For the majority of my life, I have had no concept of ‘brand’ in relation to a dental practice.
The dentist was…well, the dentist! The person I went to see every six months for about 15 minutes. My practice was close by and my dentist was very pleasant, but my modus operandi was always to get in and get out as quickly as possible without feeling any physical or financial pain.
Outwardly, the practice was quite anonymous – represented by initials, surnames and a list of meaningless (to me) qualifications etched onto a brass plaque that sat at the entrance. The interior was functional but lacking personality and at each appointment I was greeted by my dentist in a mask. My appointment reminders arrived on plain, one colour postcards with a hand-written time and date. There was nothing wrong with the experience (I stayed with the practice for 20 years until my dentist retired), but conversely, there was little that was memorable or worthy of sharing.
Back then, the concept of thinking of my dentist and his practice in terms of a brand was completely alien to me…as I am sure it was for the dentist and his team too.
It was a time when I was just glad to have a dentist – choice was not a major factor, shopping around was not a consideration.
How times have changed!
Today, I have a fantastic dentist – his name is Steve. I also know the other dentists and many of the practice team by name.
The dental environment has changed beyond all recognition, as has the process of finding a dental practice.
I settled on my new practice only after doing an internet search for a ‘dentist in my town’, checking out several websites and visiting four practices in person. At every step of that process, my decision-making was not based on the quality of the dentistry on offer – I could only experience that post-decision – but on the image, the practice was projecting and whether it ‘felt’ right. It was all about the brand.
The practice I chose has a very strong, very consistent and very customer-focused brand that everyone in the practice buys in to and believes in. The brand has become the culture, the culture is the brand. What’s more, I find myself talking about and recommending the practice to friends and colleagues.
Looking back, it’s interesting to track the changes that have taken place in dentistry from a brand and branding perspective over the past decade – they have been big and wide, but there is still a long way to go.
The new NHS contract that arrived in 2006 sparked a mass exodus of dentists disillusioned by the new terms on offer and frustrated by their inability to provide the level of dentistry they felt their patients needed and deserved. So, they made the conversion to private dentistry.
Suddenly, the tables were turned. No longer were patients grateful for just being able to see a dentist – now they were being asked to pay private fees and, as a result, their expectations changed. There was a mentality shift from ‘patient’ to ‘customer’ and that brought a new set of demands. It also put the ‘customer’ in the driving seat – the decision as to which practice they signed up to was now theirs not the practice’s.
Of course, the fall-out from this shift was that dental practices now found themselves in a competitive market, vying for the attentions of potential new patients. This also coincided with the early growth of the corporates – companies already switched on to the power of brand and branding and with a real need to create consistent communications across all of their practices and marketing channels.
But, from a branding perspective, it’s been a relatively slow burn. There were some early innovators, practices who grasped the branding nettle with both hands and invested in developing strong and powerful brands for their practices. They were quickly followed by the early adopters, those who could see the difference a well-defined brand could make.
Still, in 2017 the majority of dental practices have yet to embrace brand and branding into their practice, happy to believe that whatever has got them to where they are today will be good enough to get them to where they want to be in the future. A recipe for disaster if ever there was one.
However, the pace of change is quickening, and the ‘brand-wagon’ is gathering momentum.
This is evidenced by the rapid growth of dedicated design, marketing and website agencies springing up within the dental space. They have obviously spotted a growing need as more and more dental practices recognise that they are being left behind and that the longer they leave it, the harder the game of catch-up becomes.
But of course, a rising tide raises all boats. As the laggards make their first forays into the world of branding, their more innovative and proactive counterparts are taking things to the next level. The key question is, which group is moving fastest? Is the gap narrowing or widening? I suspect the latter.
The business of dentistry is, without doubt, the most competitive it has ever been. Customers have higher expectations and are prepared to shop around to find a dental practice that fits with their lifestyle and personality.
As such, developing a compelling, attractive, focused and unique brand for your practice is now not an option, it’s an imperative.
If you’re struggling, get some help. Bringing your practice brand to life will be one of the best investments you will ever make. It will differentiate your practice from the competition, help you connect more effectively with your patients and galvanise the collective energy and skills of your team.
Or, you can stay as you are, cross your fingers and hope for the best – is that really an option?
Les Jones is the Creative Director at Practice Plan, the UK’s number one provider of practice-branded dental plans. He has over 30 years’ experience of working within the creative and dental sectors in the fields of design, marketing and strategic consultancy. If you are interested in finding out more about how we help practices to become more profitable, call 01691 684165 or visit building.practiceplan.co.uk