Courtney Malengo, APR

The senior living industry is not sexy. That is one of the reasons providers are struggling to retain and attract talent, among other things.

Most senior living organizations could not begin to compete for the same kind of brand love and affinity afforded to the likes of Starbucks, Ritz-Carlton, Chick-Fil-A, Levi’s, etc. Why is that? The aforementioned notion that our industry is not sexy certainly puts us at a disadvantage. Our country’s culture tends to value youth above all, and so most of us strive to be forever young, denying age until a health crisis occurs.

My assertion is that we as a senior living industry have not challenged these perceptions enough. Unintentionally, we perpetuate the same, stale concepts of aging. It is those cheesy stock photos we all use — zombie-like groups of Caucasian, silver-haired seniors flashing ultra-bright dentures, staring eerily into the camera.

Although there are some impressive trailblazers in senior living, the industry as a whole is behind others. Instead of doing things “the way we’ve always done them,” or what’s easiest from an operational perspective, let’s transform senior living by putting our customers and their experiences at the forefront of all we do. Powerful brands understand this concept and use that information to drive return on investment, products, services and amenities.

Several schools of thought exist on brands and branding. Some people will tell you that branding or the brand is simply a logo, product or company. Merriam-Webster defines a brand as a category of products that all are made by a particular company and all have a particular name. Branding is defined as the promoting of a product or service. The American Marketing Association’s definitions are more progressive, acknowledging the customer: A brand is a customer experience represented by a collection of images and ideas. …Brand recognition and other reactions are created by the accumulation of experiences with the specific product or service.”

I would elaborate on this latter definition by saying that a brand is a culmination of touchpoints or experiences that an individual has with your product, service or company. All of these touchpoints amount to how your customer feels about your brand.

A brand cannot exist without its customer; therefore, the lens through which we need to view all of our efforts is the customer experience. That means that every interaction, in-person or over email, affects your brand. Every interaction a customer has with your employees, your website, marketing collaterals, community events and so forth, all affect your brand. Every online review, positive or negative, affects your brand.

In senior living, these interactions do not just apply to residents, prospects or family members. They extend to anyone who interfaces with your organization — volunteers, employees, guests, vendors, donors, board members, community partners and more. Branding should be viewed in the lens of a holistic experience, one where all of the details and players come together to create one unified voice and experience that reinforces your brand’s message.

To win the war on brand affinity in senior living and continually earn high satisfaction endorsements and five-star ratings, we must intentionally align the brand promise with the customer’s experience. Here are some tips to build a unified brand voice and cultivate brand affinity through positive customer experiences:

  • Understand your customers. Understand who your customers are, what they want and how they experience your brand. Although some may coin customer experience as the new catchphrase, there is a business case for heeding this audience. What if you are selling something your customers don’t want? Or, what if you are selling something that doesn’t hold up to the brand promise? The chasm between brand promise and reality can be devastating. Listen to your customers, and find themes and insights in what they share. Put those into action to reap the positive brand affinity you seek.
  • Align your messaging. Marketing, sales, philanthropy, human resources and the executive office all have different voices. Sometimes these voices compete for attention and often have very different purposes. Ensure that all internal and external messaging and communication channels are integrated to complement your brand. This means destroying silos and intentional cross-coordination amongst departments, or creating one unified department that serves as a hub for all things communication (marketing, public relations, sales, branding).
  • Fiercely protect your brand! In the words of Under Armour, “protect this house!” Create style and brand guidelines to help others along the journey. It is impossible to review every single document or message. Equip employees to embrace your brand message by providing the tools and guidelines to do so. Additionally, actively monitor and respond to what people are saying about your brand, whether on social media or review sites. 
  • Leverage and reward brand ambassadors. Technically, your employees and customers are all brand ambassadors. However, there are individuals who embody the best qualities and values of your brand — and these are the ones you want to recognize and reward, as they have exponential influence on their peers and customers. Word of mouth still is more powerful than any traditional or digital marketing tactic ever will be. Leverage these individuals who delight your customers.
  • Everyone is responsible. Your brand’s collection of touchpoints and experiences do not solely rest with marketing, public relations or sales. It is the responsibility of everyone to uphold the brand and represent it in the best possible light. If it only rests with your sales and marketing staff, it will never infiltrate your operations, where the day-to-day customer care happens.

Courtney Malengo, an accredited public relations professional, has spent more than 13 years in various marketing and communication capacities in several industries. For the past eight years, she has focused on crafting public relations and marketing strategies for senior living. She is the director of communications for National Lutheran Communities & Services, headquartered in Rockville, MD.

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