How Atria Senior Living Built an Award-Winning In-House Marketing Machine

In a fiercely competitive senior living landscape, it’s more important than ever for providers to have effective and cost-efficient marketing. Atria Senior Living has won numerous awards for the quality of its marketing materials, and the company credits its in-house approach, which includes a full-service print shop and video production studio at its Louisville headquarters.

The in-house approach developed gradually, as Atria expanded and the senior living marketplace evolved, according to Regan Atkinson, senior vice president of marketing, creative and communications.

“As our portfolio changed and we became more coastal, we started to do redevelopment … and you would need to reposition the product,” she told Senior Housing News. “We would have communities that were more of a Courtyard Marriott, if you will, and they needed to be re-introduced as a JW Marriott. Atria was outsourcing that to [marketing] agencies, and we had to constantly re-tell our story over and over again.”

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The Great Recession added further pressures. Prior to the financial collapse, senior living communities largely looked the same, but the need to adapt to quickly changing market conditions drove a greater diversity of operating models, in terms of unit mix, level of amenities, and price point.

“Marketing had to become more nuanced,” Atkinson said.

Bringing marketing totally in-house has proven to be a wise move, she said, driving more cohesion in the brand and also bringing cost-related benefits. It’s also part of Atria’s larger strategy of being a vertically integrated company, with in-house IT and other functions all collaborating to create a customer-centric experience.

Making it work

Atria has more than doubled in size during Atkinson’s tenure, and currently operates about 230 communities across the United States and Canada. Coordinating marketing for such a large portfolio requires the right systems and processes.

The company creates about 85% of its marketing collateral at its Louisville headquarters and makes these available to communities through a digital storefront. There are more than 2,000 pieces available, from web banners for a community’s site to large items like restaurant branding. To fulfill community orders, the marketing team has done about 29,000 jobs over the past year, Atkinson estimated.

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The storefront is also built on a variable data platform, meaning that pieces can be individualized to each community. “We know that our customers are buying something very local, and we want to make sure there’s a local narrative,” Atkinson said.

With so many orders coming in, the process has to be streamlined for efficiency, and this has been an ongoing effort. For instance, customized pieces require proofing. What was a 12-step process in 2007 has now been boiled down to a two-person process, involving just a proofer and the in-house printshop.

Overall, the marketing team numbers 47 people, including designers, copywriters, digital designers, video producers, and others. Locating Atria’s home base in Louisville has enabled it to staff this team, Atkinson explained. The city is home to a lot of big agencies that service Fortune 500 brands, so Atria has been able to hire from a rich talent pool.

Being located in Louisville may also help Atria’s leaders and creative talent maintain a valuable perspective. While Atria has a strong presence in coastal markets, being in the middle of the country is like being in neutral territory, Regan said.

“We can objectively look at the markets and work closely with people in those markets, and it’s easy to travel from here — which we all do a lot,” she said.

Love plus math

Centralizing the marketing function and creating these efficient processes for distributing collateral has paid off in various ways for Atria.

“There’s consistency across the framework,” Atkinson said. “The videos in the studio, the events programs across the portfolio, the internal messaging, there’s a cohesion that allows us to be more effective and efficient as a brand.”

While there are obviously costs to in-sourcing marketing, hiring agencies is not cheap, she added. And in terms of driving a return on investment, the company’s ability to rapidly execute can make a huge difference.

For instance, during last year’s Hurricane Irma, some Atria residents were evacuated to the same Disney World hotel where actress Kristen Bell was staying. Bell befriended several residents and participated in activities with them. Atria’s ability to execute operationally dovetailed with its ability to execute on the marketing side to make the most of this situation, Atkinson said.

“The ability to execute allowed us to evacuate 600 residents and hundreds of employees to a hotel in Disney World, and because we already had everything dialed-in, that allowed for the situation of Kristen Bell coming in to help lead programming, and we knew how to seize on that and capitalize on it,” she said. “It resulted in going viral and getting on Jimmy Kimmel Live, and $20 million in free PR. You could say Atria is really lucky, but we were in the hotel with other providers [that were] scrambling to provide basic services.”

While Atkinson is not certain whether Atria relies less than competitors on third-party referral sites due to its own marketing, the company did invest in a digital team to create an inquiry generation platform about five years ago. From that, Atria is seeing that consumers are just starting to understand the nuances of senior living and the continuum of care, with an upsurge in the number of people searching for “assisted living” rather than “nursing home.”

Overall, having the in-house capabilities is a selling point for owners and investors.

“When we transition an acquisition from other operators, so many do not have in-house marketing,” Atkinson said. “The cost efficiencies are significant, and the quality of the product is so much higher.”

One testament to the quality of the product: the awards that the Atria marketing team has racked up. It has won 47 local, regional, national and international awards since 2011, including 30 ADDYs. The ADDYs are the advertising industry’s largest competition, and Atria has gone head-to-head with heavy-hitters to claim these prizes. For instance, Atria won a gold ADDY for a book that was created for residents, to help guide their programming through the year, and beat out Disney for that award.

Last year, Atria won a gold ADDY for its International Gratitude Day campaign. Residents said they wanted to recognize civic heroes like police officers and firefighters, so Atria provided a context for them to do that, related to International Gratitude Day. That resulted in “several million dollars of free PR,” as residents began doing remarkable things to show their gratitude, and newspapers around the country picked up those stories, Atkinson said.

In terms of projects currently in the works, Atria has created a second edition of StoryWise. The first edition was a boxed set of cards that contained prompts to generate discussion and connection between residents, family members and staff. It won a Best of the Best award from senior living industry association Argentum.

The second edition, which will be gifted to residents in December, is less focused on backward-looking prompts and is designed to focus participants more on the present moment and finding common ground with each other, Atkinson said.

Companies that lack Atria’s scale or don’t operate similarly upscale communities may have a different cost-benefit calculus when it comes to bringing marketing in house, but Atkinson emphasizes how the approach fits into Atria’s core beliefs.

“One of our philosophies is love plus math equals Atria,” Atkinson said. “It’s about us creating a smarter business that people really want to pay for. There’s the love of people and the love of doing good for the most people, and the math part is making it work, so that we can be a great place to work and a great place to live.”

Written by Tim Mullaney

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