Senior Living Banks on Rebranding to Capture Boomers

A spate of rebranding initiatives in the senior housing space have seen companies dropping words like “retirement” and “assisted living” from their names, with varying motivators.

Some have kept “senior living,” while changing other aspects of their brands. All are joined by the common thread of rebranding—and capturing the boomer consumer—although the exact reasons for their name changes differ by company.

Emphasis on living, not retiring 

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A 14-year-old company, Willow Valley Retirement Management in Lancaster, Pa., announced in early April a name change to Willow Valley Living. The move follows its sister company’s September decision to drop “retirement” and become Willow Valley Communities.

Subtracting “retirement” from the names, according to company president John Swanson, moves the focus to “individuals rather than on their aging process or life stage.”

“If they’re smart, [companies will] continue to avoid euphemisms used to describe older populations and the products targeted to them,” says Jim Gilmartin, principal of boomer and senior marketing agency Coming of Age, of rebranding companies that operate in the senior space. “Companies need to think of target markets as who they are—people. Think of them as a customer or consumer.”

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Gilmartin cites a California senior living nonprofit formerly known as The Southern California Presbyterian Homes as a prime example. Founded in 1955, the organization changed its name to be.group in April 2011, and hasn’t looked back.

The action verb in the name demonstrates the provider’s mission of helping residents discover new options for exploring their potential: “It’s a name and a philosophy that sums up everything they’ve been, everything they are today, and everything they aspire to be in the future,” Gilmartin says.

The fresh start

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But there are others reasons to rebrand, and part of the appeal of renaming a company comes from the opportunity of a fresh start, he says: “A name change creates a new identity that can help draw attention away from events of the past and focus it instead on their new message.”

That’s what Enlivant—formerly Assisted Living Concepts—is attempting to do, calling its recent, comprehensive rebranding a “rebirth” for the 30-year-old company.

Prior to being acquired by private equity group TPG in a deal that closed in July 2013, the senior living operator had its share of regulatory woes, and in the process allegedly violated its lease with Ventas Realty, which led to a lawsuit. Earnings dropped and so did occupancy, but under new ownership and management, the operator is looking to turn things around—including its public image.

“We changed out the vast majority of executive leadership. We have fantastic associates in our communities and have attempted to enhance training to comply with state regulations, policy, and procedures,” says Jack Callison, Jr., CEO of Enlivant (formerly Assisted Living Concepts).

But rebranding is not as simple as changing a name and moving forward, and there are dangers associated with it, says Gilmartin.

“One of the key disadvantages of redesigning a company is the possibility of losing brand awareness,” he says. “After spending time putting a brand into the public consciousness and associating it with your products and identity, a shift may force you to start all over again.”

That can be especially true with extensive redesigns that include a company name change, Gilmartin adds, and Callison emphasized that Enlivant isn’t trying to forget the company’s history.

“Brands are really about relationships, and this is very much a local business,” he says. “We’re partnering with our community-level and regional teams to connect in each of the markets where we operate and get the word out that Enlivant is the same 30-year-old organization with an amazing track record, but also a rebirth for our company.”

The other aspect of Enlivant’s rebranding is a reinvigorated outlook.

“We worked with a national branding firm, The Richards Group. We wanted a new name that helped us support our new brand, something that conveys vitality and spirit,” says Callison. “When you think of the attributes that come to mind through word association with the new name—something we’ve done with consumers—they say words like vibrant, enliven, energy.”

New ownership, new values

For Andara Senior Living, an independent and assisted living community in Scottsdale, Ariz. built in 2009, a nearly $1 million remodeling and rebranding initiative helped prospective residents, vendors and other businesses realize new ownership was in place.

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The Reliant Group purchased the former Artè Senior Living out of bankruptcy in June 2013 for $30 million and began working on changing both the community’s appearance and image this year.

“‘Artè’ almost directly linked to the art deco aesthetics and look and feel of the community,” explains Jeff Golner, Principal at Agency G and spokesperson for Andara. “It was extremely evident when you walked in, but it was not very pleasing to the residents. The Reliant Group knew they wanted to remodel, and during the process, they realized the name no longer matched the community.”

While the name change wasn’t drastic and still includes “senior living,” it has already had an impact in the few weeks it’s been in place, according to Golner.

“I’ve been hearing from the community’s director of sales and marketing that the phone is ringing again,” he says. “It’s mostly vendors, but the majority are ready and willing to do business again, because the community had gotten a bad connotation from being in bankruptcy.”

The 170-unit community’s occupancy was beneath 30% when it was purchased from previous owner Avenir Retirement Communities. Now, with new owners and Senior Lifestyle Corporation as operator, the occupancy is above 40% and rising, aided by renewed interest in the property since the renaming, Golner says.

Rebranding doesn’t always mean a clean slate, though, cautions Gilmartin.

“If it’s designed to cover up a poor performing company, [boomers] are typically too smart to be fooled,” he says. “Effectively approaching baby boomers demands knowledge of their values and purchase motivators and converting that knowledge into images and copy that connects with them.”

Written by Alyssa Gerace

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