We need to stop selling dentistry and start selling the benefits of dentistry, Kevin Lewis says.

Isn’t it strange when somebody says something that sparks a recollection dating back many years and which you discover dusty but intact in your memory bank? Where do we store all this stuff – and why?

Somebody was commenting on the UK’s latest national addiction to freshly made coffee in the take-away style purveyed by Starbucks, Costa, Caffe Nero, and the like. Apparently we consume something close to £9 billion worth of coffee a year outside our homes, delivered through 23,000 outlets. Of these, £4 billion is attributable to just under 4,000 major branded chain outlets.

While I, like most people, have the occasional morning when jump leads are required to project me into my day, I am not entirely persuaded that the nation needs this much of a caffeine hit. The commentator was offering the opinion that we aren’t really buying the coffee for its own sake – nor any inherent medicinal properties, even if they exist – but rather the way that having that cardboard container and its contents snuggling warmly in our hands, makes us feel. It is, she suggested, a triumph of marketing over logic in the sense that people like the idea of a coffee more than the coffee itself.

Britain’s other national addiction (to bottled water) does at least have a bit of evidence behind it, although the stuff that comes out of the tap does the same job. But for many people that bottle of water is as much a fashion statement as anything else. It says ‘I take care of myself’. The less admirable fact that it also creates a mountain of plastic to recycle and wastes massive resources in bottling it, transporting it, and in many other ways, is easy to miss but perhaps that mandatory clutched bottle is really saying ‘I take care of myself but stuff the environment and stuff the rest of you too. This is about me.’

But that aside, all those people walking around the streets brandishing headphones and bottled water, bristling with attitude and intent, are not on a personal mission to learn serbo-croat in 28 days while remaining fully hydrated. Nope – they took one last look in the mirror when leaving home and said to themselves: ‘That will do very nicely. That look is just perfect.’

Hope

Charles Revson co-founded Revlon Cosmetics and ran the show for 40 roller-coaster years. He maintained the firm’s success through the peculiar challenges of World War II, through the post-war depression, the swinging ‘60s and into the 1970s. Along the way he broke every management and advertising rule in the book (much of it would be illegal today) but still built a multi-billion-dollar cosmetics empire. Two of his best known quotable quotes were firstly: ‘In the factory, we make cosmetics…in the store, we sell hope.’ He understood what he was selling and sure as hell it wasn’t just cosmetics. Loads of other companies sold cosmetics and he was far too ambitious to compete with them in that pedestrian marketplace.

By all accounts he was a nightmare to work and deal with. Another of his classic quotes arose when a suggested softening of his approach was met with the uncompromising rebuke: ‘Look, kiddie. I built this business by being a bastard. I run it by being a bastard. I’ll always be a bastard, and don’t you ever try to change me.’

Bastard or not, Revson recognised that in any crowded market, you don’t come out on top by being (or appearing to be) the same as your competitors. You either need to be better or different. And here I mean better or different in ways that can be recognised and valued by existing and potential customers. Being better in ways they don’t realise or can’t understand or relate to, doesn’t get you very far.

Bien être

All these anecdotes are interesting and mildly amusing but their relevance to dentistry may not be immediately apparent. Dentistry still does a great job in core areas such as prevention in all its forms, relieving pain, dealing with infection, inflammation and pathology, and not least repairing and mitigating the damage caused by past disease and maintaining those repairs over time. But despite this unarguable success, few people crave dentistry itself – what they crave are the benefits that dentistry can deliver for them. Increasingly these benefits are holistic in nature, and what we are contributing to is an essential component of ‘bien-être’ (wellbeing). People who are given a reason to take pride in their appearance, feel better about themselves and soon become aspirational in other ways. This is not to say that all so-called ‘cosmetic’ dentistry is beneficial because the long-term biological downside will often outweigh any short- or medium-term aesthetic upside.

We should not delude ourselves into believing that this is not so in perhaps too many instances. Nor should we be in denial about the potential benefits of improving a patient’s appearance. When we get it right we can transform the patient’s life, self-image, and happiness.

The mouth and face is hard wired into bien-être. It is what stares back at us every time we look in the mirror. And when you add in the psychosocial importance of the mouth in kissing, smiling, talking, eating, tasting, and in so many other ways at work, at leisure and at play, we (and others) should take our holistic role a lot more seriously than we do. It stretches far beyond simply ‘cosmetic’ dentistry and delivers value to patients – and to society – in ways that the architects of the UDA system, or the commissioners of NHS dentistry will never understand.

It is the same kind of value, I might add, that drives £4 billion of business a year through the paypoints of the branded coffee outlet chains when every one of those customers knows that a much cheaper cup of coffee is only a short walk away. They worked out some time ago, just like Charles Revson before them, that the coffee is a means to an end, not the end in itself.

Given that in our case nobody really wants the actual dentistry, the sooner we stop trying to sell dental procedures and start selling the benefits instead, the better our prospects will be.

It is time, as they say, to wake up and smell the coffee.