Branding rocks 'doc-in-a-box' shops

A brand will help you create the maximum amount of revenue per episode of care.

San Francisco-"Branding is the creation of brand equity, which is itself the value-perceived or real-in the minds of the customers; the sum of all positive and negative associations the customers hold that are relevant and unique to the brand."

That's how optical-industry consultant Steve Brewer defines branding, a business strategy that will become significantly more important in the ophthalmologic world.

Brewer and independent consultant Bill Gardner presented their views on the topic in their presentation, "Optical Branding: Investment in the Future of Vision Care" at the annual meeting of the American Society of Ophthalmic Administrators.

"Branding becomes important when you move past intrinsic value to emotional and intangible values, and that helps make customers stay with a brand," Brewer said. "We're already seeing the most radical element to hit healthcare-empowered consumers-and we've got to find a way to keep that consumer coming to independent eye care as opposed to going to 'doc in the box.' "

This is where branding becomes a decisive factor, Brewer said. "There's more competition than ever, yet the eye-care industry hasn't ingrained in the public mind why it's different to go to one location over another," he said. "As a result, Wal-Mart and other chains are starting to gain large chunks of the eye-care business."

Brewer asserts that branding makes decision making easier for consumers. "When a brand is firmly implanted in customers' minds, it becomes easier and more automatic for them to make the decision as to where to go to get the services or product they want," Brewer said. "One problem-but also a potential advantage-with the optical field is that people perceive it as a parity product. They have it in their minds that all opticians and ophthalmologists are the same. Because there is a perception of parity in the field, creating and establishing a brand might not be as difficult as it is in other areas."

And that leads to the key to effective branding. Done right, it helps make one practice stand out over another.

"You have to remember that branding is not a silver bullet, but rather an ongoing process that requires analysis, monitoring, and updating to be effective," Brewer said. "Coca-Cola didn't just create a brand 40 years ago and say 'Great.' They evolved and changed with the times."

'Sticky' brands

Brewer said an effective brand has the quality of being what he calls "sticky."

"Brand 'stickiness' means that it's immovable and ingrained in the mind of the customer, and here's an example," he said. "My father never drove anything but a Buick all his life, even to this day. For whatever reason, the Buick brand stuck to my father, and it's still sticking to him."

That same brand stickiness can be applied in the optical industry-and according to Gardner, independent practices appear to have an advantage over the chains and their doc-in-a-box strategy.

"Statistics show that 66% of patients would rather go to an independent eye-care practice than to a doc-in-the-box, and that there's a 70% likelihood that they would return to the indie, even if they have gone to the chains before," Gardner said. "Surveys also show that 65% of eye exams are performed by independent practices, but that 22 million prescriptions end up getting filled by chains. What that shows is that chains don't care about exams, which is why you see Wal-Mart offering $40 eye exams-they're out to sell frames."

The exam process, then, can be used as an excellent platform for building a brand, because it's a time to communicate to the patient why one practice is better than another.