D2C, the Next Winning Model In the Orthodontic Sector

As India moves steadily to the acceptance of new modalities of healthcare such as telemedicine, it is not far from today that these disruptions will start showing up in dental care treatments too

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In a landmark moment during the Budget 2022 speech, finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman said the government will be launching an open platform connecting the country's digital health ecosystem under the "Ayushman Bharat Digital Health Mission (ABDM)'. The platform will include digital registries of health providers and facilities, unique health identities, a consent framework, and universal access to health facilities.

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As India moves steadily to the acceptance of new modalities of healthcare such as telemedicine (delivered via video or just voice call), it is not far from today that these disruptions will start showing up in dental care treatments too.

In recent years, there has been an influx of innovative startups offering dental care treatments, oral hygiene products and some orthodontic services directly to customers via the Internet. There are hundreds of direct-to-customer (D2C) dentistry startups attempting to disrupt the dental care segment, which offer customers invisible aligners, premium toothpaste and toothbrush subscriptions, and smartphone-powered LED teeth whitening products, among others.

It has also been observed that due to COVID, there was an increase in usage of e-services in dental treatment, indicating a faster transition to a D2C model. Businesses are identifying themselves by adopting a D2C model, which involves providing a more personalized process or service by directly engaging with customers, hence producing value for both customers and other stakeholders.

Customers are now hungry for care with some ease, especially in the context of the underlying problems such as access to dental or orthodontic remedies, an extremely time-consuming and cumbersome process. This has created a market for the businesses to figure out how to provide these dental services and treatments directly to the consumer with fewer hassles and at an affordable cost.

While dental care is a broad sector that encompasses a wide range of products and services, here are a few of the top sub-sectors where venture capitalists have invested millions into D2C dental care startups: invisible aligners, teeth whitening products, oral hygiene such as premium kinds of toothpastes and toothbrushes, and dental insurance.

As more startups enter this sector, dentists, orthodontists and insurance services might witness more value additions to their core businesses from these startups to augment their existing offerings. Recent developments in technology have shown that traditional and nascent tech-related businesses have coexisted or augmented each other for the marketplace. Uber and Airbnb are two great global examples of this phenomenon where the tech-led disruption lasted for a while and then settled into a value-added service alongside traditional offerings. Closer to home, we have seen many brands which were earlier on the traditional supply chain move to D2C and keep both alive for their customers.

Considering these D2C dentistry startups are already of immense value to the customers, soon they will start addressing bigger systemic healthcare challenges, in addition to affordable aesthetic procedures; in their effort to make this sector more organised.

The rapid growth of dental care startups

The following factors are propelling the growth of D2C dental care start-ups:

Customer convenience: Customers now have an option to undergo various orthodontic treatments including performing scans for invisible aligners from the comfort of their homes using trained professionals. Many times, customers do not have access to or the time to visit a dentist, few more reasons were discovered that customers skipped their sessions to prevent themselves from COVID, preferred familiar settings at an affordable cost than in-hospital care. They don't even have to remember to buy new toothbrush heads, floss, or toothpaste because they can sign up for a subscription service enabling recurring delivery every few months to ensure their dental hygiene is being taken care of. India has witnessed a similar evolution in the diagnostics space a decade ago, while now all collection services are provided at home by trained personnel.

Affordable price: Historically, the dental care industry has been largely led by a few major players, thus maintaining a strong brand equity for their products and services. Oral care startups selling directly to consumers are developing high quality affordable alternatives to conventional oral care products. One company, for example, sells an electric toothbrush for INR 1,099, whereas other larger brands sell the same for over INR 1,599 each. Invisible aligners for basic treatment cost INR 25,000, whereas treatment with a proficient orthodontist cost is upwards of INR 2 lakh depending on the case. The D2C company's tactical approach to save costs subsequently is passed on to the consumer in the form of affordable-priced items for cases which can be tackled using normal back end consultations with dentists using the tech enabled services of the new startups.

Traditional and digital ways of promotion: The majority of D2C brands begin with a social media advertising plan. However, as more digital-led brands compete for customers' attention on social media, more D2C brands are turning to television advertising. Television commercials reach a larger audience thus further enhancing brand visibility and brand recall in busy segments. Consumers are enticed to engage with a brand on a personal level by the storytelling format style of television commercials. Television advertising addresses a target consumer demography that is less aligned to social media advertising by firms that offer services such as teeth straightening and whitening.

Expansion of the product line: Oral care startups, like many other D2C brands, are growing their product lines beyond a single product or service and evolving into bigger lifestyle brands with multiple offerings. These are evolving into new markets and services such as shopping, grooming services, cab services, lodging, etc., to establish strong brand visibility, despite tough competition and venture capital demands.

D2C is definitely the future for retail and services, but it is not going to disrupt the market beyond a point and fears of the traditional businesses in this regard are exaggerated. Traditional service providers and the orthodontist community both can benefit from the value addition of the start-ups and expand the market together by looking at the market in segments of complexity. I am certain like many examples witness globally and in India, D2C has the potential to augment traditional services and deliver enhanced power to the consumer who is soon going to be spoilt for choice.