We're number 1! Sort of . . .

March 19, 2003

By Greg Freiherr, Editor, gfreiherr@cmp.comOur first president started our love affair with being first. How could George the First know that the loving final phrase "first in

By Greg Freiherr, Editor, gfreiherr@cmp.com

Our first president started our love affair with being first. How could George the First know that the loving final phrase "first in the hearts of his countrymen" would change, thanks to waggish baseball fans in the nation's capital? "Washington: First in war, first in peace, and last in the American League" somehow fails to show due respect for that drive to beat all others.

But it should come as no surprise that companies competing for customers in the U.S. are in love with being first.

In December 2001, HealthSouth broke ground on what was to be the first all-digital, totally automated hospital. In December 2002, The Heart Center of Indiana beat HealthSouth, lauded as the first all-digital hospital to open its doors for business. Last month, The Indiana Heart Hospital opened amid claims of being the nation's first all-digital heart hospital.

Interestingly, the claims regarding these hospitals are popularized more by the companies that have contracts for the digital equipment than by the hospitals themselves. And the media lap it up-not just the local papers, but national services like Forbes and Reuters.

I've been asked why journalists don't question how there can be more than one first. I think it's because firsts make a writer's job a lot easier. Something happening first is newsworthy. That makes the story a lot smoother to write. You don't have to struggle to develop a clever phrase to pull in the reader, for example.

Why companies like being first is pretty obvious. If you're not first, then, like Avis Rental Cars, you have to try harder.

Rousing people's interest gets tougher if you're not number one. Look at sports. It doesn't matter what place a team is in, aim a television camera at the fans and you'll find a lot of single digits in the air. A few nights ago I was at a Milwaukee Bucks game. Some of the fans there had big purple hands with a single digit with "We're number one" written to help make their point. It didn't matter that the team was in fifth place.

The problem with all these firsts is that we're seeing too many of them. I'm worried they will lose their significance. What will companies do then? The answer might already be at hand.

I got an e-mail yesterday inviting me to see a company's short-bore 3T scanner at the American College of Cardiology meeting. I was told it's the only one of its kind.