Some companies, through advertising alone, convince us to buy their brand of product over a competitor’s. It’s why consumers choose Advil® instead a generic painkiller. It’s why we grab a box with Tony the Tiger® instead of a bag of ‘Sugary Flakes.’ It’s why we feel safer buying Scott® grass seed when we could buy seed with a less familiar name. We’re so influenced by branding that we’ll pay a premium for these items even when the generics are the exact same product.

Did you know that there was a time when paperclip companies would advertise their brand of paperclips? It worked, and people would pay more for the “brand name” clips. However, when everything is the same, eventually consumers will no longer be swayed by brand. The companies above not withstanding, as a savvy marketplace realizes there’s nothing special about a branded painkiller, cereal, or grass seed, the brand name means less and less…and eventually, nothing. In the end, everything becomes a commodity.

Counseling as a Commodity

With the exception of a few isolated areas, the United States has an abundance of therapists. Type almost any zip code into Psychology Today and you’ll find page-after-page of counselors paying $30 a month. So how do you survive, or even champion a huge success, when the market is flooded with people selling the same product or service? Two common solutions are (1) advertise like crazy, or (2) cut prices. Let me explain why neither of these are great solutions.

Advertise like crazy: It’s an expensive endeavor to take an undifferentiated commodity and convince the market to buy yours. And, with ever savvier consumers, it’s harder now than ever. Consumer research demonstrates that brands mean less than ever as an increasing majority agree with the statement “Brand names are not better quality.”[1] Even if you succeed, like the branded examples above, you’ll need to raise your prices to pay for all that advertising (which, by the way, isn’t an option if you accept insurance).

Cut prices: Reduce prices and you begin a race to the bottom. How cheap can you make your paperclips? You can win on price, but your margins will be razor thin. Also, there always seems to be someone willing to provide a lesser product for just a little cheaper. Perhaps that’s why my paperclips break when I bend them—someone must have realized it’s a fraction of a cent cheaper to manufacture brittle paperclips.

Be Different or Die

The statement “be different or die” is dramatic. To be fair, it should probably read “be different or run a mediocre company, with declining profit margins, that sells an undifferentiated commodity” (you’d almost prefer death, right?). To avoid this fate, your practice needs to be different from the competition. That said, you don’t need to modify your core service of counseling.

Take for example, paint. Paint is a commodity. Give me any color from any brand and it can be matched exactly. Moreover, once the paint is on the wall, nobody can tell me if it’s Behr or Sherman Williams. However, Dutch Boy had a huge success when they released easy pour twist top paint cans. They were even able to raise their prices! Was the new design for everyone? Not at all. Plenty of people balked at the higher price, and contractors and professional painters don’t care whether their paint cans have a screw on lid. But for some consumers, it was a smash hit.

Like Dutch Boy, think of how your practice can be notably different from your competition. A refurbished office won’t cut it—you need an extreme makeover. A friendly staff won’t do it either—the service needs to be shocking. Having evening hours isn’t enough—to stand out you’ll need amazing hours, walk-in sessions, or terrible hours. You can’t be a couple notches better or worse, you need to go choose a direction and go all the way to the end of the belt. Here are some ideas:

  • Counseling marketing materials are usually bright and cheery. Why not go dark? Why not have everything from your website to your business cards reflect clients’ dark moods? Make them black, with gray font.
  • Counseling marketing materials can be a little cheesy. Make yours over-the-top cheesy. “Come to XYZ Counseling center, where everyone is special.” “We accept most major insurance plans. How does that make you feel?” Just make sure that clients know you’re in on the joke.
  • Create a full-fledged coffee bar where people pay for their session, and also get an Americano. Punch a card—10 sessions and the 11th is free—just like at a coffee shop.
  • Go frou frou. Sequenced pillows. Pink faux fur armchairs. US Weekly. Men will hate it. The design caters exclusively to a certain type of woman.
  • After each session, the client gets an emailed summary from you reviewing what you covered in session and the client’s homework for the week.
  • Build a library (at least a full wall of shelves) at your practice where clients can sign out books and CDs.
  • Create an unusual policy: If you cancel a session with less than 24 hours notice, you pay the client your no-show fee!
  • Cater to the medical marijuana community, and talk about how different strains of cannabis can help with insomnia, or other mental health issues.
  • Everyone in your office dresses in athletic wear akin to personal trainers at the gym. Make the whole practice gym themed, renaming therapy concepts to sound like physical exercises.

Clearly some of these ideas are pushing the envelope—and that’s exactly the point! Think in extremes: Bright/Dark, Strict/Flexible, Happy/Sad, ‘Judgy’/Companionate, Masculine/Feminine, Modern/Classical, Hot/Cold, Colorful/Greyscale, Hard/Soft, Casual/Formal, Loud/Quiet, Artistic/Straight-forward, Natural/Synthetic, Disposable/Permanent, Electronic/Unplugged. Will your concept appeal to everyone? Heck no! But you’re never going to win an entire market no matter what you do. Instead, for those that your concept appeals to, your practice will be more talked about, and highly sought after, because your practice is unique and different from the competition. You have successfully differentiated your company.

Isn’t it About the Counseling?

One thing you’ll notice is that none of these ideas effect your core service. Your business cards might be black, but your sessions are still in color. Your office might have overstuffed brown leather chairs and a masculine feel, but there are still tissues for those who need them.

Every year in NYC hundreds of restaurants with great food fail. The answer isn’t always make better food. The answer might be to call your restaurant “Ninja”, dress your servers like Ninjas and have them startle the bejesus out of your guests while they try to eat Sushi. Is it for everyone? No. Last time I was in New York, did I go there for dinner? No comment.


[1] http://business.time.com/2012/11/01/brand-names-just-dont-mean-as-much-anymore/

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