I’VE never liked talking about the concept of building a brand to promote your practice.
That’s because I prefer a style of marketing called direct response. With this, you don’t waste your valuable marketing spend on “getting your name out there”.
That means not advertising in the oldfashioned print media; not renting billboards; not bothering with leaflets; and ignoring sponsorship opportunities. Which is good, as none of these activities helps to generate more business for an independent practice.
Instead, direct response marketing allows you to spend small amounts of money on marketing activities that directly drive new clients into the business. And these days that’s easier than it has ever been, using an efficient website fed with targeted traffic from Google and Facebook.
But increasingly over the last six months or so, I’ve been looking into how practices can improve their branding – not to win new clients, but to help retain them.
You see, for most people picking a new vet today, the brand is a minor influencing factor. There aren’t yet any strong brands to compare your practice to.
Over the next 10 years, Vets4Pets will become a strong national brand and will affect the way people think about independents, but that’s not happening today. And if you don’t believe that’s what is going to happen, ask any independent optician what they were saying about Specsavers 20 years ago.
But for those people who are already your clients; your brand will dictate how they feel about you in the longterm, and how willing they will be to refer their friends to you.
What is a brand? It’s a lot more than your logo, or your website, or the practice name, or a specific colour.
It’s about how all of those elements and more combine to influence a feeling in someone.
Your brand is the way that people feel about your business. Or, as the founder of Amazon, Jeff Bezos, said: “Your brand is what people say about you when you’re not in the room.”
When I look at the golden arches of McDonald’s today, I have a warm feeling towards the place. That’s nothing to do with my love of the odd Big Tasty. It’s to do with a specific childhood experience.
My mother ran a dance school, and every year she would put on a show to demonstrate to the parents what her pupils had learned over the year.
Over time my dad got involved and started writing scripts to turn the shows into fully-fledged pantomimes. My brother and I always got starring roles. For a large chunk of my childhood, this was an annual family tradition.
Around about 1985 when I was aged 11, we finished the annual panto weekend and my parents declared that it had been such a successful show that they were going to treat us kids to a McDonald’s.
And just like that, one Sunday afternoon, I had my first ever trip to McDonald’s. It literally blew me away. I can remember sitting in awe looking at the food, looking at my parents, and feeling excited at the impromptu treat for a job well done.
Deep down, that’s what McDonald’s means to me. Sure, it’s the convenience and the food that keeps me returning today. But it’s my emotions that dictate how I feel about the brand.
Your existing clients will have an emotional reaction to your practice. For some of them, sadly, it will be based around the end of their animal’s life (everyone has clients who don’t like consulting rooms where a previous pet was put to sleep).
For others it will be based around something amazing you did to help their pet.
For the rest who don’t have an extreme event to call on, they will form a gut feel opinion about the practice, based on a combination of different factors – including staff, premises, website, costs of treatments, etc., etc. Which is good, as it means much of the emotional reaction to your brand is actually within your control. There are four key ingredients to build a successful brand for existing clients.
1. Understanding of clients
Many vets have this. A deep understanding of their clients and what they want for themselves and their pets.
Ask yourself why they chose your practice in the first place. Why you, instead of all the others? You might even want to directly ask them that – though it’s a scary question to ask. Find out what they want and need, then give as much of it to them as you can.
2. Friendliness towards them
This may sound crazy, but being nice to your clients is a great business strategy! People are more easily influenced by people they like. And they are more inclined to like you if you like them.
Letting a grumpy receptionist sit and scowl at clients from behind a computer screen is bad for business in so many ways. Friendly practices are typically better businesses.
3. Honesty in how the business presents itself
You don’t have the perfect practice. No business is perfect. There are things you’re good at, and things you’re not so good at. Your clients will respect you and feel warmer towards you if you work to these strengths and weaknesses.
They might not know much about veterinary (as most pet owners don’t), but they know when the wool is being pulled over their eyes. You must respect your relationship with your client above all else, even if that sometimes means taking a financial hit.
4. Depth in your story
Why do you do what you do? Why are you a vet? Why do you keep doing it every day? Why this practice, in this town? The answers to these questions and more make up your core story.
Being a vet isn’t enough these days – people want to know your origin story. They want to know the answer to the question, “What makes you better than all of the other vets?”
Get enough depth into that story and communicate it clearly, and it will dramatically improve your retention; and make it easier for clients to refer their friends to you.