The following was written by Joe Bavonese, PhD.
Some therapists might recoil in horror at the thought of “branding” their practices. We are, after all, healers and mental health professionals, not hawkers of cosmetics and cornflakes. Indeed, to many of us, the thought of promoting ourselves and our practice seems crass, undignified, and, perhaps, a tad narcissistic. But we can no longer deny: the traditional way of getting the word out—a discrete ad here, a few hints to colleagues there, some folders or business cards sprinkled around town, even a website with your impressive credentials listed in chronological order—won’t remotely cut it.
In a sound-bite-saturated world of massive information overload, frenetic tweeting, continual advertising, and endemic cultural attention deficit disorder, having a brand that stands out is probably the only way you’ll have a chance of capturing the attention of potential clients.
Before we throw our hands up, let’s take a breath and consider what branding really means.
A brand is a marker, often personal, of the specific identity and special attributes that propels something—a product, person, service, organization—out of the vague, undifferentiated backdrop of “somethings” and “somebodies.” Your brand individuates you, conveys a meaning, tells a story, and elicits strong feelings.
You may be surprised to learn that you probably already have a brand; as a therapist, your brand is your invisible identity, based on how people in your community see your business. Your brand may be neutral, positive, or negative.
While that may sound straightforward enough, it took a long time and an impressive number of mistakes for me to understand that I needed a brand, then to figure out what my brand was, and how to hone it, sharpen it, and promote it to the public.
The Naive Beginnings
In 1992, I was the clinical director of an outpatient mental health and substance abuse clinic, supervising 15 therapists, seeing about 25 clients a week myself, and already looking for an escape. While keeping my day job, I found two therapist friends to share a tiny office and start a small practice on the side.
Initially, I didn’t have to do anything to promote my practice: colleagues from my day job sent me referrals. Soon, I was seeing 10 to 12 people a week, in addition to spending my regular 50+ hours per week at the clinic. But that’s when I hit my first snag: I had no free time. I wasn’t sleeping enough. Conflicts with my wife increased. I got no exercise and, worse, began eating fast food regularly.
Realizing this pattern wasn’t sustainable, I dreamed of quitting my day job and doing private practice full time. How hard could it be? If I were in private practice, I thought, I’d have more hours for all those new clients I felt confident would flow my way.
I decided, quite arbitrarily, that getting to 15 clients a week would somehow prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that I could succeed in private practice. Assured of my future as a private practitioner, I’d then confidently quit my job. And it actually came to pass: I finally managed to squeeze in 15 clients two weeks in a row, and I gave my notice.
Within three weeks, however, I’d gone from triumph to terror. I had hours and hours of open time slots to fill, but was unable to get more than 20 clients a week consistently. Without the daily contact with therapists at my old clinic, referrals slowed down substantially, and I had absolutely no idea how to promote my practice.
Eventually, my wife, an MSW, joined my practice. We both loved working to help people find more intimacy in their lives, and we’d always gotten great feedback on our work. To make sure we were concentrating on what potential clients needed in this area, we organized a series of focus groups. We contacted the directors of four local singles’ groups and found two couples’ meetings through a church and a synagogue near our office. We provided dinner for these groups, and asked them what types of services they and their friends might want. We asked questions, took copious notes, and got feedback on different workshop ideas and business names.
Without realizing it, we were taking the steps necessary to create a distinctive and viable brand.
Based on the focus group feedback, we started a drop-in support group for singles, an eight-week psychoeducational workshop for singles called Creating Lifelong Loving Relationships, and two workshops for couples. Also, we offered individual, couples, and group therapy. We chose the name Relationship Institute, with the tagline “Teaching the world to love.” This name emphasized the learning aspect of our approach, and conveyed the idea that singles who were alone and couples who were unhappy were not that way because of intrapsychic deficits, but because they’d never been taught the essential skills for healthy relationships.
We hired a graphic designer to create a logo and a professional brochure that told our story about how we’d spent a great deal of time in individual and couples therapy ourselves, learning how to have a more fulfilling relationship. It stated that we could now help others learn to do the same, but much more rapidly and inexpensively.
As therapists, we had all the elements of a successful brand: a unique visual image, a unique business name, and an emotionally engaging personal story to tie it all together. I was soon seeing about 22 clients a week in addition to running two groups and leading bimonthly workshops. Hey, I thought, maybe this isn’t so hard after all.
Necessity Is the Mother of Invention
We had our first child in 1995, and our second pregnancy the following year resulted in the birth of twins. I panicked as the carefully constructed financial spreadsheet I’d created unraveled before my eyes. My only thought was that I needed more clients – a lot more clients. At this point, I learned that having a good brand was necessary but not sufficient on its own for a successful practice.
In desperation, I searched nationwide for help and discovered a small business-marketing guru named Jay Abraham in Los Angeles. I reluctantly signed up; too embarrassed to tell anyone but my wife that I was paying for something 10 times more expensive than any clinical workshop I’d ever taken.
Soon I was sitting in a large, noisy conference room with 425 people at a hotel. The workshop, a sort of crash course in Small Business Marketing 101, created a sea change in my attitude and mindset. I discovered that I was a small business owner, not just a psychologist, and that I had to work on my business, not just be in it. The workshop led to a powerful call to action when Jay took the branding concept deeper by introducing the idea of a unique service proposition (USP), which encapsulates what problem in the world your product or service addresses and what its specific benefits are.
Jay also taught us the concept of the Lifetime Value of a Referral – every new client, on average, brings in a specific amount of money (your fee times your average number of sessions before termination, which for most therapists is more than $1,200). If you spend half of this amount to get a new client, you’ll get a 100 percent return on your investment. Really? I thought. Spend $600 to get one new client? That’s insane. But the numbers didn’t lie.
Difficult as it was to grasp at first, I found myself increasingly guided by the Lifetime Value of a Referral concept, and began placing expensive display ads – $300 to $500 – in various print publications. The ads used my USP-enhanced brand, along with the four-part advertising formula Jay outlined:
- Start with specific problem statements in the language of potential clients
- Follow with the benefits they’ll receive after a successful experience working with you
- Add unique features of your training or how you work
- End with a way to contact you.
I wrote articles for local publications, started a public-relations campaign targeting local media, and began tracking my referrals, income, and expenses with extreme precision. Within six months, my caseload was consistently averaging 35 clients a week, and we had plenty of money to support our growing family.
I thought I was doing great. Then my accountant mentioned two things: college education for the kids, and retirement for me and my wife.
Expanding the Brand
I began thinking of ways to generate multiple units of income per unit of time. One of my business coaches repeatedly said to me, “Therapy doesn’t scale,” meaning you always have to provide one office, one therapist, and one client to make one chunk of money. But scalable services can multiply the results of your work. You do the work once and your income multiplies from that point on, as with books, large group workshops, or DVDs.
After reviewing various options, I decided that hiring therapists to work under our brand was the smartest choice. The idea was that I’d generate referrals for the therapists and get a percentage of the fees collected. My income would rise as more clients were seen by more of my contracted therapists.
I’d embarked on a path I’d never have imagined traveling, but everything seemed in place. Thanks to my successful brand and Jay Abraham’s ideas, there were plenty of referrals for everyone. The problem was that since I had no idea how to run a business with staff, at first, I kept messing up.
I hired the wrong people—too young, too inexperienced, too controlling—or I paid them too much. I also wanted them to like me too much, which led me to overlook clinical shortcomings or unresolved personality issues. I didn’t know how to fire people who weren’t performing, and I wanted to do everything myself, which resulted in even more hours at the job and less profit than before.
After several years, however, I began to see the light. I kept studying business and management principles, hired office staff, delegated tasks, learned how to create systems to run the practice more efficiently. Soon my monthly passive income began to grow steadily.
As technology evolved, I took several advanced trainings in Internet marketing and discovered the profound opportunity that the Internet presented to savvy marketers. Instead of me reaching out to potential clients, they were now searching for people like me. It was a startling 180-degree shift. All I had to do was create an online presence optimized for local search, making sure that when someone Googled “marriage counselor” in any of the three cities we had offices in, our website would show up on the first page.
Using this online strategy, I doubled our practice in five years. Currently, at least 70 percent of our monthly referrals come from online sources. Our brand is firmly established in both the local and online worlds.
Creating Your Brand
While branding is central to business success, the best brands are an authentic expression of who you are as a human being. Don’t choose a brand simply because you think there’s a large pool of potential clients out there with a specific issue.
Ask yourself: What do you want people to feel and think about when they hear your practice name or think of working with you? What are you doing to create that in your clients’ minds?
In today’s world, technology makes it to share your brand with thousands of people are a negligible cost. Unfortunately, too many therapists still tend to be uncomfortable around technology – which limits their ability to connect with a vast Internet-based audience of potential clients. But there’s a simple solution: if you aren’t comfortable using technology yourself, hire someone who is.
A website costs less to maintain than the phone in your office, and high-definition video can be created, edited, and uploaded to the web for free using just a smartphone. You can tell your story in your own voice while looking directly at potential clients who are seeking the exact help that you provide.
As therapists, many of us still carry around the idea that our profile in the world is supposed to be discreet and modest. But that old attitude has become a crippling handicap. These days, our brand needs to be highly visible and energizing, offering an authentic picture of who we are and what we can do for people who need our services. It’s an essential form of communication that helps us attract the people whose lives will benefit from contact with us. And the more people we connect with, the greater the good we can do in the world.
Joe Bavonese, PhD, is the director of the Relationship Institute in Michigan and the codirector of Uncommon Practices, a service that helps psychotherapists create their ideal practice.
This post is based on an article originally brought to life by our partner, Psychotherapy Networker.
The full article, “What’s in a Brand?” written by Joe Bavonese, appeared in the Sep/Oct 2013 issue of Psychotherapy Networker magazine.