Access to affordable healthcare, racial inequality and fairness are part of what Americans expect today’s brand leaders to address in addition to providing their product or service. In 2015, the American Dental Association issued a report, “Minority Oral Health in America: Despite Progress, Disparities Persist,” that quoted Dr. Ada Cooper saying, “When you talk about racial barriers, you can’t avoid talking about economic barriers. I think increasingly today as historical racial barriers are being broken down on some levels, the economic barriers continue to persist.”
As the world continues to deal with the COVID-19 crisis, I had the chance to talk with John Sheldon, CMO of Smile Direct Club about their business model as well as their role in being a change agent.
Jeff Fromm: Tell me about how things unfolded for your brand in early March.
John Sheldon: The first thing we noticed as the crisis started to evolve was the clear need in the marketplace for more PPE for the doctors that were serving the communities there, specifically face shields. Our 3-D printing facility recognized the value of being able to quickly pivot and help to make… We did over 55,000 face shields to be distribute to hospitals, healthcare organizations, and the dental community over the course of the first few weeks, both in the United States, as well as Canada. We recognized that need for these heroes on the front line.
As an infectious disease prevention certified facility, we were able to maintain and continue our clear safety protocols in the manufacturing process to make sure all of the team members who were working remained safe—and produced in ways to help our frontline doctors remain safe as well.
We also took our telehealth platform and opened it up to enable dentists and doctors to take advantage of that and connect directly to their patients, enabling them to not have to go in for emergency and non-emergency communications. Leveraging our telehealth platform created a great opportunity for us to help out there.
And then lastly, the good news about our business is we had two ways for our customers to get started. One of them is the ability to start from home with our at-home impression kit. And clearly, as going into our smile shops became a less appealing and in some cases not available option because of local laws, the ability to ramp up our at-home impression kit for customers who wanted to get teeth straightened made a lot of sense. We leaned into the impression kit side of our business, which I’m really pleased with had the strength that came through them.
Fromm: So we have an ongoing health crisis. Now, all of a sudden we have a racial inequality crisis that hasn’t been addressed. How do you serve minority communities? How do you become accessible to minority communities?
Sheldon: Our business model is really designed to and does actually help, in a disproportionate way, key minority groups that are looking to be heard right now. We were founded on a mission of accessibility, affordability, and access to care. There are places all across the country that don’t have access to an orthodontist in their county. About 60% of all the counties in the United States do not have an orthodontist in there. And our business has the ability to serve all of those places. And so these dental deserts, if you will, where you can’t get access to care, we can actually provide care with our remote teledentistry platform and enable people to get the smile they love and get the orthodontic care that they look for.
If you take a look at some research that was done by the Pew Research Organization, they found that communities of color have a much higher rate of tooth decay and tooth loss and fewer dental visits. The ability to operate and communicate with them via this teledentistry platform is one that gives us an ability to reach them in a way that they have never been able to get access to care before.
Fromm: How have you transitioned from a private company to a scrappy public company and how do you keep the scrappiness from private to public?
Sheldon: This is a great question and a great challenge. One of the parts of our culture that I love the most is the nimbleness and the speed that’s inherent in that startup culture. And we maintain that in lots of ways. The whole company is only six years old, from the time they sent the first letter saying, “Hey, do you think anybody would do this?” Even though we’re a public company, an established business, there are also some elements where we’re continuing to learn. As the market is continuing to evolve, it becomes evident that you can take orthodontic care from elite and held only in the hands of very few, to being available to everyone. And the good news for us is we’ve now got over a million customers that have you used our solution to get straighter teeth.
The ability for us to continue to learn and evolve our business in light of the pressures of COVID, that we’re seeing from as being a disruptor, and at the same time, establish this ability to have a teledentistry platform that can provide greater access to care. As a pioneer in that, continuing to figure out what we need to add to that platform to increase care, is something that I hope never leaves the company. It’s certainly not going to as long as our leadership remains the way it is.
Fromm: Tell me about being a successful disrupter. What’s it take to become one? What’s it take to stay one?
Sheldon: We found a niche and a space that we could truly, truly own, and it was someplace that nobody really was. When you think about our business as a disruptor, it’s about making sure that not only do you establish yourself well, but how do you defend yourself from the disrupted who do not take kindly to being disrupted?
We have, as a business, been under significant, coordinated, oppositional attacks from industry groups that are trying to protect pricing, to legislators who are, for whatever reason, opposed to our model and are looking to limit us. And so making sure that we maintain the key moats in our business that helped protect the core of it as we’ve disrupted it, and then secondarily making sure that we defend our business against mistruths that are being put into the press, heavily donated campaigns for politicians who suddenly seem really interested in adding restrictive laws, and making sure we bring sunlight to these things has become an important part of our overall surviving as a disruptor.
The critical part as beginning as a disruptor is just being able to explain to people there really is a new and better way. That is actually not as easy as it sounds because there is one fixed model in consumer’s minds. And so the ability to kind of open that door and open people’s minds to these new possibilities about how care can be extended is one that’s really helped us continue to grow. And now, in coordination with helping to defend ourselves from some of these attacks, maintaining our growth pattern.
The Useful Brand Series is an ongoing collection of interviews that will inspire fresh thinking and hopefully a bit of optimism as we prepare and adapt to what’s ahead. Each interview answers a brief set of questions to consider in order to be creative, get practical and help people through this difficult time. Have a question you would like answered in the Useful brand Series? Send them my way to firstname.lastname@example.org.