Senior Living Tries to Capture Magic of Brands Like Virgin

In rebranding, a number of senior living organizations are beginning to employ a strategy used by iconic brands like Virgin.

Specifically, it’s very on-trend for companies, no matter their industry, to choose a new name that’s aspirational as opposed to descriptive, Geoff Cook, partner at international strategy, design and branding firm Base Design, told Senior Housing News. Base Design has done branding projects for clients including The New York Times, MoMa, Wellesley College and JFK Airport.

In years past, organizations’ names tended to be very literal, Cook explained. For example, the Center for Fine Arts in Brussels, Belgium, was long called the “Palais des Beaux-Arts,” or the Palace of Fine Arts in French—that is, until Base Design was entrusted to rename it. Now, it’s called BOZAR, a name which, when said aloud in English, is the phonetic pronunciation of the French words “Beaux-Arts.” The change was made so that English-speaking tourists visiting Brussels would know how to pronounce the name of the building, and it’s been embraced by both tourists and locals alike.

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In recent years and months, this trend of being less literal and more aspirational has made its way into senior living: American Baptist Homes of the West (ABHOW) eventually became HumanGood, Pathway Senior Living became Pathway to Living, the Assisted Living Federation of America became Argentum, and real estate investment trust Health Care REIT became Welltower (NYSE: WELL). And just this week, Walnut Creek, California-based senior housing and care provider Episcopal Senior Communities announced it had changed its name to “Covia”—a name that’s supposed to hint at where the provider is going, rather than where it’s been.

Covia is likely far from the last senior housing provider that will debut a new, unique name in 2018. The path that Covia’s leadership traveled to arrive at the new name, however, will likely be retraced by a large number of successors.

From stodgy to sexy

Brands outside the senior housing industry have been following this model this for decades, Cook noted. One such brand is Virgin, which has long aimed to stand out as a hip alternative to weary, old competitors in various markets, including the airline and hotel industries.

“If you want to promote the idea of cool, anti-establishment, what better name than Virgin?” Cook said.

Even if aspirational branding is by no means a novel concept, it is a current focus as companies try to refresh their images, Cook said.

“What we often work on is developing brand names that represent an aspirational concept more than a tactical descriptor,” he explained.

A “tactical descriptor” is a brand name that bluntly describes what a company is and does.

Base Design did not work on the rebrand of Episcopal Senior Communities, but this is an example of what he is talking about, Cook said. Before it became Covia, the provider’s brand name was a tactical descriptor.

“Episcopal Senior Communities. That’s what it is, and there’s nothing particularly sexy about it,” he said.

“Covia,” Cook noted, isn’t a word you’d find in the dictionary, but it has meaning, and it is meant to evoke a certain feeling.

That feeling is one of traveling the path of life, according to Mary McMullin, senior vice president for organizational advancement at Covia.

The “Co” in Covia is supposed to represent connection, community, compassion and companionship, while the “via” is meant to represent both life and paths.

Becoming Covia

The decision to rebrand Episcopal Senior Communities was made two-and-a-half years ago, according to McMullin.

“It was part of our growth strategy in that we knew we wanted to become a larger system, and we also recognized that our name could be limiting to some, having our denomination first,” she said. “It’s not that we’re not Episcopalian, it’s that we were concerned how it would be perceived.”

Founded in 1965, the provider currently operates six life plan communities and five affordable senior housing communities in Northern California. Due to its longstanding history, company leadership recognized that a name change would be met with some initial pushback, so a great deal of time was spent discussing the possibility in focus groups with board members and resident representatives.

A branding firm—Zeste—was secured by the provider, and hundreds of names were explored before leadership landed on Covia.

In any industry, the right way to go about informing concerned parties about a name change is through strong, unwavering leadership, according to Cook.

“You need strong leadership that understands the need for the name change and backs it up with resources,” he said. When the Palais des Beaux-Arts became BOZAR, for instance, there was “very vocal public pushback,” but there was “a very rational reason for why we did it”—and that reason was effectively communicated.

As part of Episcopal Senior Communities’ rebrand, all of the names of individual communities will stay the same, but they will all now include an endorsement, such as “a Covia Life Plan Community.”

The rebrand was years in the making and unique to one provider, but there is one takeaway that every senior housing provider should consider, according to McMullin.

“What’s your identity?” she said. “What is it that sets you apart and is something that you can rally behind?”

Written by Mary Kate Nelson

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