What to do about Smile Club Direct?

Recently, I’ve seen some great Facebook threads related to public perception of orthodontics and how we can help people understand the value of orthodontists. Simply by virtue of the rise of Smile Direct Club (SDC) there’s a pretty clear indication that the public views “teeth straightening” as a commodity. If you’re not sure what a commodity is, I wrote about it in a previous post, “Don’t Make Your Practice Like Coca Cola!!!”, but basically it means that much of the public doesn’t view aligners from SDC as being inherently any different or less valuable than aligners from an orthodontist. So, can we help reverse that trend? Is there anything that we can do?
Back in the 70’s I used to watch a TV show called “Happy Days”. It was a throwback to life in the 50’s complete with a “greaser” named Fonzie who, to a 10 year old boy, was the embodiment of cool itself. But, in later years, when the ratings began to decline, the writers of the show felt (for reasons that I simply cannot fathom even to this day) that it was a good idea to have Fonzie jump a shark on water skis-while still wearing his trademark leather motorcycle jacket. While trying to draw attention to a fading TV show, they produced what was arguably one of the dumbest things ever to appear on television, and it was an absolute flop. So much so, that whenever one attempts to draw attention to, or create publicity for something that is perceived as not warranting the attention, we refer to it as “jumping the shark”. Where does orthodontics come in, you ask?
I believe that we’ve “jumped the shark” with regard to public perception of aligner therapy. The public couldn’t care less what we have to say on a broader scale, and like the plot of every outer space alien movie ever written, I believe that organized dentistry had a chance to contain this “threat” when it was small and now it’s gotten large enough that the future is out of their control. Don’t believe me? Think it can still be “contained” or reversed?
We used to think that the only people who wanted an at-home aligner was an “uneducated” person from a demographic who would never consider us anyway, but by now, most of us already know of a sane, educated person who has decided that at-home aligners was the thing for them. I recently heard of a dentist’s son who was getting aligners through the mail. A dentist’s son!!!
SDC is now a $20 million/month company and shows no signs of slowing and we’ve all seen the huge amount of advertising they’ve done. It’s clear that the public is at the very least interested, and at the most excited, about the possibility of not having an orthodontist involved with aligners. So, again, back to the question: How do we make orthodontists great again? (Sorry, I couldn’t help it.)
Some have ardently supported the idea of getting involved in organized dentistry. They suggest that we should band together at the highest level and spend our resources through the AAO, competing to sway public perception against a war chest of advertising that Smile Direct Club spends. Is this really the right approach? Is the job of our parent organization to advertise and change public perception, or is it to protect us and the public through legislation efforts with local and national politics? If both are true, is it too late to make a dent?
Here’s a question for you: What is the American Medical Association’s message? Ok, not sure? How about the American Bar association’s message? Maybe the American Association of Meat Processors’ message? (By the way, if you want to see an organization that is REALLY involved in protecting its’ member’s rights in Washington, follow what they do.) Do you know the message of any organization outside of dentistry? Have they ever made a dent in your thinking or perception of any industry? Of course they haven’t. The only people who care about the national message of our industry are those in our industry. Let’s not be haughty enough too believe that a 28 year old executive in Anytown, USA is going to see a PSA for the value of orthodontists and say “hmmm, I didn’t realize that where I got my braces mattered. I’m going to cancel that appointment with my general dentist for Invisalign and go see a certified orthodontist.”
What we CAN do is spend our time and resources on becoming educated about social media and flooding our areas with information about our practices, helping the public understand what we should have been telling them for the last 30 years; “We’re here, we care about you, we have special training” and most importantly “go ask the thousands of your friends whom I have treated”. Our practices have turned out a ton of local missionaries for orthodontics, and our results can be seen in every elementary, middle and high school in our towns. We’ve made a local impact that no national campaign can. But, are you, John Q. Orthodontist, willing to learn and do what it takes or do you just want to complain that the AAO isn’t meeting your needs? I’m all for taking new directions, but I won’t listen to complainers who do nothing.
While I genuinely believe that no amount of education or marketing can turn the tide of the wave that is SDC, it doesn’t mean that we should just give up. I hope that our governing bodies legislate prudently to protect the public where it is necessary because that’s what they do well. I believe that we should work on turning out exceptional orthodontic outcome and making our practices such a vital part of the community that people begin to  question why anyone would choose to see a non-orthodontist for teeth straightening of any kind. Let SDC follow whatever path it’s going to take and do your best to compete in this ever changing market.
Richard Branson once said: “From a young age, I learned to focus on the things I was good at and delegate to others what I was not good at.” We’re good at changing lives, one smile at a time and getting people to trust and value what we do. I don’t think this can or should be delegated.
All the best,
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  1. Glenn, this is a great article. It’s time for us to look in the mirror and take responsibility for our own practices. If we deliver great clinical results and have exceptional service, than we also have tons of missionaries willing to sing our praises. The key is helping them communicate it to their friends and neighbors. How? By getting dozens of public Google reviews (not the ones you put on your website), engage them on Facebook (likes, comments and shares) so it goes out to their FB friends, etc. Let your patients advertise for you. That’s how to differentiate your practice and not become commoditized. Complaining about SDC or waiting for the AAO to save the day won’t unjump he shark.