Behind the Rebrand: Improving Senior Living Occupancy and Image

Senior housing providers across the country have found rebranding can fill long-standing vacancies and make their communities relevant again, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that more and more seem to be taking the plunge.

Several high-profile name changes have already occurred within the past year, including The Assisted Living Federation of America (ALFA) changing its name to Argentum and Health Care REIT (NYSE: HCN) changing its name to Welltower.

Providers have gotten in on the action as well, with Leisureworld Senior Care becoming Sienna Senior Living and Christian Care Centers becoming Christian Care Senior Living Communities, among others.

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Senior Housing News focused in on one Seattle-based senior housing provider, whose rebranding experience showcases the process’s complexities and rewards.

Turning the Census Around

There are plenty of reasons why a senior housing community would choose to rebrand, DeAnne Clune, corporate marketing director for Presbyterian Retirement Communities Northwest (PRCN), told Senior Housing News.

Perhaps there has been a change in ownership or management, or a change in the services offered by the community. There is also rebranding for the sake of differentiating a specific community from the competition.

PRCN, for example, “is in a really transformative period right now,” as it is “reinventing” and heading in “exciting new directions,” Clune said. The Seattle-based nonprofit provider currently operates four communities offering a range of care across the continuum, from independent living to skilled nursing.

“When organizations start out rebranding, they may not even know that they need it,” Cynthia Thurlow-Cruver, president of Seattle-based 3rdThird Marketing, told SHN. 3rdThird specializes in lead generation for the senior housing market and has worked with PRCN to rebrand some of its properties.

Thurlow-Cruver explained that many providers know that their census is low, but they don’t know how to fix it.

“Usually what we find is their messaging and their branding is off, and it doesn’t describe what they do,” Thurlow-Cruver said. “Usually, within a year to two years, rebranding turns their census around.”

What’s in a Name?

The rebranding process involves many changes, most obviously having to do with a community’s name. Senior living providers are shifting away from previously popular naming practices, finding them unappealing, confusing and inaccurate.

“Having a church name in the name of the organization is a huge problem,” Thurlow-Cruver told SHN. With a name that references a religion, the community’s sales team often has to dispel rumors or false impressions. Prospective residents may assume they can’t drink alcohol at a community that has “Baptist” in its name, for example, and then rule the community out based on that.

Religious denomination “invariably creates some level of confusion” amongst prospective residents, Derek Dunham, vice president of client services at Varsity, told SHN. Varsity is a full-service strategic marketing firm based in Wormleysburg, Pennsylvania, that partners with organizations in spaces such as senior living.

A religious affiliation may not always hurt move-ins, though.

“Faith is important insofar as it signals nonprofit, mission, quality of care, perhaps serving a higher purpose than the almighty bottom line,” Dunham said, adding that the successful inclusion of a church name in a community’s branding “really depends on the micro-region.”

Along the same lines, words like “care,” “senior” and “retirement” can all mean different things to different people. Dunham told SHN that some prospective residents embrace these words, while others reject them “vehemently.”

“A lot of people who look at independent living don’t want to think about the fact that they need care, but they love to know that it’s there when the time is right,” Dunham explained. “The reality is they trust the community provides quality care, but they don’t want it staring them in the face when they make those decisions.”

Dunham said he definitely agrees that the word “care” signals the higher end of the continuum.

For reasons like these, organizations may retain the root of their name and drop words like “retirement” or “home” when they rebrand, Thurlow-Cruver told SHN.

Not everyone agrees with this approach. Janelle Randall, a member of the home office support team at Randall Residence, sees value in conveying through a community’s name that it is a place of living. Randall Residence, based in Michigan, has eight total assisted and independent living properties in Illinois, Michigan and Ohio.

“I would personally struggle with a name that didn’t have some tie-in to the industry, because you have to educate people a lot every time you say who you are,” Randall explained to SHN.

Randall Residence was formerly called NaviGroup, which “didn’t really mean anything,” she said. The new practice of including “Randall Residence” in every property name conveys that the property is family-run and a place to live, Randall said.

Reaping the Rebranding Benefits

When PRCN decided to rebrand its communities, leaders took a lot of Thurlow-Cruver’s advice into consideration — and reaped the rewards.

Clune said PRCN has three communities that are in the same market area, but they are different in environment, financial model and service offering. Before rebranding, they were all promoted in the same way.

Thurlow-Cruver stressed to SHN the importance of organizations being able to embrace the uniqueness of a specific community and allow it to be branded as a unique community, while still being tied to the national brand.

In her opinion, this micro-branding of communities can be really beneficial, as people can grow mistrustful of big companies. PRCN took this to heart.

PRCN’s Skyline community opened in 2009, setting it apart from their other two communities in the market, which opened in the 1960s. PRCN sought to market the high-rise community, which boasts views of the mountains, Puget Sound and the Seattle skyline, as a “hip, urban, downtown, cool place to live,” Clune said.

With the help of 3rdThird Marketing, Skyline was rebranded “through color.” It has the only magenta logo in the senior housing industry, Thurlow-Cruver believes.

Magenta makes the logo, and the community, pop — but the color was originally highly contested in corporate meetings, Thurlow-Cruver told SHN: “‘It can’t be pink!’ people said.”

Besides the coloring, Skyline also adopted new brochures, a sleek letter style and minimal graphics. The idea was to appeal to world travelers and seniors with second homes, and it worked: the 300-unit community went from occupancy rates in the 90s to a 100% occupancy rate with a waiting list, Thurlow-Cruver told SHN.

Staff is the Brand

When it comes to branding specific communities, it is a mistake to continue focusing on who the residents are, rather than focusing on future residents, Thurlow-Cruver said. Changes made with only future residents in mind, however, can lead to resistance from current residents and staff.

“Some people feel really, really invested in whatever their identity is,” Thurlow-Cruver told SHN. “Resisting change is a challenge.”

Thurlow-Cruver advised involving those people at the very beginning of the rebranding process to limit resistance later. This can take place in one-on-one interviews, forums or other places where they feel like they can be heard.

Luckily, “the majority of people, once the branding gets going, they see it and they like it,” she said.

Dunham similarly recommended including current residents, prospective residents, and frontline staff in the rebranding process. He said that to the residents, the frontline staff is the brand of the community. When they hear the name of the community, they don’t think of the CEO — they think of the community’s receptionist, waitstaff and housekeeping, for example.

“It would be wrong to not include frontline staff,” Dunham said.

Clune offered some additional tips regarding how best to attract new residents while keeping current residents in mind. In her opinion, senior housing providers could look to other consumer-focused industries, such as retail, hotels and restaurants, as examples of how they are continually evolving their brands to speak to current and future customers.

“I think it is something we absolutely need to do,” Clune said.

Written by Mary Kate Nelson

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