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Jun 12, 2015

When Building a Counseling Practice, Brand Extensions are Not the Answer

Maintaining Brand Consistency for your Counseling Practice

A counseling center in Nashville, Tennessee — called Healthy Mind* — is struggling to fill their clinicians’ caseloads.

Management looks are their data and notices three alarming trends:

  1. Not enough people are calling
  2. Of those who call, not enough schedule
  3. Of those who start counseling, few stick around for more than a couple sessions

After much discussion, they have a solution to their practice’s low volume problem — and it’s really exciting! They make the announcement:

“Healthy Mind counseling is now offering nutritional consulting! Come by and meet with a Healthy Mind nutritional consultant today.”

The management decides to fix their problem by offering an additional service. I see the logic. If counseling brings in five new clients a week, offering nutritional consulting to the menu could bring in another five — and it could be an upsell for current clients.

The problem is that while a brand extension can feel like a dream solution, it can easily become a nightmare. Here are two reasons.

1. You Risk Confusing your Brand

It’s likely that when you started your practice, you wanted your brand to be synonymous with high-quality counseling services. For the practice above, they wanted everyone in the Nashville, Tennessee, area to think “Healthy Mind” when they thought about counseling. That’s a very hard thing to do! With a brand extension, you’re asking your brand to lift even more weight.

There have been disastrous brand extension attempts — by some big and powerful companies — that couldn’t persuade the public to think of them in a different category.

For example, when Paula Dean started “Paula Dean Kids Furniture.” People said, “Wait, I thought Paula Dean was all about indulgent southern food and racism?” Or when Zippo lighters created “Zippo Brand Women’s Perfume” people said, “I bet that smells like pure gasoline.”

2. A Brand Extension will Distract You from Your Core

If your counseling practice isn’t helping enough clients to make ends meet, the reason probably isn’t that you’re not offering enough variety, or that there’s not enough counseling clients in your area. Instead, there’s probably another problem with your practice.

If I were to speak with “Healthy Mind” it might sound something like this:

ME: How many counselors are in your immediate area?

HM: Licensed counselors? Around 90 or more.

ME: And they have full time, or at least part time, caseloads?

HM: Yes. Some even have waiting lists.

ME: Interesting. Your practice has five caseloads to fill. Based on the amount of counseling already taking place, that’s a very small fraction of the Nashville market. It sounds like there are plenty of people around who want counseling. Instead of adding a different service, let’s find out why your offices aren’t full of counseling clients.

The problem might be that:

  • You haven’t gotten the word out enough
  • You haven’t build the right referral relationships
  • Your clinicians aren’t providing the care that clients expect
  • Clients don’t like your location
  • Clients don’t like your office
  • Clients can’t get a hold of you
  • Your hours of operation are too limited
  • Your top clinicians keep quitting
  • You have inadequate medical credentialing

Or something else. Do you have any ideas?

HM: I know that we’ve been assigning couples counseling clients to our 22-year-old intern who’s never been married. That’s probably not a good fit. Also, we really need to begin a clinical supervision program to make sure that our counselors are delivering high quality care. I’ve got to admit, thinking about adding a new service was a lot more fun than thinking about fixing problems with the services we already offer.

When to Consider a Brand Extension

Some brand extensions do succeed — when done for the right reasons and at the right time. 

Recently, Duracell introduced an extension with the “Powermat.” This is a big change for Duracell. Instead of selling a battery, they created a device to charge someone else’s battery!

It seems, however, completely in line with what we value from Duracell. This extension might actually strengthen their brand from a “battery” company to a “power your device” company.

Similarly, Nyquil hit a home run with Zzzquil. With Zzzquil, the “nighttime, sniffling, sneezing, coughing, aching … ” company simply became the “nighttime” company. This brand extension is particularly amazing because they gained more customers by simply removing useful ingredients from their product!

Healthy Mind might want to consider an extension to their counseling services if they find that their many clients are asking for medication management, or psychological testing, or some other mental health related service (nutritional consulting might never make sense).  However, before they consider any sort of extension, they must first fix the problems with services currently on their menu.

Your Practice

My collective advice is to consider a brand extension only when it will help both your company and your clients (the answer might always be “no”). Then, proceed only if your base services are strong and if you’re confident that the new offering won’t dilute — but will strengthen — the brand you’ve worked so hard to build.

* - Not a real practice. My apologies to any practice with a similar name!
________________________________________________________________________

Anthony Centore, Ph.D., is private practice consultant for the ACA, founder of Thriveworks Counseling (with locations in 9 states), and author of the book, How to Thrive in Counseling Private Practice. Anthony is a licensed counselor in Massachusetts and Virginia. Find him on Twitter at @anthonycentore or @Thriveworks.

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