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Up Front | Nov 2002

Marketing Mishaps

The Business of Branding: LASIK surgeons can learn from the cattlemen's lore.

“It is not enough to appeal to reason and logic, we must also appeal to the emotions.” —Aristotle

Have you ever wondered why you instinctively purchase an item that costs more than another similar one, simply because you like it better? When you evaluate them side-by-side, you can see objectively that the composition is the same. But for some inexplicable reason, you prefer one to the other and come up with all sorts of reasons as to why it's better. Well, that's what branding is all about: emotion. And in today's world of so many “look-alike” products and services, it's never been more important for struggling refractive surgeons to work on improving their brand.

The term branding as we know it originated as a means of identifying cattle to their owners; yet its significance in today's business world can be traced to a Greek mathematician's words that are nearly 2,500 years old. Aristotle knew that decisions are made by emotion rather than reason. Today's brand marketing is a blend of art and science that has been studied in countless textbooks and B-school courses. The function of brand managers in consumer companies is to make certain their product is perceived as unique, special, and preferable over other similar offerings.

In reviewing how consumers respond to most of the marketing activity conducted so far in refractive surgery, it's pretty clear that the doctor is the brand of relevance for the target consumer. In other words, consumers considering LASIK make their choices largely based on the doctor rather than equipment, technique, or the name of the laser center.

Too many refractive providers have wrongly believed they could convince consumers to undergo LASIK based on a catchy-sounding technique or the newest technology. These messages try to build what's called brand equity by appealing to the notion that “newer is better.” Yet research continues to confirm that, relative to the importance of the doctor in the decision equation, these other messages can be somewhat meaningless and should be relegated to the backseat. Yes, we all have seen patients who walk into the office with reams of Internet printouts that argue for a particular treatment or device; most patients, however, simply want to make the decision based on which doctor they should trust to correct their eyesight. It is essential that refractive surgeons understand that they represent a brand, and invest sufficient time and energy into building value and equity around that brand.

In the good ol' days, if you did an excellent job caring for patients, the community rewarded you with a favorable reputation. Today, reputation is still relevant and forms the core of a doctor's brand image. However, that's simply not enough, because additional factors affect the patient's decision in choosing a refractive surgeon. Developing your brand requires that you pay attention to every element that influences a customer's perception and choice. In refractive surgery, these differences become meaningful because consumers are struggling with choices at two levels. The first level is, “Should I have the procedure?” The second level is, “Whom should I choose to perform the procedure?” It is the sum total of all your actions (or lack of them) that either needs to appeal to the emotion of your potential patient. In effect, your efforts at brand building serve as an essential first step in developing relationships with the customer.

Consumers rely on brands to save time in decision-making. Customers feel confident when purchasing brand name products because it helps reassure them that they have made a good choice even after having made the purchase. While great brands appeal to emotion, they also have the rational and logical “backup” that fulfills the product's promise. In refractive surgery, the product promise is crucial, because LASIK is purchased entirely based on a promise of future performance.

Without question, brand marketing influences our purchasing behavior. We are willing to expend significantly more time and money to purchase a branded product; these decisions cut across every category where we spend money. Look around and you will see a branded version of every product and service, from food to hospitals to mortgages. Does brand building for the refractive surgeon require a huge advertising budget? Hardly. It's important to note that some of the greatest brands of our day were not built on one dollar of advertising. Starbucks is a prime example, as the ubiquitous coffee provider did no advertising in its first 10 years of existence.

What options does the refractive surgeon have regarding brand building? Because branding is about relationships with consumers, emotion that defies logic, confidence in a product promise, and trust in the provider, there are ample opportunities to improve your brand and truly deliver on the promise of your refractive surgery offering. Here are several areas to consider:

What does your brand symbolize?
When creating your brand identity, be clear about your mission as a refractive surgeon. Whatever name, logo, or catchy phrase you use, it should reflect your values as a clinician. Equally as important, a brand cannot substitute for the need to provide great customer service. Consumers see through this pretty quickly, and your branding efforts will be in vain. Focus first on clearly defining “why we exist” as a first step to developing the qualities of your practice that form a brand in the mind of your current and future patients.

Make your brand visible and consistent
Once you've clearly defined a brand identity, you need to position it in places where it can be seen. A mission statement in your reception area is a good place to start. Your name and logo should be on all written materials and on all signage inside and outside of your facility. Does your business card reflect your desired brand image, or is it stuck in an outdated courier font and lacking an e-mail address? Does your office reflect your desired brand image, or does it say, “I'm too busy to make changes that would make my patients feel important?”

There are more ways than you can imagine to display your brand name and all the associations you want people to have when they hear it. Next time you stay in a hotel, count how many items bear the name of the hotel. (I recently counted 23 different items.) The key to branding is having consistency in everything that you and your staff members do during each interaction with a patient. Whether in person, on the phone, or over the Internet, your staff should deliver all promises that you imply through your name, logo, mission statement, or tagline.

Protect your brand
You must work to protect the brand equity you work so hard to build. This happens with both the “look” of your brand (eg, how your logo looks when it's put on staff uniforms) and more importantly with the “feel” of your brand. Because your customers essentially own your brand, you need to depend on them to hold you accountable for staying true to it. Regular surveys of customers—both written and verbal—should provide you with sufficient feedback to alert you when you are straying from the course.

Branding is more than a marketing strategy, because the process of developing and maintaining your brand becomes a core part of your business plan. A good branding effort will require you to focus on items that are relevant to your customer rather than to your personal interests, because the customer's concern lies in the famous question, “What's in it for me?” If you answer this question to the prospective patient's satisfaction, then you are definitely on the right path to having a lasting brand.

Each month, industry veteran Shareef Mahdavi looks at a different topic relating to the business of refractive surgery and explores how mistakes from the past can be used by all providers for effective marketing. He was formerly the head of marketing for VISX, Inc., and is based in Pleasanton, California. Mr. Mahdavi may be reached at (925) 425-9963; shareef@sm2consulting.com.
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