What's in a name? Your organization's future viability, that's what!

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Lisa McCracken
Lisa McCracken

Despite the title, this guest column is not a lesson in the work of Shakespeare or the tragedy of “Romeo and Juliet.” It is, however, an important parallel between that popular late 1500s work and the state of the senior living industry today. Just as family names were powerful in the story of Romeo and Juliet, names and labels are critical as we look to the future of the senior living sector.

Name changes

As the world changes, so too must organizations. Over the past several years, the senior living sector has seen a wave of changes in organizational names, association names and overall nomenclature. The volume of these changes has been significant.

As an example, as part of its 50th anniversary in 2011, the American Homes and Services for the Aging officially launched its new name, LeadingAge. Just last year, the Assisted Living Federation of America rebranded itself as Argentum. What both of these changes had in common was a forward-looking stance at the possibilities around aging, the future needs of members and ultimately the future of services for older adults.

Were the former names bad? Not necessarily, but they certainly focused more on the past, and some of the words used connoted negative stereotypes associated with seniors (for instance, “assisted” and “aging”).

Similarly, the senior living sector has seen a wave of name changes and rebranding among senior living providers. The drivers are much the same: Organizations need to be relevant and viable for tomorrow's consumer and the changing senior living environment.

Ziegler, a national investment bank specializing in healthcare and senior living, tracks this trend in name changes among the largest not-for-profit senior living organizations throughout the country. Since 2004, nearly 60 of the largest 150 organizations have changed their names. Some changes are incremental in nature, with slight adjustments or substitutions, whereas others are a complete replacement of the previous name. Below are some examples of recent name changes.

Prior name


Current name

Lutheran Social Services of Michigan

to

Samaritas

United Methodist Homes of New Jersey

to

United Methodist Communities

Virginia Baptist Homes

to

LifeSpire of Virginia

Episcopal Retirement Homes

to

Episcopal Retirement Services

Air Force Villages

to

Blue Skies of Texas

Lutheran Social Services of South Central Pennsylvania

to

SpiriTrust Lutheran

Generally, the data suggest a departure from names that remind the consumer and society of the aging, frail older adult who is in need of care. Labels such as homes, aging, care and seniors commonly are being replaced with more vibrant, healthy labels for the types of individuals served and services provided. The intent is to celebrate aging and emphasize housing and services that promote healthy living rather than infirmity and decline.

New taglines also can help associations and organizations achieve this shift. For example, when Lutheran Social Services of Michigan changed its name to Samaritas, a new tagline — “Connect. Empower. Transform.” — was incorporated into the new logo. Similarly, LifeSpire of Virginia has the tagline: “Faith. Wellness. Community.”   

Industry vernacular

In addition to organizational name changes, several changes have taken place with regard to the overall vernacular that is being used in the industry. This is largely being driven by what nomenclature is palatable to tomorrow's consumer.

It was a very positive step forward when historical labels such as ward, asylum, and infirmary were replaced with facility, institution and rest home within the industry. Even those newer words, however, no longer are appropriate in today's environment.

Simple phrases and words such as “care,” which have been used to connote services offered or a particular living arrangement, need to be closely examined for their relevance, particularly for baby boomers, who are known for living active lifestyles. Rather than “levels of care,” perhaps organizations need to adopt “levels of service” or “levels of living.” Instead of using “covered days” for allocated health days per contract, perhaps providers need to talk in terms of “support days.” Minor adjustments to labels can communicate a great deal about an organization's focus and commitment to those it serves and can serve as a key differentiator from competitors.

The renaming of the continuing care retirement community to life plan community also is of critical importance. This initiative to adopt a new name for CCRCs was driven largely by the realization that many components of the CCRC name are not well received by baby boomers. As is explained on the lifeplancommunity.org website, “the name continuing care retirement community no longer describes the vibrant, forward-looking nature of the contemporary senior living community.” Just as organizations are looking to position themselves for the future with new names, the category name for their communities also must be relevant moving forward.

What does this mean for your organization?

To be clear, a new organizational name is not necessarily required for future success, but at least it should be a point of discussion every few years as consumer preference changes. Several organizations have names that never included labels such as “homes” or “care for the aging” and, therefore, are more immune to shifts taking place in the sector. It is a good idea, however, for every senior living organization to take a hard look at current names, logos and brands and ask the hard questions about image and future positioning, such as:

  • What does our name, logo and brand say about us?
  • Do we know what the consumer of tomorrow thinks about our name? What message does it convey?
  • Has our mission changed? Should it change as we look toward the future? If so, how does that affect our name and brand?
  • Are we clearly promoting our commitment to healthy aging and vibrant living in our name and/or tagline?

Those questions can be asked internally and of different stakeholder groups. It also is important to know when to partner with a professional firm specializing in healthcare (or even better, senior living) to conduct external research about how the public views the organization's image and brand. Name changes are not to be taken lightly, and the process should not be rushed. Best practice is a disciplined process that allows for a 360-degree examination of the organization and thoughtful planning sessions around selecting the right name for your organization.

Naming is a big part of communicating to others the history of an organization and what it stands for. Senior living leaders should be good stewards for their organizations and make adjustments, when needed, to ensure a thriving, vibrant future in the face of changing consumer preferences and attitudes.

Lisa McCracken is senior vice president of senior living research at specialty investment bank Ziegler.

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