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Branding on a Budget

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Companies, large and small, are paying top dollar to create and promote their brand(s). They hire research firms to survey the consumer, consultants to interpret the data and marketing agencies to take the findings and develop brands, visuals, names and tag lines. The costs associated with this formal branding process can be significant. However, it is not an all-or-nothing situation. You possess numerous tools to help develop your own brand.

The following three steps have been modified for the ophthalmology practice based on what professional services marketing agencies provide for their clients.  

Step One: Learn Your Target Market - What Do They Really Think?
To better understand this first step, consider refractive marketing. Instead of focusing on refractive procedures for such a campaign, it makes sense to focus on the patient. Aside from the benefits of LASIK, what is the logical reason for having the procedure? What are the basic emotional reasons a patient might have for selecting your practice over one of your competitors?

Think of human nature. In other words, people gravitate to others whom they like, trust and relate to. Whenever I ask ophthalmologists why patients choose them, typically the responses include such reasons as reputation as a competent surgeon, procedure cost relative to their competitors and referrals from other patients. Sometimes these assumptions are correct, but more times than not a patient’s reasons will surprise you.

So, how do we learn why patients choose us? Surveys are one of the best ways to validate or correct our assumptions. After you have surveyed 100 patients, you will have a fairly accurate understanding of your patients' motivations. Some questions to ask might be: What was the most important reason you selected our practice? What did you like best about your experience? What did you like the least? Did we meet your expectations? Did we exceed your expectations? Please tell us how! Would you recommend us to your friends? Have you ever recommended us to your friends?

As an example of this in practice, I worked with a physician whose patients loved him and everything his practice did, yet the number of patient visits remained flat. Why? The office was in a location with a narrow driveway and underground parking. In this parking deck were large, poorly designed, concrete pillars. Patients (who were visiting this doctor’s practice because of their eyesight problems) constantly sideswiped these columns. However, the practice did not realize it was a barrier to increasing patient volume. While some patients would complain to the receptionist, this was a common problem feared by a majority of the patients. Through a simple patient survey, the physician discovered that happy and not-so-happy patients alike hated coming to the office due to the parking situation — almost every patient mentioned it on the survey.

After relocating the practice to a medical center, referrals and patient visits increased.

As this experience demonstrates, patient satisfaction surveys can be a tremendously useful tool for medical practices to create a profile of their patients and learn what’s working and what isn’t. (Note that this type of data should be updated periodically to maintain accuracy.) Once you have these satisfaction survey profiles, you can move to Step Two.

Step Two: Differentiate Yourself From the Competition
Now that you know how you’re perceived by your target market, how do you stand out from the crowd? People use professionals they like, and if their expectations are met or exceeded, they will refer you to their friends. Note that this is firstly an emotional decision based on whether it “feels right.” Then, and only then, do they justify it with logic.

Using the power of perception, however, it’s possible to influence what comes to mind when those in your target market think of you. By emphasizing certain differentiators, you can make your practice stand out. As Tom Peters says, “Be distinct or be extinct.”

There are many types of differentiators, as demonstrated by the following examples. Here it is essential to have the courage to be different.

Types of Differentiators


Leadership in industry:

Board of Directors, State Medical Society

Expert team:

Retina specialist; three comprehensive ophthalmologists

Credentials/Society affiliations:

ABO Certified; Member, American Academy of Ophthalmology


Patients will be seen within 15 minutes of scheduled appointment or a voucher is provided for a discount in the optical dispensary (could also issue a Starbucks card or similar compensation)

Personal characteristics of MD/staff:

Community involvement; sponsoring events that have meaning to the physicians; coaching children’s sports teams


Medical school, residency, fellowship

Practice size:

The most comprehensive eye center in the Atlanta metropolitan area

Pioneer status:

Caring for patients in our community since 1959


The newest, most sophisticated equipment

Specialization/Procedures offered:

Cornea transplants

Payment terms:

Financing options available


Optical dispensary


Open Saturdays and some evenings

Social/Environmental conscience: 

Physicians involved with charitable causes


Three generations of ophthalmologists

Visit the Web sites of other practices — particularly those in your community — for more ideas of what will help distinguish you. Which qualities would help you stand out from your competitors? You can probably find many applicable items, but use your patient profiles from Step One to determine what will be most meaningful to your target market.

It is best to streamline your differentiating attributes. If you provide too many, you will likely overwhelm prospective patients and come across as insincere.

Also consider which of the attributes listed above you’d like your patients to identify with your practice. Bear in mind that some qualities will be harder to measure, hence likely lack credibility. Claims such as, “we care for our patients” or “we have the best service” and even “our quality is the best” are difficult to qualify and overused.

If we look at some well-known brands, the strength of clear, simple message becomes obvious: Volvo = safety, while Apple = innovation. This is not to suggest an attribute such as customer service isn’t important to these companies, but it isn’t their core competency.

These firms have focused on one strong attribute and let everything else they do support that. The brands define the heart and soul of the firms they represent. They all stand for something, are authentic, and are unique.

When you have the data, you have logical reasons for promoting your brand. Otherwise, it’s words and pretty pictures that have no meaning or support.

So where should you promote your brand? Everywhere! Once you’ve determined which differentiators to emphasize, list them in your brochure, on your practice Web site, in press releases, in letters to referring physicians and so on. You might also develop an on-hold caller script to emphasize what makes your practice unique. And that brings us to the last stage of developing your brand.

Step Three: Be Consistent With All Facets of Your Brand
Now you’ve established the basic components of your brand, you should step back and develop your Unique Selling Proposition, or USP. It’s already there in what we’ve done to date, but what you offer should be explicitly articulated. What makes your practice different? What is your promise to patients? The keys here are to:

  • Target your market
  • Know thyself
  • Be unique, and most importantly…
  • Deliver

If you’re starting a new practice, merging with another practice or adding physicians/procedures, you need to consider whether the practice name is still appropriate. Developing a practice name apart from the ophthalmologist’s name will offer more flexibility in the long term, especially in the case of hiring a new associate or a practice merger/sale.

Remember, when brainstorming a new name. it must:

  • Be easy to spell
  • Be easy to pronounce
  • Have a URL available
  • Be available to trademark

Also, since your customers’ (patients’) decisions are 70 percent emotional and 30 percent logical, think outside the box — the more ideas the better.

Finally, “conduct an audit” of all your materials, both printed and electronic. Every “touch” with your patients requires consistency in the brand, both in message and visuals.

Things to look at immediately are:

  • Web site
  • Newsletters
  • E-mail signature
  • Business cards
  • Letterhead
  • Advertisements
  • Forms
  • Brochures
  • Signage
  • Event promotional materials
  • Press releases
  • Thank you cards
  • Uniforms
  • Giveaway items such as pens, caps and mugs

Make sure the signage to your office is clear and legible. Avoid using graphics, fonts or colors that are difficult to read or print that is too small or too busy. Since hiring a graphic designer to create a logo can be expensive, consider contacting your local art college and offering a cash prize to the student who produces the winning design. 

In conclusion, remember that your brand is your:

  • Mental imprint (with the customer)
  • Unique position (in the market)
  • Personality + promise

Branding is important not only in terms of creating awareness with new patients, but also reminding your patients what your practice stands for. By doing so, you are building patient loyalty.

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About the author: Keith Ducoffe is an author, speaker and consultant creating and managing marketing solutions for the legal, accounting, financial and medical professions. He has been at the forefront of strategic marketing for 30 years. For more information he may be reached at