The perks of operating your own independent business are often outweighed by the enormous burdens that come along with it. You become a de facto marketer, administrator, HR specialist. You work incredibly long hours and no matter what category you’re in, you’re facing increasing competition, both for clients and talent from larger organizations. For the Canadian Orthodontic Partners, the burden on independent orthodontic practices presented an opportunity. Founded by orthodontists, the organization has brought an initial 51 independent orthodontic practices under one banner in a new national brand.
Today, we’re talking to Paul Abrams, Vice President of Marketing and Growth for the Canadian Orthodontic Partners and their new consumer-facing brand docbraces. Paul, thank you for being with us today.
Melinda: Hi, I’m Melinda, and you’re listening to Think Retail. The perks of operating your own independent business are often outweighed by the enormous burdens that come along with it. You become a de facto marketer, administrator, HR specialist. You work incredibly long hours and no matter what category you’re in, you’re facing increasing competition, both for clients and talent from larger organizations. For the Canadian Orthodontic Partners, the burden on independent orthodontic practices presented an opportunity. Founded by orthodontists, the organization has brought an initial 51 independent orthodontic practices under one banner in a new national brand.
Today, we’re talking to Paul Abrams, Vice President of Marketing and Growth for the Canadian Orthodontic Partners and their new consumer-facing brand docbraces. Paul, thank you for being with us today.
Paul: Thanks for having me. Excited to do this.
Melinda: Can you tell us a little bit about you and how you came to join the team at Canadian Orthodontic Partners?
Paul: Yeah, for sure. I mean, I’ve got a long track record and, you know, a lot of experience growing and scaling startup organizations, whether that be in tech or elsewhere. And, you know, when this opportunity presented itself to me, it was a great next step for me in my career. It’s a great mix for me in terms of an established business being orthodontics, but also the entrepreneurial spirit that lives in our organization to be one of Canada’s or Canada’s largest ortho-only-chain of clinics across the country. So, join that with an exceptionally strong leadership team, it was absolutely the right next fit for me in my career.
The first year has completely blown by. I can’t believe I’ve already been here a year. It feels like a flash in the pan, but you know, we’ve successfully launched a national brand and 38 of our 51 clinics that we now hold are under one national umbrella. So, to say that it’s been a busy year is an understatement, but certainly an exciting one nonetheless. I’d be remiss to say that your firm, SLD has played an enormous role in the success of the rollout of our national brand. Being our retail design and development firm, you guys have really helped us transform the look and the feel of our physical spaces.
Melinda: That’s always great to hear. And congratulations. It is an enormous amount of work to do in one short year, and it is pretty impressive that you’ve managed to pull it off. So, congratulations.
Paul: It’s been a good one. It’s been a fun one.
Melinda: Can you explain to us why the Canadian Orthodontic Partners came together and the goals of the organization?
Paul: Yeah. Absolutely. You know, it was really born out of the brainchild of our founder, Dr. John McManaman. Dr. John established a very strong presence in the Maritimes, you know, having successfully developed a network of clinics out there, which were called docbraces at the time. Dr. John is truly a visionary in the space and has always dreamed of creating this national network of orthodontic clinics across the country rolled up under one singular brand. Our organization truly believes that we’re stronger together as a national network than we ever could be as kind of single entities across the country. And that really makes for a truly unique experience, not only for our patients but for our team members as well. They get to be a part of something bigger than just their own clinic, which was just pretty impactful. Our vision as Canadian Orthodontic Partners is to become the icon of orthodontic excellence in Canada. And we do that built on the foundational core of our values being trust, learning, confidence, and community. You know, we paved a very strong presence in the Canadian marketplace already, and we look forward to building on that success in the years to come.
Melinda: Can you expand a little bit on, if I’m an independent practitioner, what are the benefits of partnering with COP?
Paul: Yeah. Great question. And to be honest, it’s never been more evident to us than in the past three months during this horrible pandemic that the world is going through. I can’t tell you the number of solo practitioners that have reached out to us during this time for support, not even in our network and looking for learnings and things of that nature that we can help them with. And we’ve been very open to discussing with them. But for solo practitioners, it’s really about removing that administrative burden or the business burden that comes along with running your own clinic. We know that most of these orthodontists have gone to school and really want to get into their clinic to provide superior patient care. What COP then provides by partnering with these clinics is, you know, it immediately removes things like marketing, HR, staff training, turnover, all of those kinds of administrative support roles, and functions that the doctor usually has to do themselves. It really gives that all back to COP to run and manage the clinic and thereby the clinical team and the doctor really get to concentrate on patient care, which is their number one priority.
Melinda: You answered my next question because I was going to ask you how it does support better patient care. Do you want to expand on that at all?
Paul: Yeah. I mean, absolutely. As I mentioned earlier, the clinic team really, by partnering with COP, gets to be a part of something bigger than themselves. And we really foster that learning environment and that peer learning and best practices environment across our network. So, a clinical team in Victoria can share their best practices with the clinical team in Moncton and vice versa all across the country. So, you really get this kind of peer-to-peer learning that allows them to elevate their patient care across the network irrespective of where they might reside.
Melinda: With more than 50 practices, many that were operating for a very long time, very successfully, finding a united brand identity must’ve been a really big challenge. So, what were some of the hurdles that you faced in getting everybody on the same page and how did you overcome them?
Paul: Yeah. Absolutely. Like integrating one brand into another brand is difficult. But when you’re trying to create one national unity across 51 clinics and 51 separate brands has been a monstrous effort by the entire team. You know, we were very sensitive, and this goes back to one of our core values is making sure that we’re deeply integrated into the community. We know that many of these orthodontics and these clinics, you know, some might have been there for one, two, three generations. We were dealing with some orthodontists that had a very strong footprint in their local communities. So, being true to that and true to our values, making sure that this brand represented not only a national brand, but was staying true to the core values of that clinic, of that doctor, and maintaining that relationship with the community was, was very, very important.
You know, our Chief Development Officer, Mike Black, and Dr. John do a lot of kind of the early-stage preparations in dealing with doctors and bringing on new clinics to our network. So, as much as we look for successful practices to bring under the COP umbrella, we’re also looking for a strong fit. So, “does this doctor exude the same values as we do as an organization?” There needs to be a strong fit there from a personality perspective and we are quite selective during that courting process and integration process to make sure that there is a strong fit for brand alignment.
Melinda: So, the new brand, the consumer-facing brand is called docbraces. And I’m going to describe it a little bit here, and then I’ll post some images on the website page where this podcast will live so people can actually take a look at it. So, the name, the look, and the feel of the brand, it’s very playful, but it’s still clean and very modern. The grounding color is this teal blue. It’s got a little bit of depth. It’s accented by some other blue-green tones with some apricot, melon, guava notes. So, it’s colorful, but it’s still subdued. There are a lot of fun smile graphics. Again, they’re playful, but they’re still clever. So, it’s sort of kid and adults-friendly, not just kid-focused. And then we have a lot of white, natural wood tones to make it feel really light, clean, and sort of smart. Can you tell us a little bit how this direction was chosen and what it all means?
Paul: I love to hear any replay of the brand to me. I mean, I live in it every single day, but to hear articulate using the word guava and I don’t know, just send shivers up my spine from a brand marketing guy. I love hearing it played back to me.
It’s been fun. Yeah. I mean, core to what we do is we create smiles and we want to instill confidence in our patients by delivering them the beautiful smile that they’ve always dreamed of. So, we wanted our brand to reflect that positivity, that enthusiasm, that hope through our national brand of docbraces. And, you know, SLD and the work that we did with you guys really played a pivotal role in getting us to that point. You guys were instrumental in the creation and implementation of our new docbraces brand across the country.
And you know, that the creation of the logo and the color palette really was only just the beginning. SLD helped facilitate a very complex and multi-day retail design workshop where we explored kind of four different themes that we wanted to take the brand. And key stakeholders from across our network were involved in this process, including doctors, clinicians, people from our support service team as well, all came together in these focus groups and really built out and debated and talked about these kind of four different areas that we wanted to look at. From that process, we then whittled it down to two kind of directions. And then finally, we landed on, through a bunch of different iterations, one key focus.
And the result, as you described from a brand perspective, but from a retail execution perspective and development perspective, was really this kind of beautiful modern clinic that incorporated what we called…you know, I think it had something to do with Apple. But it was like the clean lines and that middle noise look of an Apple Store with the warmth and caring nature of the docbraces brand. At our core of our brand from a docbraces perspective, we pride ourselves on our expertise as orthodontists. The confidence that I talked about, that comes out in our patients when they see that brand new smile. And then spirited care is also a core brand DNA of ours. You know, the retail design was absolutely a perfect articulation of all three of those core brand DNA principles. And now is a perfect reflection of our clinical footprint.
Melinda: So, a little bit of a different subject here. But change management is something that we often, sort of, are involved in somewhere or the other at SLD. So, we know how tricky it is to bring even just two entities together, but you have more than 50. And so, beyond the physical appearance and the brand platform, how do you approach shifting things like operations and service?
Paul: Yeah. A great question. I mean, we’re very cognizant as part of our integration process. So, when we out and acquire a new clinic and partner with a new clinic, you know, we’re very cognizant that we’re not going to go in there and uproot everything on day one. There’s a reason why we wanted to partner with this clinic in the first place. You know, they’re seemingly very successful in what they’re doing already. Just so to go in there and say, “We’re going to do, you know, A, B, C, D, E, and F in day one,” it just doesn’t make a lot of sense and really isn’t core to how we operate as an organization. So, you know, as much as we want to go in there and instill the COP way of doing things, we really do a very calculated integration process whereby, you know, we go in and we assess what they’re doing. We know a lot of that through the due diligence process, but you know, how they’re working with their patients and then very systematically develop and roll out our set of protocols to the clinic.
Going in there and uprooting things doesn’t help anybody from a change management perspective and buying in to, you know, this new brand that they’re becoming part of. And for many of these clinicians and folks that work in our clinics, they’ve only worked and reported to the doctor for their entire career. So, now being part of a large corporate entity, we want to make sure that that process is very methodical and making sure that they’re well-loved from day one. So, as much as we have standards and scorecards and things that we want to drive business results from, that is very much secondary or even tertiary to making sure that they feel a part of the COP family on day one.
Melinda: So, if I understand what you’re saying, if I’m an established practice and we have certain things that we’re doing, there’s a little bit of room for people to do things their way still, even underneath the COP banner?
Paul: Absolutely. I mean, while we have our standard processes and things that we like to see implemented in the clinic, the nature of our network allows for continuous learning and development and shared best practices. So, who’s the say that, you know, so I might not be the best at X in the country and, you know, we’re just partnering with that clinic now. So, to actually go in there and learn and understand what they’re doing really allows all of our clinic network to grow and to learn from as well.
Melinda: So, clinics are now reopening after being renovated under this docbraces brand. How have you communicated this change to clients who they may have known this clinic, as you know, Dr. Susan down the street for the past 25 years?
Paul: Obviously this is always in the back of our mind as we’re considering a national brand, not alienating the local presence, the local doctor, the local team who…you know, we all know when we walk into our dental office or orthodontic office, they’ve got the wall of teams that they sponsor. They’re very deep-rooted in their communities. We wanted to make sure that, and took utmost care to understand what made sense to them in that local community. And for some of those brands that had two, three generations of orthodontics in that community, we’ve actually taken liberties to include that part of that name in the rebranding convention.
So, Dr. Bob Hatheway, who’s our Chief Clinical Officer, had a very successful clinic base in Eastern Canada as well in the Maritimes. We’ve actually incorporated Hatheway into the docbraces brand out there. So, his clinic will still be referred to as Hatheway docbraces. So, being very mindful of things of that nature, but beyond that, the team is spending an exorbitant amount of time on our communication plan. And I can’t echo this enough to anybody that’s you know, considering doing something like this, overinvest in your communications, it’ll pay dividends down the road. So, our comms plan was really focused around kind of a few key words. You know, everything we did from patient communication to referring dentists communication, obviously our referring dentists are a big part of our ongoing viability of our clinics. We wanted to ensure that those people knew our existing patients, new potential patients, and our referring dentist knew that the team and the doctor were remaining there. That was the focal point of our communication.
We used the words, “New look, new name, same doctor, same team,” to really solidify that the sign outside might change, some nice nuances in the clinic might change, but really that team that you’ve come to know in our community is remaining in place. And I think that that was very purposely done and, you know, done in such a way that is not seeing any kind of dip in our revenue numbers or our production numbers through that very crucial kind of 8 to 12-week period after we converted the clinic to the new docbraces brand.
Melinda: So, docbraces is a consumer-facing brand, but it is also a platform to bring other independent operators in under the united banner. Can you tell me about how this goal played into the direction that you’ve taken?
Paul: Yeah. Fantastic question, Melinda. I mean, uniting a single brand has many benefits from a consumer marketing perspective. It allows us to streamline our websites, our social media handles, and we’ve often said internally, “One brand, one voice.” While there’s certainly folks out there that would prefer to support local and do not agree with the corporatization stance that we’re taking, we believe that our community-minded approach will ensure that we aren’t alienating what made our clinics so successful as solo practitioners. I keep going back to that, but that really is the bread and butter of our positioning going forward is making sure that we’re deeply rooted and paying attention to what matters to our patients, to our clinical teams, and to our communities and being involved in those at the grassroots level.
The docbraces brand will also allow us to attract other potential partners. As this brand grows and the number of clinics branded as docbraces increases, it’ll assist in our recruiting efforts for new partner clinics. It’ll also help us in the recruiting of associate doctors. So, as we start going out to the dental colleges and the dental schools across the country, having a brand name that’s familiar to orthodontists will help us in our recruiting needs as well.
And, you know, it’s already proving dividends. Partner clinics are calling us asking how they can be a part of the docbraces brand. As we’re talking to dental schools, they’re recognizing the new docbraces brand. And that’s already been in the first few months, where we have already seen a lot of traction there. What we also found very inspiring is, during our clinic closure period, during the COVID-19 pandemic, we actually saw solo practitioners reaching out to us or continuing their partnership conversations through what would have been one of the most trying times as a solo practitioner. You know, even many of our own doctors who are currently in the docbraces network kept echoing throughout the clinic closure period, “I’m so grateful to be part of the docbraces and COP family now, as opposed to having to go at this alone.” Navigating the uncertainty of when are you going to be able to reopen to see your patients, when are you going to be able to start seeing new patients, having to constantly worry about your cash flow was not something that our doctors needed to worry about, and actually, as I said, started spurring on other solo practitioners to start contacting us during this period.
Melinda: If you were to give three pieces of advice for any brand attempting to merge or acquire a number of brands under one big banner, now that you’ve done it, what would they be?
Paul: The old top three list. What I’m very grateful for is that we didn’t decide to do this in two years’ time. By that, I mean, if you’re going to start a brand exercise…do it early. Don’t wait until you’ve reached scale, or what you suspect is scale. Do it early. I can’t tell you how infinitely more difficult this would have been if our network had been 100 clinics or 200 clinics. It was very aggressive timelines to roll out 38 clinics to the new docbraces brand in a period of, what was it? Five months. I can’t imagine having done anything larger than that with 100 or 200. So, really start that brand journey early, things will be infinitely more difficult if you scale beyond a certain size. So, that would be number one.
Number two, and we talked about it earlier, was communication. So, communicate, communicate, communicate. I know it sounds cliche, but it is 100 percent accurate. And what has allowed us to come out of this rebrand exercise without a single blip in revenue or production or downturn in any of our clinics, overinvest in your communication planning, it will absolutely pay dividends down the road. Making sure you get buy-in from internal stakeholders, external stakeholders is infinitely easier when you’ve overcommunicated than trying to backpedal on something that didn’t happen because you failed to cross a T or dot an I.
And then lastly, I would say (and kudos to the SLD team) is to really get yourself a team of pros to assist in your design. This was new territory for us as a national brand. Of course, many of our orthodontists had done retail design development work of their own clinics, but really having a forward future-looking perspective on things was really only able to be drawn out by a team of pros like SLD and made our big splash into the market infinitely easier through your process and through your team. So, respecting that this is an SLD podcast, absolutely, I would have said this either way. When you’re trying to implement a brand of scale at a national level or even a regional or local level, then trusting the services of a team of pros is absolutely imperative to the success of a campaign.
Melinda: Thank you so much for all of your thoughts today. It was great chatting with you.
Paul: Well, thank you for having me. I really appreciate it. As I mentioned, it’s been a whirlwind of a year for COP and the docbraces family of clinics. I can say that we’re coming out of this stronger and more well-positioned than ever before. And I couldn’t have imagined doing what we did from a communication perspective under 50 brands over the COVID closure period, be able to come out of this stronger and more aligned as a national brand. It’s really allowed us to elevate our presence in the market.
Melinda: Great. Thanks so much, Paul.
Bringing a number of brands together under a united brand banner is an enormous undertaking. The Canadian Orthodontic Partners collaborative approach is one I really appreciate because although it might require a more involved process upfront, you do end up with a stronger position because everybody believes in it. In a time when taking care of your team and being transparent is so important, even more so than ever before, COP’s approach of learning from their partners is refreshing, and we can attest to it being entirely genuine having had the pleasure of working with them throughout this entire process.
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