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Brand as a Competitive Advantage in Senior Living

You hear it everywhere – senior living growth is at unprecedented levels. Unprecedented growth results in unprecedented competition. For consumers, it means more options and more choices. For many long-standing communities, they were the only community in town. They were the destination for senior living. Now seniors and adult children have options. It’s no longer enough to have a bulleted list of services and amenities. For communities, new and old alike, it means you must step up your game. How will you stand out among the increased competition?

Deeper than your logo

Many communities are turning to their brand as the answer. Brand is an often-misunderstood marketing tool. Many people think their brand is their logo. Yes, a logo is an important component of brand identity, but brand goes much deeper. There are many definitions for brand and branding, including this one by Ashley Friedlein, CEO and co-founder of Econsultancy: “Brand is the sum total of how someone perceives a particular organization. Branding is about shaping that perception.” How is your community perceived? Is it the perception you want?

This is the first step – look inward. Go back to basics. Mission, vision, values. Who are you as an organization? What do you do? How do you do it? What do you aspire to be? What are the guiding principles that make it a reality? Due to the nature of these core questions, brand is making its way into boardrooms and strategic planning discussions. Increased competition just might be a blessing in disguise, because it forces conversations on topics that have been stored on a shelf gathering dust.

Talk to your people

In addition to revisiting mission, vision and values – talk to your people. Connect with staff and residents to understand what they love about working and living at your community. This is often where you’ll uncover the building blocks of your brand from the people who know it best. Why did your residents choose to move to your community? Look to those who made the move recently because they’re closest to that decision-making process. How did they decide? What factors were most influential? Don’t stop there. It’s not enough to go down the hall and ask your brand ambassadors what they like – you’ll likely get, “It’s the people.” And then it will likely quickly turn to some suggestions on ways to improve, which will inevitably include dining feedback. There’s a bit of sarcasm in that example, but in all seriousness, that feedback is important and has its place. However, you must dig deeper and talk with more people.

External analysis

It’s not enough to only focus internally when evaluating your competitive advantage. There are two sides to the external analysis – competition review and perceptions research. An important component of brand is positioning – the position you want to occupy in your consumers’ minds relative to your competition. You must understand your competition before you can understand your position. Part of this is what you’d expect with a competitive review – community type, location, levels of care offered, financial plans, amenities, etc. It should also include how they’re positioning themselves. How do they talk about themselves? What tone and words do they use? What are they promising their residents? This leads into the next part – perceptions research.

I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard a marketing director or executive director tell me they know what people think of them. Unless you’ve conducted research with outside audiences – you don’t know what people think of you. You think you know. And you might be right, but it’s worth the investment to know for sure. Talk with people outside the walls of your community. It can be valuable to talk to both leads and prospects.

Leads are people in your CRM database – people who’ve contacted you and expressed interest in your community. These people will bring the perspective of those who are actively searching for a senior living community. They’ll have priceless insight into how your community is perceived and also how your competition is perceived. Prospects are another group who can provide valuable insight. This group should be age-and income-qualified people in your primary market area who aren’t in your CRM database. This is the closest you’ll get to “word on the street,” because it isn’t an educated perception, but rather true perception based on daily interactions and word-of-mouth.

Understand your perception

Perception isn’t reality, but it might as well be when it comes to searching for a senior living community. You want to be in the consideration set, and you need to know if there’s a reason people aren’t considering you. For many communities, they find they’re perceived as expensive, a nursing home, snooty, or for affiliate communities – only open to certain religions or groups of people. These perceptions can prevent people from looking further, but the good news is that they can be changed. Once you understand your current perception, you can make a plan for how you want to achieve your desired position.

Develop an actionable plan

You’ll be armed with a lot of important information, so the last step is to turn that information into an actionable plan. Identify the core messages you want people to know about your community that set you apart from your competition, and focus on those. Consistently and thoroughly focus on those in every aspect of communications and experience, and those core messages will become your brand – both internally and externally.

As we said in the beginning, it’s no longer enough to have a bulleted list of services and amenities. Often it’s the intangibles that add the spark of uniqueness to your community. The feeling, the culture of a community. We commonly hear that people visited a handful of communities and then found the one that was right for them – “we just knew when we walked in.” Your goal is to be in the consideration set and then close the deal with the experience people have when they walk through the doors of your community.

That begins and ends with a strong brand.

At the 2018 LeadingAge Illinois Annual Meeting and Expo, Molly White, vice president of brand strategy, and Jeremy Johnson, vice president of creative, explained that your brand is at the heart of a unique community experience, and why you should place as much emphasis on recruiting and retaining the right employees as you do on attracting and retaining your residents. See more details about this presentation here.

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