Marketing Tactics to Bust the ‘Raisin Ranch’ Stereotype of Senior Living

The “home.” The raisin ranch. The drooly dropoff. These are some of the terms consumers have given senior living communities over the years. And silly as they may seem, they are among the hardest perceptions for providers to shake off, according to Jeremy Johnson, vice president of creative at Kansas City, Missouri-based senior living marketing and advertising agency GlynnDevins.

“I’m not making this up. This is what we hear,” Johnson said Tuesday at the LeadingAge Illinois conference near Chicago. “This is scary stuff.”

The good news is, there’s an antidote to these toxic notions. It’s going to take a radical change in the way senior living marketers tell stories. Doing so will be crucial if senior living providers are going to increase their penetration rate, considering the vast majority of older Americans say they would prefer to age in place in their homes.

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“We have been selling ourselves short,” Johnson said. “I want to have a call to arms and say, let’s step up our game.”

‘A product no one wants to buy’

One reason these negative stereotypes persist is that many consumers are already very skeptical of senior living communities. Many older adults don’t want to move into a retirement community unless they’re being “wheeled out of their homes feet-first,” Johnson said.

“We are advertising a product no one wants to buy. That’s a really hard thing to do,” he added.

Of course, a little skepticism is likely warranted for such a complex purchase. The process of buying into a senior living community is like picking out a new home, choosing a doctor, selecting life and health insurance, managing investments for maximum return and settling on a country club to join—all wrapped up into one package.

And even if seniors are interested in moving into a senior living community, they’re usually only there because they need help with activities of daily living, are referrals or are in markets with a higher adoption rate for senior living services. Despite those steep challenges, there is a silver lining—but only for senior living providers who are willing to break the mold.

“How do we convince them to move sooner rather than later?” Johnson asked. “We convince them to shop sooner. We focus on changing those perceptions. We help them see themselves at the community. And we invite them to be part of something great.”

No more ‘old ideas’ 

It’s no secret that ageism is rampant in popular culture. For years, seniors have been the butt of the joke in national ad campaigns and late night sketch comedy shows, and avoiding these kind of “old ideas” is vitally important for marketers who want to entice seniors to move into a community before they fall into the need-based category.

On the flip side, there are some themes and concepts that advertisers in the senior living space might want to emulate, like insurance giant Humana’s recent “Love Notes” commercial. The ad shows an older man jogging through his neighborhood—almost as if he’s lost or confused—before revealing he was actually drawing a heart on his GPS step tracker.

“It’s a great spot,” Johnson said. “[Advertisers are] really waking up to this idea that their consumers are changing.”

When marketing to seniors or their loved ones, Johnson recommended following three simple rules: entertain them, inform them and respect them. Those concepts shine in a web video GlynnDevins worked on for The Amsterdam at Harborside, a continuing care retirement community (CCRC) in Port Washington, New York.

The video shows the community’s real residents dining, swimming, painting and playing pool, but noticeably lacks dialogue or narration. That’s because marketers should show, not tell, what it is they’re advertising when possible, Johnson said.

But effective ads don’t always need to show the happier side of life—they can also be bittersweet. One recent example of that is an emotional 2017 Gillette ad about a son caring for his aging father, a former towboat captain who suffered a stroke.

The ad shows the son waking his dad in the morning, giving him a shower, and delicately shaving his face. Though these are images that many senior living providers choose not to depict in their advertising, showing the human side of the services can be a powerful marketing tool.

“There are so many things in that spot that this industry has been too afraid to show people, and that’s unfortunate, because we have some great stories to tell,” Johnson said. “Every one of your communities has amazing stories to tell, but we’re too afraid to share them.”

Near the end of his presentation, Johnson shared a crucial nugget of wisdom from Rob Norman, the retired former CEO and global chief digital officer for media investment group GroupM North America: “The most successful brands will be the ones associated with an emotion, belief or value that resonates with audiences on a personal level.”

Written by Tim Regan

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