NHS trusts that do not grasp marketing opportunities in this era of free patient choice risk becoming 'sink hospitals, withering on the vine', marketing experts have warned.

Chartered Institute of Marketing director of research and information David Thorp said marketing had been given a bad name in the NHS by those who confused it with straight advertising and who propounded the belief that the NHS should start to operate "like Tesco".

Speaking ahead of the formal launch of the institute's report on marketing in the NHS, he said: "The NHS shouldn't necessarily aspire to the techniques of Tesco; they are not going to work in the NHS. But we should aspire to gain the loyalty that Tesco wins from its marketing."

"When choice is part of the game, loyalty comes into its own. Loyal customers may be demanding, but one of the greatest expenses a company has is attracting new customers".

GPs would be central to attracting loyalty, Mr Thorp said, but NHS providers also needed to apply the core marketing principles of market research, customer segmentation and delivering a coherent message internally and externally.

The latter meant ensuring that employees were aware of the organisation's values and projected these externally by "living the brand", Mr Thorp said. "That applies as much to a car park attendant as it does to a consultant. All your good work could be undone by one objectionable consultant who treats a patient like a piece of dirt.

"They must create experiences that will make the patient want to come back again and again."

Patient Information Forum honorary president Mark Duman said that while a lot of thought was going into providing patients with accurate and fair information, the presentation of that data was neglected. "The NHS does not engage enough with the likes of graphic designers whose job it is to get information portrayed in a usable way," he said.

HSJ's Fundamentals of Marketing conference is in Birmingham on 29 April.