Dental brands: Why they are their own worst enemies
Like most industries, dentistry faces consolidation as the number of Dental Service Organizations (DSOs) grows. There are numerous reasons for this, but their growth signifies change happening in the category. What hasn’t changed is that dental brands still struggle to differentiate themselves enough to attract new customers.
If you’re a private practice, you emphasize the relationship between the patient and the dentist. You pitch your practice in terms of being like a family.
If you’re a group practice, you emphasize expertise and lower prices.
However, ALL of them use some variation of “smile” in their marketing, whether it’s the name of the practice or all over the messaging.
The overuse of “smile”
So when the DSO dental brands come calling, they just adopt the same messaging. Hell, one of the largest is named Smile Brands. But the market is cluttered with names like Bright Smile Dental Clinic, Prime Smile, Love Your Smile Dental Center and Happy Smile Dental & Associates. And hundreds of others.
The crazy thing? Patients don’t care. They don’t see dentistry as primarily cosmetic. They see it as an unimportant but occasionally necessary evil in their lives. In fact, most of them don’t even go to a dentist regularly. They just go when there’s an emergency.
So, basically, dental brands are just spitting into the wind. No wonder patients only switch if they move to a new city.
What the DSOs are up to
Let’s back up for a moment. For those who don’t know, DSOs are similar to group practices, only larger. They buy up private practices, slap their name on it (in most cases) and let the dentist continue his/her work without the hassle of actually running the business aspects of the practice.
They range from Heartland, which operates nearly 1,000 practices, to smaller DSOs like 42 North Dental (about 60 practices) and ClearChoice (a little less).
These dental brands represent the movement taking place within the industry. In some ways, dentists are mimicking doctors, who are increasingly becoming employees of hospitals, foregoing the headaches of running a practice. (Although in the case of doctors, their reasons are a little more complicated because of insurance reimbursement.)
As brands, though, these DSOs are more related to banks. People see banks as something they must have but don’t really think about all that much. And they certainly aren’t emotionally tied to them.
If a dentist says, “Oh, MY patients are emotionally tied to me,” then they are like the bank tellers who think the few people who come to the branch represent the entire target audience. (Dentists are fooling themselves if they really believe that.)
The weakness of dental brands
Why has dentistry become so weak emotionally? Because dental brands haven’t given patients any reason to think otherwise. Patients just see dentists as carpenters, who fix their teeth when needed, always look for ways to get more of the patient’s wallet and have assistants who overly chatter.
That’s the perception. And saying you’ll have a better smile only feeds into that because it sounds like a dentist trying to get you to buy something you don’t really need. Especially now that there are less expensive ways to treat the smile, like Invisalign.
The opportunity for more meaningful brands is enormous, not only because none of the dental brands have taken advantage. But, with the rise of DSOs, there are now larger budgets that can reach wider audiences. So you’d think you’d see more sophisticated messaging, designed to actually steal market share.
One of the more aggressive marketers in the category is Aspen Dental, whose TV spots have a little personality and focus on making a trip to the dentist easy.
While that’s at least different from messages of expertise, smile and a friendly staff, it’s not emotional.
Why current dental marketing actually hurts preference
Some group practices have been trotting out the message “catering to cowards,” which sounds like it was developed by a dental marketing firm sold to any practice that wants it. It doesn’t say anything about the patient except that they’re cowards.
Besides, our research shows patients aren’t really all that scared of dentists. The reason they don’t go often enough is because they really don’t care.
We’re sure that last sentence shocks many dental brands and their dentists. They, after all, entered this profession because they believe dentistry IS important.
But sometimes the truth hurts like a root canal. Patients themselves only believe dentistry is important when something has gone wrong with their teeth. More importantly, the messages around a great smile TEACHES target audiences that dentistry is unimportant.
What dental brands should be doing
The dental brands have basically dug their own graves by adopting messages (like “we’re a family here”) whose subtext is that dentistry here is not serious.
The dental brands across the industry can do so much better, and actually net new patients by redefining the category.
Better yet, they should redefine the customer. Who they are when they use you? If there’s one thing DSOs can do to make their brands more persuasive it’s this: Stop talking about your practices and what you do.
Talk more about the patient. But please don’t make it about their damn smile.