Learning What Campbell’s Soup and Dr. Phil Already Know
By Joe Bavonese
For therapists, traditional ways of getting the word out—a discrete ad here, a few hints to colleagues there, even a fancy website—just won’t cut it anymore. In a sound-bite-saturated world of information overload, having a brand that stands out is the only way to attract potential clients.
I started my own private practice in a burst of optimism, but at an unpropitious time. It was 1992, and managed care had begun looming, King-Kong like, over the land of psychotherapy. At that point, although I was filled with enthusiasm for being a therapist, the idea of running my practice like a business seemed completely foreign, if not distasteful. After all, I told myself, if I’d wanted to be an entrepreneur and sell stuff, I wouldn’t have spent all those years getting a PhD in psychology. This, then, is the story of how an entrepreneurially clueless therapist came to accept the facts of financial life and, in his own bumbling way, sought an answer to the question all therapists face today: how can I ensure that my family and I remain solid members of the middle class—without selling my soul, or selling out my clients? At the heart of the tale is how he accidentally created a brand for himself and his therapy, and then learned how to promote it, consciously and consistently, through 21 tumultuous years of change in the psychotherapy field.
Some therapists might recoil in horror (or assume a fetal position under the bed) 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 before we throw our hands up, let’s take a breath and consider what branding really means. First, if you think that what you do as a therapist is helpful, worthwhile, and maybe even unique (after all, you are the unique person doing it), it’s a short step to believing you have a duty to let people know these things. How are all the people who’d benefit from your services going to get help unless they know where and from whom to get it?
In today’s world, the traditional means 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.
But what is a brand, and why would you want one, anyway? 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 and what you do from the huge, generic category of others. As a therapist, you may be barely an anonymous face in the crowd before developing a distinct brand; but now you’re visible, and your target audience knows what’s special about your service, and what specifically you can do to improve their lives. A successful brand conveys a meaning, tells a story, and elicits strong feelings. Notice what distinct thoughts, feelings, and images come over you when you think of these brands: Starbucks, Jon Stewart, Fox News, Google, Nordstrom. And in our own field, we have APA, NASW, Dr. Phil, John Gray, John Gottman. You may like or dislike these brands, but you know what they stand for.
Unfortunately, we often think of branding as a somewhat shady attempt to mislead, to sell something that maybe isn’t quite good enough to stand on its own merits (some of the iconic brands above may suggest as much). Branding, however, is about creating and managing an image and a reputation. Only when the product, service, or person isn’t so wonderful does branding become an act of inventing a false image and massaging a poor reputation.
You may be surprised to learn that you probably already have a brand. As a therapist, your brand is your invisible identity, perhaps built without your realizing it, based on how people in your community see your business. Consequently, this accidental branding may be neutral, positive, or negative. Clients might refer friends to you based on your excellent work with them. Conversely, they might define you by discussing how long it takes you to return phone calls, the techniques you use, your unavailability between sessions, how you tend to space out while they’re talking, the bland colors in your waiting room, the length of your sessions, the way your voicemail message sounds, or the comfortable furniture in your office.
So if you have a particular specialty, a unique way of working, a particular focus or interest, a record of success with certain kinds of clinical populations, as well as a reputation in the professional community and among former clients for doing genuinely helpful therapeutic work, then you already have an outstanding brand. You just need to clarify it and promote it to the people who could most benefit from your clinical expertise. In a way, you’re not just promoting yourself: you’re doing a service by letting your own light shine brighter so the people who need you can easily find you. 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 then 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. Not only had managed care invaded our clinic, but the owner of the clinic had a tone-deaf habit of creating a demoralizing work atmosphere, and I realized it was time to go. While keeping my day job, I found two therapist friends to share a tiny office and start a small practice on the side. This move was a breath of fresh air: no managed care, no boss, no one telling me how to write my notes or how to do my sessions. It was heaven!