I can honestly say my introduction to Oregon-based orthodontist Cole Johnson, DMD, MS, was a unique one. It all started on his practice’s website.

“Howdy. Some people have entirely too much time on their hands. I mean, look at you…you’re perusing an Orthodontic Website. SMH. Anyway, please click around and enjoy the entirety of JFO’s fun, informative, and gluten-free cyber-site.”

I’ll be honest, it was the first practice website that made me laugh and simultaneously wonder if I’d clicked on some parody website that wasn’t meant for public consumption. But it had my attention.

“Teens: Are you freaking out that a mouth full of braces could get in the way of school, sports, SnapChat, and incessant selfies!? Cool your jets, Turbo. Just make a date with us at JFO for a free consult and we’ll talk to you about clear braces, Invisalign Teen or whatever works best for you. We’ll even throw in free headgear if you’re super nice.”

Johnson’s About Me page offered up more gems. There, next to a picture of a smiling, clean-cut young orthodontist in white shirt, gray vest, and plaid blue tie, is this:

“In 2005, Dr Johnson graduated summa cum laude (Latin for ‘way smarter than those other show-offs, especially Kevin Ling’) with a degree in biochemistry from Brigham Young University-Idaho. He was also given the University’s highest honor, BYU-Idaho’s “Man of the Year” Award, for his leadership and academic and community involvement. It sounds a little dumb to win that kind of pretentious award, but they threw in a Free Slurpee punchcard at the local Circle K, so he nobly accepted it.”

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Johnson and his staff rockin’ out in a scene from their 12 Days of Braces video.

Again, I was laughing. Still, there was a lingering feeling that this couldn’t be serious…and then I clicked the link to his practice’s YouTube channel.

I opted to start with the video boasting over 50,000 views on the channel (plus another 500,000 on Facebook)—let’s be honest, a rarity in the orthodontic space. I clicked on the link and the video opened with a hand plugging a guitar into an amp and turning up the volume knob. With sticks raised in the air, the drummer comes on screen to count down to the opening note. As the familiar, yet rock-inspired, opening notes of the holiday classic The 12 Days of Christmas start playing, up comes a wide shot of three backup singers, a bassist, guitarist, keyboardist, and that drummer all in their best rock god outfits; and there, front and center, is Johnson, channeling his own inner rock star, complete with spiked hair, lip ring, black eyeliner, dog collar, ripped t-shirt, tattoo sleeves, and black leather pants. He stands in front of the mike, guitar in hand, and launches into 12 Days of Braces, his orthodontic take on the holiday classic.

“On the fifth day of braces my ortho gave to me: 5 coily springs, 4 strips of wax, 3 broken brackets, 2 pokey wires, and some bling for my snaggly teeth,” Johnson sings as his office staff rocks out behind him.

To say the website and video are a fun introduction to Johnson and his practice would be an understatement, because it is so much more. The video offers viewers, including prospective patients, insight into who this orthodontist is, and whether he’s the right one for them.

Making the Choice

Johnson didn’t set out to be an orthodontist. While he knew he wanted to work with kids, he thought he’d become a high school teacher and coach. But in college, Daisha, his then girlfriend, now wife, suggested he consider other career options as the two wanted to have a large family and the financial security they didn’t have growing up. Johnson grew up in a large family that struggled financially. His father worked two jobs, as a bus driver and janitor, to support the family. So, when brainstorming career options, orthodontist popped up on his radar.

“I really wanted to have a job where I could affect the life of younger people, and I remember thinking, ‘Oh yeah, I think orthodontists work with teenagers and they’re kind of in a mentor type capacity.’ Maybe not directly like a high school teacher or coach—I won’t be so arrogant as to say that—but it’s nice to be closer to that role than I could have been in another career,” says Johnson, who confesses his love for many of the same things most teenagers love—music, social media, and basketball. From there, Johnson worked to become the top of his class in dental school at Oregon Health & Science University to then go on to his residency program at Virginia Commonwealth University. “I worked really hard and I was just really fortunate that I was able to do it.”

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Going It Alone

Johnson is honest about why he opted to go it alone and open his own practice straight out of his residency program: “I knew I would make a horrible employee,” he says with a laugh. Thus, knowing that he had to start his own practice to be happy, and that he needed a job as soon as he finished residency to support his growing family, Johnson took on the task of setting up his new practice while still in his final months of residency in Virginia. And just to make the process a little more daunting, he decided to set up shop on the opposite side of the country—in his hometown of Salem, Ore.

“Salem definitely didn’t need another orthodontist,” says Johnson, who relied on family, including his mother, to scout prospective locations while he was still in Virginia. What’s more, he readily admits the other orthodontists in the area are wonderful, well respected and well established. And while his future orthodontic peers in the community were welcoming and kind, they didn’t hide their concern. “They were worried I was going to fail because there was a much better chance of that happening.”

Luckily, as Johnson puts it, he was naive enough to have fun with the process of setting up his practice and not stress out about how it could all go wrong. “I look back and there are a lot of things that could have happened along the way where it wouldn’t have worked out well and where I should have been more stressed. But when you start from the bottom rung, there’s really not much that can be taken from you. My wife and I already had a bunch of kids and were so used to living off so little that the risk [wasn’t as scary]. I had nothing. So if it didn’t work, I still would have had nothing, but I was armed with a good education and good people skills and I would have found a job somewhere else.”

That’s not to say that the process wasn’t stress free. Patients weren’t streaming in and jamming the phone lines the minute the doors of Johnson Family Orthodontics opened in the fall of 2011. In fact, Johnson spent 6 months staring at the phone waiting for someone to call, all while checks were going out to cover insurance and rent. But Johnson soon tapped into a hidden talent that even he didn’t realize he had: marketing his practice, while helping others.

Johnson found that the best marketing he could do was to get face time with people. And the most cost effective turned out to be free opportunities that allowed him to connect with the community, whether that be in his role as dad at the PTA meeting or as coach of his children’s Little League teams. Even when he did have money to spend, Johnson didn’t buy the billboard in town to get his face out there, he instead took the money and wrote a check to a local school needing new iPads.

“I would show up at the assembly and say, ‘Here’s a donation from our practice, a few hundred bucks so you can get a new computer for your library.’ And I realized very quickly that kind of stuff was more helpful than a billboard. If you can give back, even a little amount, to some community organization and you’re clever enough to do it in a space where people can see you, then that is more effective than spending $5,000 to send a flyer out to someone who doesn’t know you. It’s easier to convince your family and friends to get braces than someone 1,000 miles away that you don’t know. And it’s easier to convince someone in your daughter’s classroom to get braces with you than it is someone at another school. So you start where you are.

“What’s the worst that could possibly happen with this approach?” Johnson asks rhetorically. “You do something nice but don’t create any new business from it? I’m afraid that still counts as a victory for everyone.”

To this day, Johnson still sees opportunities where he can give back to his community financially as the best use of his marketing dollars. “You could make a $5,000 donation to a bigger [non-local] organization, but that donation doesn’t mean much to Mr and Mrs Jensen in the PTA meeting or the young soccer mom at a local game. When they see you donate something like that to their organization, the chances that they bring their kid to you are very high. So when we talk about direct marketing, we’re talking about direct direct marketing,” he says.

Focusing on Kindness

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Adopt-a-Unicorn

Cole Johnson, DMD, MS, can sum up his marketing plan with two words: Helping people. He found early on that giving back to his community was the best way to get his name out there and connect with prospective patients—all while doing something he loves and that benefits others. The practice focuses on three areas: helping local elementary schools raise money (sometimes by sponsoring a teacher of the month program to honor patients’ teachers), getting face-time in the community through coaching and volunteering, and the Adopt-a-Unicorn program.

For Johnson, the definition of success is simple: It’s the ability to give back whenever he can. And he knew his practice was successful when he could help patients who otherwise couldn’t afford orthodontic treatment.

In the first months of his practice, Johnson found himself troubled by the families that couldn’t afford braces—families from his old neighborhood, and specifically the foster parents that came in. They weren’t asking for anything. They would just come in for a consult and Johnson would see the sticker shock on their faces once cost was discussed. Johnson made a promise to himself that as soon as he could he was going to start doing free treatment for families in need.

So, while he, his wife Daisha, and their six kids were still living in their 900-square-foot apartment, and before he’d taken a paycheck home, Johnson started offering free orthodontic care to foster kids who otherwise couldn’t afford it.

To sustain the program and to be able to treat as many kids as possible, he knew he had to be clever and smart about it. Johnson knew there were people who wanted to help financially; but he was also mindful of the fact that he couldn’t accept charitable donations from people because he wasn’t a registered nonprofit. So, he contrived a way to make it possible for people who wanted to contribute to the care of these families to do so.

Sitting on the counter of the reception desk at Johnson Family Orthodontics is a stuffed white unicorn with a rainbow colored mane and braces. Instead of making a donation, people who want to sponsor a child’s treatment buy, or rather “adopt,” a unicorn. They not only receive their very own unicorn, but a certificate that says by adopting this unicorn you are sponsoring treatment for a foster child. In addition, the practice’s t-shirts featuring the rainbow-maned character have become quite popular in the community. While most of the t-shirts are given out to patients, a number of non-patients come into the practice who are interested in having one.

“They’ll ask if we are giving them away. And we say no, they’re for patients or for people who contribute to our fund,” Johnson says. “And what happens? They contribute to our fund and they get a t-shirt. And where do you think they’re going to bring their kids to get braces?”

While the money raised through the Adopt-a-Unicorn program doesn’t make a huge dent in Johnson’s overhead, it does allow him to treat more children than he could otherwise. Since the program was fully implemented in 2012, Johnson Family Orthodontics has treated nearly 50 children. In addition, Johnson has extended the program to families with children with special needs who otherwise couldn’t afford treatment.

Through programs like Adopt-a-Unicorn, Johnson has been able to get people talking about his practice while helping those in need. As he puts it, “If you get other people talking about you, it’s way more effective than talking about yourself.”

And when asked what he thinks about his overall marketing strategy, the smirk on his face is almost audible in his voice, “I don’t care what you think about me…as long as you are.” OP

But at the heart of Johnson’s marketing efforts is his emphasis on connecting with people and giving everyone who walks into Johnson Family Orthodontics his best effort and respect, regardless of whether he thinks they have the money to pay for braces or not. Growing up, Johnson saw how people would look down on his dad when they found out he was the janitor or the bus driver, and it annoyed him a great deal. And he equally came to hate when people would give him the benefit of the doubt only when they found out he was an orthodontist with a successful practice. “The inconsistency of people’s trust and good nature—depending on your economics and vocation­­—is something that I will never understand and will avoid like the plague,” Johnson says. Thus, he is insistent that both he and his staff treat everyone with kindness from the start, regardless of perceived or known circumstances. As Johnson puts it, his practice’s brand centers on this concept of making everyone feel important, and having them know they are important. And this philosophy even extends into his hiring practices.

When Johnson offers a job to a new staff member, he does so with a caveat. “I say, ‘I’m going to hire you with one understanding: that you give every single person that you meet the same effort you just gave me for the last 20 minutes of this interview. I know I’m the young energetic doctor and you want a job from me, so of course you’re going to put your best effort forward, but can you do this with every other person who comes in this office? Can you do this when the dad is talking down to you, or the 7-year-old won’t open their mouth for you, or when the 14-year-old is lying to you?’

“Of course, they say yes. So when something comes up, all I have to do is say, ‘Remember our interview?’ And they’ll say, yes. Telling people at the outset, deciding ahead of time how they’ll behave, is the most effective conversation [I ever have with staff],” says Johnson. And for those staff members that can’t maintain this positivity and kindness, Johnson offers to help them find a job elsewhere. “My staff all know that that’s the expectation because that’s the speech they got from me during the interview.”

And back to connecting with patients, Johnson Family Orthodontics actively promotes the fact that the office is bilingual—a unique attribute that taps into the city’s changing demographics. According to 2010 US Census data, Oregon’s Hispanic population grew five times as fast as the state’s total population, specifically a 64% increase between 2000 and 2010. As of 2010, 11.7% of the state’s population identified as Hispanic or Latino, while 20.3% of the city of Salem’s population identified as such.

Johnson, who lived in the Dominican Republic for a time, is fluent in Spanish, and is proud of the fact that he’s been able to use his language skills to connect with this growing segment of the population. In fact, the ability to speak the language was especially helpful when Johnson first opened Johnson Family Orthodontics. While some in the community were wary of being the first through this new doctor’s doors, Spanish-speaking patients took a chance on him, all because he could speak their language.

“It might seem like a dumb reason to trust someone—because they speak your language—but what else do you have to go by,” Johnson says. “When they walk in, it’s a huge relief to have a doctor who speaks their language.”

Today, the practice’s YouTube channel includes a Spanish language welcome video targeted at prospective Spanish-speaking patients, and the practice makes all contracts available in the language.

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Being Himself

So let’s get back to that website and the infamous YouTube video, and how they developed. Johnson chalks up the website to not knowing any better. That’s not to say that he didn’t get some advice.

“I talked to one branding company and they said to me, ‘You have a very unique personality. You either have to decide you’re going to disguise it and be like everyone else, or you’re going to have to showcase it and come what may. And you have to realize, Cole, some people will either love it or be turned off by it,’” recalls Johnson, who decided to bet on himself.

Johnson wrote the website copy himself and showed it to a few people who thought it was hilarious and encouraged him to use it, despite the fact that he insisted he was just kidding. But, they insisted right back, saying  it sounded like him.

“I think so many websites, not only do they not sound like the doctor, but they sound like each other—which is the worst thing to sound like. I would much rather sound like the dorky doctor who plays Chutes and Ladders with his kids than sound like somebody else.

“Occasionally, some people are put off,” he adds. “They may not have the right sense of humor or they don’t know what to think about it. But I’ll tell you what, that’s not the majority of cases. The majority of cases, people are very open about saying it’s refreshing and they like it.”

Johnson and a patient in a scene from the 12 Days of Braces video.

Johnson and a patient in a scene from the 12 Days of Braces video.

And as for the YouTube channel and that 12 Days of Braces video, that comes down to needing a creative outlet, not because he wanted to use it to market his practice—that was just a fringe benefit.

“There is a side of my dad that is so disappointed I became an orthodontist,” Johnson jokes. “He played in a band. He’s very musical and talented. His career certainly didn’t define him and he didn’t want mine to define me.

“Truthfully, there is this part of me that is disappointed I became an orthodontist. I wanted to be a writer for Saturday Night Live, if not a teacher,” he says with a laugh. “The trick is to find something where you can be you.

“I know being an orthodontist isn’t my calling. It’s something I chose to do. But I still have my personality and my talents that I have to use to do something other than tinkering around with teeth occasionally.”

Johnson did worry at first what prospective patients who saw the videos before meeting him would think, but he’s discovered the videos serve his marketing plan well.

“I’ve noticed that my zany Facebook posts and videos do two things. First of all, when people watch the videos, it prescreens them. If they don’t understand me and my sense of humor, my snarkiness, my dryness, and sometimes all out goofiness, they will go make an appointment with another orthodontist. There are a ton of good orthodontists in this area, and I say, ‘See ya!’ because I don’t want you to find out you don’t like my sense of humor when your kid is 6 months into treatment. Even in my new patient exam, I make sure I’m very free and easy. I make sure they don’t see the buttoned up version of me. Luckily, people really like it and I think people can see that I’m very sincere and genuine.

“The second thing it does is make me more approachable to people. There are people who are intimidated by the white coat guy. But people can see in my videos that I’m just a regular dude. I’m a goofball like you who happens to know how to fix your teeth.”

At this point, the YouTube channel has become popular enough in Johnson’s community that very few people haven’t seen his videos there or on Facebook. And as for the 12 Days of Braces concept: Well, Johnson wrote the lyrics and recorded the song in his home recording studio. He’s an accomplished musician, playing piano, guitar, bass, and drums. And the musicians and background singers? Those are all his staff members. Johnson relishes the trust they have in him, because he knows to get on camera and channel Guns ’n Roses’ Slash or the members of KISS requires faith that you’re not going to look foolish. They all jumped on board to take part in Johnson’s creative endeavor. He notes the importance of having wonderful employees who buy-in to the vibe. “My love, trust, and gratitude for my staff is a testament to how loving, trusting, and grateful they’ve been to my take on our marketing. We have so much fun together.

“Orthodontists will ask me where did I come up with that or why did you start doing that, and I have to answer, it’s because I had no clue. I was just guessing,” says Johnson. “If I would have been an associate somewhere else first, I probably would have done my practice much differently. But because I had to make up stuff as I was going along, it ended up being super original. Some of the great things you do on accident.” OP