Imagine you’ve got the best clinical team in the world, covering all the specialities, and a state of the art clinic with heavy investment in the latest CBCT scanner, CEREC and intra-oral cameras. A recipe for commercial success, surely. And yet it isn’t. Naturally this is difficult to fathom for anyone who has spent their adult life pursuing clinical excellence. To them the marketplace seems capricious and cruel, yet it’s not necessarily either, it’s indifferent, and the secret to commercial success now, like it always has been, lies in understanding your customers.
What motivates them? That depends on the kind of customers you’re talking about. It’s easy to gather demographic information on your catchment area to see who there is to target. If, like in the above example, you do have a high end practice, you’ll want to see a sizeable chunk of affluent residents. If your practice is more of a volume operation with lower prices, the reverse applies — you will want to identify the Ryanair / Lidl-type customers and go after them.
Clearly, these two types of customers have different motivations: one is price. One wants to see a reassuringly high price as proof of clinical excellence, the other is primarily looking for a low price. It might be that the two practices perform to more or less the same clinical standard. Unethical as it might seem, in almost all cases that detail (if it was ever verifiable anyway) is going to go over the head of your potential patient, who is simply looking for a plausible narrative to buy into. After all, this is their teeth, mouth and face we’re talking about — if authenticity and trust doesn’t matter now, in this transaction, they never will.
Humans are anything but rational when it comes to making economic decisions, less so when it comes to health, and even less when you add in the elements of fear, uncertainty and doubt. A large portion of the adult population are still terrified of the dentist and put it off until they’re in pain. There’s no point blaming these people for feeling scared, it’s just a fact that they don’t feel safe entering a clinic. That’s an indictment on dental practices everywhere, because the knowledge — the emotional knowledge — that dental care can be safe and painless could have reached these people years ago.
This is a communication issue that is not difficult to solve; the answer is better communication. In pockets of the UK these people are starting to be reached by chains like Centre For Dentistry in Sainsbury’s. And a nice example of a local independent practice that has nailed its communication is Smile Up, a seven-day referral hub in Lewisham, South London. These guys have taken a good look at their catchment and articulated a brand that speaks just the right language. It’s casual, loose and fun, thankfully absent of the universal jargon and superlatives that you nearly always find in dentistry. I have written the copy for more dental web builds than I care to remember and I can tell you that dentists on the whole are fusty and longwinded when it comes to the written word, and this is a major turn off to potential patients.
Anyway, the thing that matters — the only thing that matters — is that you deliver the right message to the right person at the right time. The Smile Up team knew what they wanted this message to be, something like: “Come in, we’re an eclectic mix of relaxed, friendly Londoners who are just like you. We get that you might be scared — if it helps, we probably speak your language.” I spent a day on site filming videos, and these were so authentic that the website copy pretty much wrote itself. Why? Because Smile Up really was what it said it was — even the patients said so. It was good to see the usual pieces of digital marketing sit within a wider communications strategy, as they should do. For example, Spanish is one of eight alternatives to English that you can choose on the website, and Smile Up gets a lot of custom from the local Venezuelan community by interacting on Facebook. The business manager Russ Roberts said: “The website nails the philosophical tenets on which our patient journey hangs. What you see there is what’s borne out when you walk through the door.”
Yet it’s quite normal in dentistry to see no communications strategy at all. Many practice owners still approach branding and copywriting as yet another task to try their hand at, however fleetingly and distractedly. It’s not always a bad idea for a business owner to make a first time foray into creative work that will have a direct bearing on their commercial success, provided the preparation and thinking is there. Not always, but nearly always, because communications — positioning, branding, messaging — isn’t a hobby, it’s the difference between commercial success and failure.
In a previous life, when my dad Jonathan was tasked with explaining why price is not the only factor in a purchase, he would trot out the following: “Imagine you are a Martian and have landed on planet Earth only to discover that all the primitive Earthlings rush around in tin boxes called “cars”. You realise you need one of these to get around and discover that although they are all essentially the same, they require different amounts of Earth pounds to acquire. In desperation you ask one of the Earthlings to explain the difference between a Ford Mondeo 2.0 and BMW 320 — both have two-litre diesel engines, four doors, carry five Earthlings, and travel 45 Earth miles per gallon of fuel — yet there is a 29% difference in price between the BMW and the Ford.”
He would then ask the audience to articulate the difference between the two products for the confused Martian. They would end up saying things like “well, the BMW is German”, or “more trendy”, “aspirational”, “high status”, “stylish”, “feel-good”, “more of a driver’s car” etc, all of which is meaningless to the poor Martian who, of course, buys the Mondeo and saves himself 29% in Earth pounds…
Is dentistry really different from all other consumer markets where price is one of many factors that determine a sale? Buying motivation is complex — why is it that we choose Apple over Dell? Why do we pay five times more to travel business class? We do so, happily, for lots of perceived reasons that are primarily about brand and positioning, which we articulate as confidence, safety and aspiration. This is arguably more true in dentistry than in other consumer markets because of the element of fear.
Authentic messaging that feels consistent throughout the patient journey is a powerful thing — as demonstrated by Smile Up, whose practice genuinely feels familiar after you have browsed the website. Don’t allow your digital content, or any content connected with your brand, to end up being a messy patchwork from sub-contractors. Blog writers and social media people love working in silos to their own briefs. Don’t let them tell you what to say. Make a communications strategy, and once you have it, tell them what to say. You are only going to lose out on new patients — and damage your brand equity — if you don’t.