"My family went to Wall Drug and all I got was this advertising philosophy."
A guest essay by Sharon Stein McNamara, Licensed Psychologist:
As a psychologist, I have almost zero marketing or advertising experience, but that's why my perspective as an outsider might be interesting to you.
I have had endless discussions about the virtues of doing a job for the public good versus doing a job that just promotes somebody, or something, and is purely marketing for it's own sake. I am more interested in what is being sold, and making sure I am not ripped off by the beautiful presentation. I must confess that in my most heated discussions, I have likened the profession of advertising to being a form of prostitution, where people are seduced and used, just for their dollar value. But I also see the necessity of doing marketing for good things. How can one let people know about a good business, item for sale, or service, if the word is not put out there?
The market is glutted with psychologists in the Twin Cities, and for the first time in my career, I have to start doing active marketing to get clients. I have struggled with the way to do ethical marketing of a psychology practice. The profession itself is almost completely against marketing at all. There are rules in the psychology ethics code about how to advertise, and there are strict taboos against using client testimonials in any form, the reasoning being that you would reveal confidentiality of clients which is more important than the need to sell yourself. How do you promote a business that thrives on keeping what it does confidential?
I was stuck. I also believe that for me, there was an issue of self esteem. Before, I had just opened a practice and people came. Now, I had to do something to get them to come? Was my ability slipping? Maybe my skill was not the same? I found I could not just push myself to get business unless I felt good about what I had to offer, and could tell people about it in a way that felt kind, compassionate, ethical and fair.
This summer we took our family vacation to South Dakota. I was annoyed by the hundreds of signs along Interstate Highway 90 saying, “200 miles to Wall Drug,” or “Free Ice Water at Wall Drug.” But I was curious about this place that has become a tourist Mecca on the way to the Black Hills. So, after the nine hours of driving, we got to Wall Drug, and stopped. It was busy. Apparently thousands of people come every day to Wall Drug. But it was the story of the business that sold me, and helped me make peace with marketing.
The story of the rise of Wall Drug, is a legend. The small town drugstore was purchased by Ted Hustead in 1931. Hustead was a Nebraska native and pharmacist who was looking for a small town with a Catholic church in which to establish his business. He bought Wall Drug, located in a 231-person town in what he referred to as "the middle of nowhere", and strove to make a living. His wife Dorothy, describes how they had very little business in the summer of 1931, and how worried they were about being able to survive in such a small town. Business was dismal day after day until Dorothy got the idea to advertise free ice water to parched travelers heading to the newly-opened Mount Rushmore monument sixty miles to the west. She describes how each of them went out and put up signs on the highway, saying “Free ice water, Wall Drug.” Business started to pick up, and when people stopped for water, they would buy something from the store.
At this time, the store is a cowboy-themed shopping mall/department store. Wall Drug includes a western art museum, a chapel based on the one found at New Melleray Abbey near Dubuqe Iowa, and an enormous 80-foot dinosaur that can be seen right off Interstate 90.
Somehow, seeing Wall Drug, and the success it has become, helped me make peace with marketing my business. The Hustead’s were not trying to sell something they did not have to offer. They started with the humble offer of a free glass of ice water. People could appreciate that. If people wanted to freely choose to stop, they could. If they found something else in the store they wanted to buy, they could do that too. It felt very gentle and friendly being at Wall Drug, and we did buy some things, even though it was a tourist trap by any definition.
I compare this experience to the nightmare we had the year before on our trip to Orlando. My husband and I spent three hours listening to a time-share condo salesman for the come-on of getting two free passes to Disneyland. We struggled with should we buy the time-share or not, what was our obligation, how could we afford it? In the end, we decided it wasn’t a better deal than just renting a time-share in years to come, and we did not complete the sale. But that type of marketing felt aggressive and I did feel used.
One marketing strategist, Lynn Grodzki, in her book, Twelve Months to Your Ideal Private Practice, calls this “push versus pull type of marketing.” The push is to keep you on the phone, or trapped in a hotel, or in a movie theatre, forced to view their product. This is directly opposite of how most therapists like to practice. Pull marketing is inspiring and interesting, it pulls you in gently with an appeal, or an attraction. My business needs the second type of approach.