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Branding: How to Keep From Being Plain Vanilla

By Stewart Gandolf, Chief Executive Officer

(Editor's Note: This article was adapted from an article in Dental Economics, though the principles apply to all healthcare practitioners.)brand branding

Let's say a new family moves in a couple of blocks from your office, and the mother holds a gathering for her new neighbors. At the gathering she asks, "I'd like to find a first-rate dentist for my family. Is there anyone special here in town?" How many of her newfound friends do you think would not only remember your name, but also be able to clearly elaborate upon what makes your practice different? If your practice is lost in a sea of sameness, you have a branding problem.

Sadly, a lot of would-be patients, still think dentists are all pretty much the same. The "sameness" misconception is not the patient's fault. If you want a truly remarkable practice, you must create a terrific product, and then communicate your points of differentiation clearly and consistently. Marketers call this branding, and it's vital to winning the dental marketing game.

7 Reasons Why You Should Brand Your Practice

  1. People prefer to buy brands because they reduce perceived risk.
  2. People buy brands for status
  3. People refer more often and more passionately to a brand they like and trust.
  4. You can build and accelerate your reputation through branding
  5. You can attract more of the cases you want through branding.
  6. Branding will give you a competitive advantage
  7. A branded practice will be worth more that a non-branded practice.

Brand vs. bland

Exactly who wants to be the plain vanilla dentist? Through the years we've spoken to thousands of dentists, and there isn't a single one who thought he or she had a plain vanilla practice. Each dentist could tell us something unique about his/her work, practice, staff, and office environment. Unfortunately, in most cases, they didn't focus this message into a brand, so, to the public, these dentists remained vanilla. .

Why should you care?

Well, it turns out that branding your practice has some very tangible rewards. People will happily pay more for a brand than for a generic alternative. Don't believe us? Look at your own family's shopping habits. You could save a bundle by buying generic cola, beer, paper towels, wine, laundry detergent, and more. But unless you are a very rare bird, you don't. You buy many of the big brands like everyone else.

Why? Because you assume, either consciously or unconsciously, that the quality of a name brand product is better. Your patients think the same way. In fact, if you and your office staff are tired of haggling with patients over finances, you can take the money issue off the table by creating a value-added brand.

1. People prefer to buy brands because they reduce perceived risk.Consumers know that advertisers invest a lot of money in building their brands, and hence have a lot to lose if they put out shoddy products. Therefore, people are not only willing to try a new brand; they are highly likely to stay with that brand if they are satisfied with it.

2. People buy brands for status. Sometimes people spend more for a product because it is more expensive. Think Mercedes and Rolex. While relatively few dentists are status symbols, it does happen. For example, a savvy few can claim to be "dentists to the stars," reality TV "smile makeover dentists," and nationally prominent experts.

3. People refer more often and more passionately to a brand they like and trust. Truly great brands achieve near cult-level loyalty from their followers, to the point where consumers actually identify with their brands. Graphic artists universally put Macintosh(TM) stickers on their cars to show the world they are "arty" and belong to the "Mac clique." Starbucks(TM) aficionados insist on having their "double half cappuccino with extra foam." Harley Davidson(TM) isn't just a motorcycle, it's a personal statement. Some argue passionately for Coke(TM), others for Pepsi(TM). Wouldn't it be great if your patients were this loyal?

4. You can build and accelerate your reputation through branding. We understand that many dentists are uncomfortable with the idea of "tooting their own horn." However, since your reputation is your most valuable asset, are you willing to leave it entirely up to factors outside of your control? Instead of passively waiting and hoping for a good reputation to develop over the years, you can actively mold and shape your reputation now, through purposeful branding.

5. You can attract more of the cases you want through branding. Savvy dentists don't try to recruit everyone to their practices. Instead, they target the patients and cases they want (e.g., cosmetically oriented patients, seniors, parents of orthodontic-aged kids, TMD cases, soccer moms, nurses, teachers, etc.). Branding can help you appeal to exactly the audience you want.

6. Branding will give you a competitive advantage. In a competitive market environment, which means just about everywhere, your practice needs to stand out in a positive and highly distinctive way because you are being compared directly to all others. Branding will help you stand out.

7. A branded practice will be worth more than a non-branded practice. For the reasons we've discussed, a branded practice will often do far better economically than a non-branded practice. Additionally, when it's time to sell, a practice with a great reputation and proven ongoing marketing systems will command a better price than a run-of-the-mill practice.

So what exactly is a brand?

A lot of the dentists we've worked with over the years were initially skeptical about the concept of branding, and that's understandable. After all, when you get right down to it, a lot of marketing people are fuzzy about the concept. It turns out that many marketers are guilty of focusing solely on thecommunication aspect of branding, and forget entirely about the underlyingproduct, which is more important. Even the slickest advertising won't save bad products. (Remember all those funny ads a few Super Bowls ago when well-funded, and now defunct, Internet companies advertised products which no one needed?) To add to the confusion, various authorities, such as marketing academia, consultants, and texts, all have slightly different definitions for branding. These include:

  • "A singular idea or concept that you own inside the mind of a prospect."
  • "The primary focus of your brand message must be on how special you are. "
  • "You're just anybody without your identity."
  • "Customers must recognize that you stand for something."

The two best ones we've seen are:

  • "A brand is the total experience that a customer has with your product, service or company."
  • "A brand is delivering on a promise ... consistently."

The good news and the really good news for dentists

Branding has long been pervasive in business, and it now extends to people (e.g., Oprah Winfrey, Jerry Seinfeld, Tiger Woods, Martha Stewart). These savvy individuals know they have to be different to stand out from the crowd. However, branding is not very common in private practice healthcare. Surprisingly, a large percentage of dental practices simply don't use branding to establish and reinforce a specific, reputation in their market.

So the good news is that most of your professional colleagues are not trying to brand their practices. The even better news is that the practice that successfully brands itself will take a head-and-shoulders, standout lead above the competition. Positive differentiation is the whole idea.

In service industries, including dental care, effective branding is about the entire experience and relationship that patients have with you and your team. When you communicate what makes you special, you are setting expectations -- a direct or implied promise -- that patients will get the benefit of your unique value each time they visit or call.


How to build a powerful brand

We've talked a lot about the necessity for branding and differentiation, but how can you actually do it? Your first step is to develop a positioning statement (also known as Unique Selling Proposition or Unique Value Proposition). Simply put, your positioning is: the position in the mind of the consumer that your practice occupies.

In other words, what is the one thing you want patients to remember about you, if they remember only one thing? We have to focus very tightly because prospective patients are exposed to at least 3,000 commercial messages a day. With so much clutter in the marketplace, you'll have to give up trying to be everything to everybody, and instead focus on becoming very special to somebody. Some famous Corporate America positioning examples include:

  • Crest™ fights cavities
  • Excedrin™ is the headache medicine (for the toughest headaches)
  • At Avis™, we're No. 2, so we try harder

How to position your practice in the marketplace

Your positioning is the unique competitive advantage that influences your desired audience to see you as their best choice. Before you come up with your own positioning statement, you need to know some ground rules. Whatever you come up with, your positioning must be:

  • True (if you say you're experienced, you'd better be experienced)
  • Differentiating (not saying the same thing everyone else says)
  • Memorable (you are competing with 3,000 messages a day)
  • Compelling to your intended target audience (don't look too expensive when dealing with lower-income patients, for example)
The good news is that most of your professional colleagues are not trying to brand their practices. The even better news is that the practice that successfully brands itself will take a head-and-shoulders, standout lead above the competition.

To come up with your positioning statement, decide what you would say to prospective patients who ask, "Why you?" Why should they come to you? How do you present yourself as different, better, and desirable from any other dentist they could call today? Why you?

If you can't answer, you're in trouble. Your practice is probably hidden in that forest of look-alike dentists if you haven't thought too much about it or you can't easily verbalize "Why you?" If you feel stuck, try asking yourself the question another way. "What do we do, and who are we for?"

Brainstorm a variety of answers. As you do this, beware of your own biases. While you may be very proud of your advanced education and technology, patients may be far more interested in how gentle, friendly, or affordable you are. And of course, chances are that some of your competitors may already be mumbling something about gentle, for example, so if you go that route, you'll need to find a unique way to say it and then prove your claim to the oh-so-skeptical public. Remember that your positioning will not be identical to your headline and slogan, though these may well be derived from the positioning.

Defining and delivering on "Why you?"

Once you nail your positioning, you'll need to deliver on it practice-wide, not just in your marketing communications. Remember, your brand is the sum total of experiences patients have with your practice, which is larger than your positioning statement alone. Put another way, your positioning is a logical argument for your practice, while your brand is the larger emotional response and image you are working to establish.

Everything must tie together -- from how your phone is answered, how long patients wait, and your choice of uniforms -- to your technology, your manner, your location (signage, building, entrance, furniture, colors of the walls), which services you promote, and much more. If you decide you want to be the "leading-edge dentist in town," you can't limp along with a 1970s Brady Bunch look-alike office.

Here are some critical brand-building points to consider:

Start with the patient's value system. Dentists (the seller) are likely to think in terms of equipment (technical sophistication, hardware) or clinical quality (skill level, training, peer reputation). But the public (the buyer) values service (access, amenities, ease of scheduling) and value-added items (product or service differentiation).

Effective branding communicates to the tastes, attitudes, and sensibilities of the buyer, not the seller. And the wants and needs of the buyer (patient) are mainly rooted in results: a whiter smile, self-esteem, improved appearance, and perhaps confidence in good oral health. Think benefits.

Identify a value-added edge over the competition. What is highly unique about your practice that delivers value to the patient over and above whatever else is available in the marketplace? Whatever issue you choose to compete upon, it needs to be the one thing that best characterizes the experience, and has to be the centerpiece for everything you do and say about the practice.

Be willing to offend someone. By definition, your positioning must be unique; therefore, you cannot be everything to everyone. The challenge will be to appeal to many, while recognizing that your positioning cannot be universal. Being everything to everyone is not unique, and that's the same as vanilla.

Guard your brand zealously within your office. Once you've created your brand, you should beware of the trap of carrying the message banner for others. For example, one of the authors of this article recently looked up from the dental chair and noticed a poster on the ceiling advertising a national whitening treatment. Since the manufacturer's less expensive over-the-counter version is available at every grocery store in town, we hope the manufacturer at least sends the dentist a thank you note.

Deliver a consistent patient experience. People prefer consistent quality to nasty surprises, and a brand isn't really a brand if the practice doesn't deliver a consistent, high quality experience. That's why it's easy to understand why budget-minded American students traveling through Europe often pass on local fare to eat at McDonald's. Remember, just a few negative experiences can blow your brand credibility and betray the trust you've worked so hard to build.

Deliver consistent branded communications. In addition to delivering consistent in-office experiences, you must effectively communicate your brand message at every marketing opportunity. This means your Yellow Pages ad, web site, brochures, etc. (Our next article will cover practice brochures, which should be the foundation of your marketing and branding communication.)

To summarize, when you create a powerful dental practice brand, you'll attract the patients, cases, and referrals that you want. Deliver your branding message consistently, and your reward will be consistent profit growth.


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