HSE Children’s Services) and create a new day for children in Ireland. Similarly with Intreo, originally given the overly long title National Employment and Entitlements Service, which would have been naturally shortened to NEES (this was 2012 and the country was on its knees economically), the word entitlements would have sent out the wrong message. Intreo (treo being direction in Irish) helps guide unemployed people back to employment by introducing them to new training services and potential employers. 

Where to now?

I sincerely hope that the CHG, in looking to correct the Phoenix naming error, do not try to avoid any more controversy by simply creating a watered down and somewhat expected identity. I hope they are bold and imaginative, and that they develop a brand that creates a truly unique legacy for care of Irish children in hospital. A world-class beacon that showcases our supposed creativity as a people, and above all else, helps to develop an environment in which children and their parents feel loved and cared for.

These are the independent thoughts and opinions of Niall Corcoran, Managing & Brand Director with CI Studio.