Bringing clarity to the concept of branding

Feb. 4, 2011
Branding is an ongoing process. Ultimately, how the practice delivers on the promises made by its brand will determine its success, says author Daniel A. (Danny) Bobrow.

By Daniel A. (Danny) Bobrow, MBA
President, AIM Dental Marketing

There is overwhelming consensus that effective branding is an important component of a dental practice's growth strategy. Branding is an ongoing process. Ultimately, how the practice delivers on the promises made by its brand will determine its success. It is therefore essential that systems and expertise be in place to ensure quality and consistency of service.

To build and maintain a strong practice brand, it must first be determined what differentiates a practice from its competition. Next, the practice must determine its market position. Only when these have been achieved can the practice determine how to express its professional identity -- its brand. The practice should choose a name and logo that offers memorable simplicity as well as consistency and function. It need not be literal, as its purpose is to remind people of their positive experience with the practice.

The return on investment in a marketing plan will be maximized after the practice is equipped with a powerful professional identity, an understanding of that identity, and a market position. The sooner the identity is created, the more effective the marketing will be.

Ongoing monitoring through surveys and a willingness to continually evaluate and adjust systems and communications will ensure the strength and vitality of your practice brand.

The goal of this article is to bring clarity to that nebulous concept known as branding, the essential ingredient for creating and managing an effective dental marketing plan.

Note: If the meaning of a word or phrase is unclear, reference our dental branding terms glossary.

What, exactly, does it mean to build a brand? The goal of a brand is to provide patients with reasons for becoming a part of your practice. Fortunately, to successfully brand your dental practice, you do not need to be different from every other dentist in the country, state, or city. Your goal is to realistically differentiate yourself from others in your area.

People often equate a brand with a logo. While a logo is an important ingredient to an effective brand, it is but one of a number of touch points that convey the impressions, feelings, expectations, and emotions of your brand.
Branding is much more than a neat logo, catchy name, and clever ads. It is about everything you do to fulfill the promise of a superior patient experience.

A common misconception about branding is that a practice can choose to have it or not. Branding is an ongoing process that occurs in every interaction between your practice and audience. The only question is the extent to which you are in control of the process.

To answer whether you should brand your practice, I am reminded of what author Elie Wiesel said when asked if he believed in free will. “You have no choice!”

Out of sight is not out of mind
The belief that branding is not important can be costly. As David A. Aaker shares in his book, “Managing Brand Equity,” "Everyone understands that, even in bad times, a factory must be maintained … because maintenance needs are visible. By contrast, the maintenance of an intangible asset, such as your brand, is more vulnerable to neglect, to the detriment [of your practice.]”

Tangible benefits

It is the very intangibility of a brand that gives it so much potential value. While individual experiences with your practice are transient in nature (the services you offer will change over time), your brand is an enduring representation in the form of a unique set of feelings and impressions in the minds of your patients. This value is also important when it is time to sell your practice because the goodwill associated with it does not leave when you do.

A strong brand bolsters relationships with patients because brand loyalty is less the result of rational considerations than a personal connection with the practice and its team.

To illustrate this, think of a product or service with which you have a positive association. It might be a beverage, airline, restaurant, or car. Even if you have an isolated negative experience with that brand, for example, a flat and warm 7-Up, a delayed flight, or a poorly served meal, you will probably continue to have a positive association with that brand. In this way, your brand serves to immunize your practice against a patient's negative encounter with it, thereby securing patient loyalty.

Your brand serves to humanize your practice by presenting a “face” or “personality” in the form of a symbol. This humanizing function can aid in forming trusted relationships, which are the glue that binds your practice to patients. It's also the glue that binds all your marketing and communication tactics together, making your dental marketing plan greater than the sum of its parts.

Successful branding has benefits beyond building a strong association in the minds of your patients. By articulating what sets you apart from your competition, your brand is the benchmark against which all future marketing and patient communication can be measured. It also makes you and your team think about important internal and strategic issues, such as your practice vision, immediate and long-term goals, and professional values.

Identify your identity
You may be surprised to learn that creating your brand identity is actually the second phase of your practice's brand building strategy. To successfully portray your practice, you must first establish what comprises your individuality and identity.

Although in marketing terms identity means the visible symbols of an organization, product, or service, it consists of much more than a logo, name, Web site, phone number, tagline, or typestyle. These are merely the outward expressions of an organization's core identity.

To express your practice’s core identity, you must first identify its core benefits. Core benefits are all the positive and important experiences patients expect from your practice. Opportunities for practice differentiation include such benefits as:
* Needle-less anesthesia (“The Wand” or equivalent)
* Laser dentistry (both hard and soft tissue)
* Enhanced diagnosis and treatment of periodontal disease using protocols developed, for example, by PreViser and DentalETC
* Early detection of possibly cancerous lesions
* Digital radiography
* Cosmetics (Snap On Smile, Lumineers, Zoom, Brite Smile, and more)

Another great way to differentiate is to create an "off-core” benefit for your brand. Look for a benefit that is important to consumers but not (yet) generally associated with dental practices. Examples of off-core differentiation are the commitment of a practice to support a worthwhile cause, or to offer spa dentistry. Dr. Rob Wortzel’s Mountainside, N.J.-based Wortzel Integrative Dental Care actively promotes itself as offering integrative dentistry, which emphases "whole body health." This concept is gaining greater traction throughout dentistry thanks to such organizations as The American Academy for Oral Systemic Health (AAOSH). Visit

Other opportunities for off-core differentiation include:
* Nutritional counseling
* Diagnosis of risk factors for:
* cancer
* cardiovascular disease
* diabetes
* Spa dentistry
* Commitment to charitable dentistry, a.k.a. cause-related marketing

Note that today’s off-core benefits may become tomorrow’s core benefits, which illustrates the process of brand expansion. In this way, successful brands enjoy “immunity from imitation” because they have created a “community” based on more than quality dentistry.

Positioned for success
The next step in branding your practice is crafting its position, which is a kind of abbreviation for all that makes you unique in your area. The goal is to distill this into two sentences, one beginning with “To” and the second with “We are.” For example, our company's positioning statement is:

TO: Private practice dentists in North America wishing to maintain or accelerate the growth rate of their practice by maximizing patient value.
WE ARE: A marketing and communications firm specializing in dentistry emphasizing value, flexibility, individual service, and results, which constantly strives to exceed our clients' expectations.
Armed with your identity and position, which means you have identified one to three core messages, you are ready to develop your professional identity system, the outward expression of your brand.

A key ingredient of your professional identity: memorable simplicity
When developing your professional identity, keep in mind that people tend to use shorthand to deal with all the external stimuli bombarding them today, so don't expect people to retain or share detailed descriptions about your practice.

Cut through the communications clutter by simplifying your message. Your goal is to lay claim to a single and unambiguous quality, attribute, or benefit. Here are familiar examples -- “Ouchless” for Curad, "…saving 15% or more on auto insurance" for GEICO, and "fewer cavities" for Crest.

Happy days
To underscore the point, think about your high school days. Do certain personalities stand out? Do you associate a detailed description of those personalities, or are your memories a tad more succinct, e.g., the brain, the jock, the nerd, the dork, or the bully? Fair or not, one of the keys to a successful brand is memorable simplicity. In this regard, good, friendly, clean, safe, caring, and comfortable is the best you should reasonably expect.

Be sure to apply your brand consistently on your Web site, blog, social media, stationery, signage, and external marketing, because only through consistent exposure will mindshare, that is, retention and recognition by your target audience, be achieved. Just consider how many times you need to see a TV commercial before you know what’s being sold.

As you choose the final form for your professional identity, be sure to address such mundane but important considerations as:

* Logo dimensions: Will the logo fit everywhere it needs to go, such as signage, your Web site, social media sites, and direct mailings? If it is too detailed or longer than it is wide, you may have problems placing it.
* Color choices: These need to be consistent with those associated with your practice. Be sure you select colors that are readily available and easily reproduced by your printer.
* Background(s): The colors you choose for the background on your Web site, office walls, signage, and more must not wash out or clash with parts of your professional identity.
* Access to artwork: Having a strategy for storing, accessing, and editing artwork, such as at, as well as versions suitable for both print and Web applications, can save dollars and hours searching for the right file.

Designers who are given carte blanche to create your identity may not give necessary consideration to these matters, which can result in costly and unusable designs. Also, sometimes very important considerations are hidden in plain sight. This occurred with a client whose current identity, while professional, failed to make explicit reference to the fact he is a dentist. People thought the logo was that of an attorney, accountant, or M.D., but not a dentist. The best way to prevent this is to ask people to look at your professional identity during its development and give their opinions.

Delivering on the promise
Be aware that every time the following occurs, your audience is forming an impression of your brand:
* The manner in which an incoming and outgoing phone call is handled, both during and after office hours
* What patients hear when they are placed on hold, and how long they are kept holding
* The time it takes to answer the phone and how it is answered
* Appearance of the reception area
* Wait time
* Handling of insurance, billing, and other paperwork
* Treatment presentation
* Professionalism, attitude, and enthusiasm of the staff
* Overall appearance of the practice (treatment, reception, lavatories, exterior) and staff

Over time, these impressions build identification with certain perceptions that are retained by those who experience and share them with others. Remember that people will share good news with a few people, and bad news with many.

Certainly, the quality and consistency of your service will determine if your brand delivers the promised benefits. Only solid business management, interpersonal skills, and clinical expertise can guarantee this. But until a branding strategy is firmly in place, the rest is a well kept secret.

If your audience perceives that your brand aligns with their beliefs, they will want to join your community, in other words, make an appointment and accept treatment. Your challenge is to keep them. This illustrates the yin and yang of branding in that the brand generates interest, retention, and positive expectation, the practice experience reinforces these sensations, and the brand reminds patients of their positive experience. The circle is complete.

Daniel A. "Danny" Bobrow, MBA is president of AIM Dental Marketing, and is executive director of The Smile Tree and Climb for a Cause. For more information, drop him an email at [email protected]or call (800) 723-6523.