The Story of Building an Aesthetic Medical Marketing Company
On a crisp Chicago Sunday, I had the pleasure of meeting with Dr. Steven Dayan’s practice manager to learn about a job opening. I was instantly captivated by her description of the practice and the young physician’s vision. He had a small but growing office and seemed to be oozing with creativity from the way the manager described his ideas. The doctor was looking for a marketer to come on board as the sixth member of his team with the goal of expanding his patient-base and strengthening his budding brand.
At the time, I was working in a marketing role with physicians of all specialties and was really enjoying the medical field. After talking with Dr. Dayan’s practice manager, aesthetic medicine seemed to provide an incredible niche in which to focus my marketing efforts. As I had learned early on, medicine was in many ways lacking in creativity, or at least the typical version of the creative process that helps many industries to flourish. Medicine appeared to be very rigid and full of strict regulations, due of course to the fragile nature of human life and the immense responsibilities placed on doctors. Aesthetic medicine, however, seemed to be a special industry because it was a segment in which the worlds of medicine and marketing weren’t just running side by side, but rather often overlapped. This created a new path for those that respected medicine, yet saw the overwhelming potential that marketing could offer for practice growth and development.
I left the nearly two-hour interview, and in true Chicago fashion, headed to Soldier Field. Even though the Bears played surprisingly well that game, I wasn’t able to focus on the scoreboard or the field. My creative gears had been put in motion around the possibilities I felt confident were awaiting me in the aesthetics space. I simply couldn’t stop my wheels from spinning and a few weeks later I started aggressively putting those ideas into action as the marketing director for the practice.
In most jobs, you follow a familiar path of learning to “crawl before you walk” and “walk before you run”, but not in the position I had just accepted. I walked in the door and instantly started sprinting to keep up with the mind of the doctor and quickly began to love the riveting pace. I also realized early on that I hadn’t just joined the practice to start a new job; it was apparent from my instant connection to the world of aesthetics that I had found a career path.
My first few years at the practice, as I describe in great detail in my third medical marketing textbook called DRIVE: The Power of Execution, consisted of 14-16 hour days at the office. I worked around the clock to put together patient events for 25 to 1,000 people, experimented with strategies to secure appearances on the local news, and created partnerships with neighboring businesses. I spent a great deal of time creating and optimizing an aggressive marketing plan designed to give the doctor’s brand maximum penetration into the city. This plan consisted of new marketing campaigns, unique guerilla strategies, aggressive public relations outreach, and numerous in-office efforts that would drive word-of-mouth endorsements.
The practice became like a snowball, growing faster and gaining momentum with each passing day. Marketing initiates that were successful spiked the phone calls, scheduling requests, and practice profits. Initiatives that failed, and boy were there many, provided important lessons and were either abandoned or tweaked until they could produce significant and predictable results. Over the next decade while we continued to thrust the brand forward, the practice grew to a robust team of nearly 50 staff members and expanded from a patient-base of 2,000 to 15,000 active patients.
In those first few years I was at the practice, the physician began increasing his lecturing schedule, requiring him to share his surgical and non-surgical techniques with his peers. From the podium of many national conferences, he showed samples of our unique methods for connecting with patients. A trickle of phone calls and emails from his physician colleagues began to reach my desk following these lectures. The doctors were sprinkled throughout the country and wanted to know how they could get similar marketing pieces created for their practices. Based on the growing demand, we formed a separate company, IF Marketing. I began to hire employees to consult with the practices that were contacting us. The orders from doctors quickly turned from a few to dozens and before long, we had created over 50 custom marketing packages for accounts across the nation.
The closet-sized office I had onsite at the practice started to resemble a clown car with 6-7 energetic marketing employees popping out each time the door opened on a busy clinic day. We eventually outgrew my office and in true start-up form, took on our own space in a less-than-glamourous office rented to us with the disclaimer that we were taking the space in “as is” condition.
We outfitted the office with old furniture donated from a neighboring surgical center that was being renovated. Given our budget, we had set up shop in an interior space which meant no windows or natural sunlight. Ugh, no windows! We decided to use stock photos and one of the popular practice marketing products that we sold (wall cling posters) to create “fake” windows that allowed us to look out onto beaches, European sunsets and majestic islands. It was indeed a creative hot-spot!
We stayed in that space for the next two years and eventually packed 15 employees into the 1,000 square foot office. We were lucky to find hungry, driven, intelligent, creative, and determined team members that helped the small aesthetic medical marketing company pioneer its way forward. There was an incredible energy in the office and the team created fantastic new practice marketing tools that delivered tremendous results to our growing number of accounts. As time progressed, so did the company. Our tools and services were becoming more sophisticated and we had just expanded into the Canadian market.
One of the biggest hurdles we faced when initially being introduced to a prospective client was their inherent skepticism for marketing within the aesthetic space. Many physicians and practice administrators that we spoke with had been “burnt” by consultants or past marketing programs. They were sold pricey plans or expensive pre-packaged goods and the impact on the practice was virtually non-existent. The conversations were similar to those with aesthetic patients who had been promised a facelift from a bottle of lotion and were grossly disappointed with the results.
Our strategy was to under-promise and over-deliver. We worked with each practice to understand how their businesses were truly performing and where marketing support could realistically take them. New brochures wouldn’t take a practice that was performing at a “D level” to an “A”, but we could help the D practice perform 10-15% more effectively and work with them to create a long-term plan to see more substantial results. As with patient care, expectation management was critical.
In addition to setting realistic goals, we found that our “roots” as a company gave us special insight into what practices really needed to thrive. We weren’t just talking about theoretical marketing concepts that we “hoped” would work. Instead we were able to walk down the hall to a real practice and put in place a campaign, talk to real patients, test and track results and then, only after seeing success, introduce the concept to our clients. From there we took the fruitful elements of each initiative and had our talented graphic artists turn them into “template” files that could be customized for each practice.
Perhaps most notably, it was our team’s job to show physicians and their staff that a brochure was more than a piece of paper, it was a powerful communication tool. This was our secret weapon. For our marketing to be successful with a practice, the office needed to embrace the fact that a simple piece of paper should “come to life” with how it was used. It could be transformed into a powerful aid that prompted dialogue between providers and patients. With a few small changes to how the office perceived and used their marketing materials, energy could be infused into each patient visit. Using the marketing tools, patients could be inspired to initiate product-based conversations, the staff could be supplied with impactful follow-up tools, and patients could be empowered to easily refer friends and family. The marketing tools were just a vehicle to help create meaningful communication.
It was our job to open the staffs’ eyes to their role in educating patients, building relationships with them, and ensuring they would visit again. The marketing collateral was simply a vehicle to ignite the practice on a unified mission to convey the physician’s brand, mission and beliefs. The tools were devised to help patients receive the right information at the right times.
Practice gift certificates are a great way to illustrate this point. Many offices would purchase custom “gift cards” that patients could buy as a gift for either specific treatments or as dollar amounts. At best, most practices would sell a handful of these a year and ultimately the piece of paper or plastic would have minimal impact on the business. However, if the staff was trained to properly use the tool, it could take on a new life and quickly become a bigger part of the growth strategy.
Let’s dive deeper. Here are three of the many ways the IF Marketing team would train a practice to add some muscle to this gift certificate.
Starting with internal marketing, the gift certificate could help with cross-promotion (introducing additional treatments to the patients). It could be given as a post-surgical gift, for example, and be redeemed for a mini or introductory facial with the practice’s aesthetician. This helps introduce patients to multiple areas of your practice and fosters new relationships between the staff and patients.
The second example involves reaching new patients or an “external market.” The certificates could be included in the gift bags of a local gala or given out at any community event that has attendees similar to those in your target market. An expiration date on the gift card provided a helpful way to add a sense of “urgency” to the certificate and encouraged the prospective patient to make a visit to the practice.
Lastly, the gift card can be used as a retention tool. Practices benefit from having “loyalty cards” that reward patients for accruing office visits or treatments. This increases loyalty and helps patients “work” toward earning something of value with each dollar they invest with the practice. When the patient has filled the loyalty card, the gift certificate can be given to the patient for a dollar amount or for a specific treatment, further encouraging repeat visits to the practice and rewarding their patronage.
These quick examples show how important education and execution are to the success of a marketing program. The training allowed the staff members to take ownership in the practice’s growth and we found they often flourished in their own roles as a result of this empowering experience.
Our approach was unique and part of what made our client engagements so successful. Case studies and feedback from practices can be viewed in detail through our “Applause Book.”
We believed so strongly in the strategy behind each tool that our company policy was to include virtual training with each marketing piece we sold, whether it was one tool or an entire suite.
This helped ensure the practice would get the maximum return on its investment with us and in-turn helped our marketing company continue to thrive through our growing number of successful client engagements.
Over the years, our custom packages progressed and became more sophisticated. The first kits we sold in the early days were literally pieced together by hand by a few of us on the team, many of the items actually cut, laminated, and packaged in our “makeshift” print shop. Eventually, we developed a smarter process that enabled improved efficiency, superior products, and quicker turnaround. We developed a great relationship with a print partner that handled the fulfillment and distribution to all our clients. We put in place “standard operating procedures” that allowed us to take on corporate partners that required large volumes of custom marketing packages. With many of our medical device partners, a complete set of tools was automatically included with the sale of their equipment, allowing for steady business and growth for us.
Thankfully, our partnerships allowed us to experience significant growth as a company, as we no longer had to market our services in the typical fashion; rather the reps and companies introduced the practices to us, realizing our services would benefit the physicians. Our team continued to grow and we eventually demolished a nearby old surgical center and built it into a state-of-the art marketing office that included a classroom for up to 30 students for marketing training that we offered aesthetic reps, managers, physicians and their staff.
We grew to a team of 25 that included managers, practice development specialists, graphic designers, web developers, account managers and copy writers. Again, we were fortunate to find exceptional talent that pushed and fueled us to eventually offer nearly 100 marketing tools and services, which can be seen here in a previous catalog that was distributed nationally to sell our goods and services.
In total, over a 10-year period, our print partner estimates that we produced and distributed over 13 million pieces of aesthetic marketing materials for use worldwide.
We had hundreds of orders shipping monthly and our business was naturally split, with about 50% of our efforts focused on serving individual practices and the remaining half focused heavily on delivering consulting services to pharmaceutical and medical device companies. Our consulting services included industry-specific training to help companies strengthen their marketing efforts, create new campaigns, and foster stronger relationships with their physician clients.
As the marketing agency approached a decade of servicing physicians, device and pharmaceutical companies; we realized that the next phase of growth for IF Marketing would benefit by joining forces with a larger company. We were confident that greater resources could truly take it to the next level. After meeting with several perspective buyers, IF Marketing was sold to a pharmaceutical company in 2015. Many of the tools and services are still offered today through a new version of the agency. Although I am no longer part of the company, bringing it to life and nurturing its growth was an incredible adventure. I will forever be grateful to have met and worked with such driven and talented individuals that helped the marketing company grow in ways we never imagined.
The ideas created by IF are still taught at many conferences throughout the world and the strategies are all available in the latest marketing book, DRIVE. This book shares hundreds of fresh aesthetic marketing concepts created through IF and serves as the basis for a complete practice marketing plan.
Today, my aesthetic journey continues forward as I work through private engagements with pharmaceutical and device companies as well as individual practices. I look forward to continuing to passionately deliver unique solutions and strategies to a field that has given me such tremendous fulfillment over the years.