Jonathan Fine emphasises the importance of being truthful when it comes to marketing treatments

I shared a platform with Martin Kelleher in front of 150 dentists in Belfast last year and I have to say he was one of the most entertaining speakers I’ve heard for years. Kelleher is an old school doyen of the profession, which in some way probably explains his instinctive suspicion of marketing in dentistry — which incidentally is what we were debating — and he comes with impressive credentials: consultant in restorative dentistry at King’s, past president of the British Society for Restorative Dentistry, former board member of Dental Protection and chair of its advisory committee for dental claims.

Kelleher is on a crusade against dentists overselling their services and he takes an especially dim view of anyone giving partisan advice that undermines their patients’ long-term dental health. He particularly dislikes the way marketing has misled short term orthodontic patients by promising incredible and sustainable outcomes. I first became aware of his position when I read his guest editorial in Dental Update this September called The ‘Uberisation of orthodontics’ — or how low can you go?

‘Truth well told’

In it Kelleher describes ‘the race to the bottom’ in orthodontics and he knows who to blame for the debasement of his profession — the marketeers. Of which I am one. But I’m afraid Kelleher may have a warped view of marketing because he’s overlooked a matter of critical importance: the difference between good and bad marketing. One of the key things that good marketing always does is tell the truth because it’s always more compelling than fairy stories. I worked at the world’s biggest marketing group for a long time and I can tell you that the founding principle at McCann Erickson is to tell the story well, never to make it up. Its motto is TRUTH WELL TOLD and there’s a department called Truth Central which pumps out quarterly reports that unearth truths to be leveraged in different markets across the globe. Leveraging truth is different from making up stories. It tends to resonate.

So what’s happening in short term orthodontics? Kelleher says: ‘The race to the bottom for the quickest, allegedly ‘great’ or bargain deal in orthodontics has reached a place that few would have thought possible even five years ago. The gradual ‘uberisation’ of dentistry in general, but of orthodontics in particular, has produced a raft of new and largely unproven claims for treatments, which are promoted with gushing enthusiasm and superficial short-term evidence.’ He may be right, but your practice doesn’t have to go the same way. If you stand apart by telling the truth you’ll only benefit when jaded patients differentiate your offering from the babble.

Put the customer first

There’s no excuse for poor marketing or dishonesty, and no need, but the fact remains that clear and authentic communications don’t happen by accident — they require rarified skill. That’s why you see a lot of poor marketing around (especially in dentistry) and why good marketing is expensive — it can change the fortune of a business overnight and it very often does.

I share Kelleher’s distaste for bad marketing and I know many dentists feel uncomfortable with the creeping retailisation of dentistry, but all retailing really is is putting the customer first. Bad marketing fails to do that and so my simple advice is this: be authentic and use messages you’re proud of, not ashamed of.

Jonathan Fine is the managing director of the Fine Company and is a renowned marketing strategist with an entrepreneurial flair and a big group background. Before he began specialising in the dental sector in 2010 he delivered projects for BMW, Tesco, Orange, Nestle and IBM, among many other global brands. His approach centres on bringing the lessons of big business to the independent practice owner. His knowledge of the dental and health sector, combined with decades of retail experience, has made him incredibly valuable to practice owners in an increasingly competitive marketplace.