Shaquille O’Neal’s Worst Business Mistake & a Lesson in Clinical Marketing

This week I read an interesting story about retired basketball player turned business mogul Shaquille O’Neal. It turns out he made what sounds like an honest, but very expensive, mistake when it came to the opportunity to invest in Starbucks. Here’s how the story went: “So my agent called me up and he says Howard Schultz (Starbucks’ CEO) wants to do business with you,” says O’Neal. “And I’m like, ‘Coffee eh,’ because growing up in my household, I’d never seen a black person drink coffee. So it was my thought process that black people didn’t drink coffee.”

Howard Schultz gave O’Neal the chance to open more than one Starbucks, mostly in black communities, but O’Neal passed. “So I looked at the great Howard Schultz’s face and said ‘Black people don’t drink coffee, sir, I don’t think it’s gonna work.’ And you should have seen the look on his face,” says O’Neal. “Now, we’re still good friends today, but that was one of my worst ever business decisions because now, every time, on every corner, in every city, every country, you see a Starbucks…”

I love this story, not because Shaquille made a Mount-Everest-sized business blunder (we’ve all got our fair share of battle scars and business wounds), but because it illustrates a critical marketing lesson.

Don’t ever assume that you are your target market, and that what you want is what the same as what they want.

If Shaq had done his homework, he would have discovered that, in fact, black people do drink coffee. Just because his family didn’t drink coffee, or people in his immediate sphere of influence weren’t latte aficionados, doesn’t mean that the rest of the African-American population isn’t.

The same applies to your clinical practice. Don’t assume that you know what your target market wants. And don’t assume that your office manager, your wife or her friends know either. They might be women (as, if you’re like most aesthetic practices, 80% of your patients are), but their preferences might be very different from those of the majority of your patients.

I’ve seen many an excellent advertising campaign killed on sight because a spouse or staff member didn’t like something about it, assuming that if they didn’t like it, so many others wouldn’t either. That can be a costly assumption. Always base your marketing decisions on results and facts, not opinions and personal feelings. I’ve seen some of the seemingly most unlikely images pull triple or quadruple the number of calls than did a picture that a client’s spouse was sure would be a hit.

That’s the beauty of direct response marketing. It’s based on science and the results of research, instead of on conjecture and guesswork.

Step 2 of the Premier Physician Marketing Formula is to Identify Your Target Market. This means not just identifying a group of women you’d like more of as patients, but getting to understand that target group intimately — what motivates them, who else do they buy from, what keeps them up at night, what do they fear, what do they secretly want, how do they spend their weekends — and so on. As a copywriter, I can’t begin to write a campaign for a client until I have a firm grasp of the audience I’m writing for, and you need to do the same in your clinical marketing. If you don’t, you’ll bore them — the cardinal sin of marketing!

You don’t win the attention of 30-ish stay-at-home moms the same way as 40-something corporate execs or newly divorced or widowed 50- or 60-year-olds. They’re all very different women, with very different needs and wants, and the more accurately you can identify and address those, the more likely these women are to come to you for solutions.

Start noticing the nuances within your existing patient base and start incorporating these in your marketing communications to your patients. And the next time you’re standing in the line at Starbucks and you see a woman of color waiting for her sugar-free double-shot vanilla Frappuccino, remind yourself to learn from Shaq’s mistakes and never, ever make assumptions about what your patients and prospective patients want!