Senior Living Industry ‘Sea Change’ Requires New Approach to Innovation

It’s a common refrain that the senior housing industry is mired in normal supply-demand dynamics. If such were the case, owners, investors and providers feeling the pain now can wait for the real estate cycle to turn and then continue doing business as usual.

Brenda Bacon, president and CEO of Brandywine Living, does not subscribe to that line of thinking.

“You’ll hear a lot of people say, ‘Oh, well, this happened in 2008 and it happened in 2002 when the industry got overbuilt, and so this, too, shall pass,’” Bacon told Senior Housing News. “I, for one, don’t believe we’re in a cycle. I think we’re in a sea change.”

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In other words, while oversupply is eroding occupancy, the industry cannot count on future demand to be there. Instead, providers must innovate to meet a new generation of residents.

To provide a sense of the big-picture thinking that needs to be done, Brandywine Vice President of Organizational Development and Program Excellence Maria Nadelstumph moderated a panel on innovation at the National Investment Center for Seniors Housing & Care (NIC) conference in Chicago last week.

Specifically, to highlight that senior living should look for inspiration from other industries, the panel focused on two success stories: Procter & Gamble’s Swiffer mop and the new cafe concept from Capital One (NYSE: COF).

Those two companies were able to reinvent their products — a mop and a bank branch — to attract new consumers. They did that through gathering consumer feedback, though not in the way you’d expect.

When Boston-based innovation design and development firm EPAM Continuum set out to help Procter & Gamble release a new mop more than two decades ago, it didn’t poll consumers on what made a good mop — because that could have only led to the design of, at best, a great mop, said Heather Reavey, head of innovation delivery for EPAM Continuum.

“Where the innovation comes from is really understanding what they care about in life,” Reavey said. “Your job is to connect what they care about in life to your category.”

For example, while doing consumer research for the development of the Swiffer, the consultancy’s researchers visited everyday people in their homes and asked people about cleaning. The discussion was framed not around functional needs, like what makes a mop good or bad; but rather emotional needs, like how cleaning the floor makes them feel and what they’d rather be doing instead.

A similar process took place at online banking giant Capital One, which set out a few years ago to reinvent the conventional bank branch. But first, it had to forget all previous ideas of what a bank branch is.

“We decided to start from scratch,” said Jennifer Windbeck, managing vice president of market experience with Capital One. “We were designing for the type of person who prefers digital lifestyles but craves social connection.”

In doing so, Capital One talked with its customers not about what they’d like to see in a bank branch, but instead how they feel about their personal finances and what stresses them out about banking.

The idea Capital One came up with in the end was one that’s radically different from a traditional bank location. The company currently has 38 cafes across the U.S. where people can buy Peet’s coffee and talk about their finances with an expert, should they so choose.

“We developed these spaces that felt a little bit hip, a little bit different,” Windbeck said.

Nadelstumph drew the connections with senior living.

“If you asked an 85-year-old to reimagine senior living, they may not know what they want until it’s in front of them,” Nadelstumph said. “So, we need to start thinking outside the box about what’s going to drive business so that we can stay competitive in this highly competitive market.”

Whether the senior living industry can truly reinvent the traditional senior living community remains to be unseen. Unlike a mop or a bank, there are simply some parts of the senior housing and care equation that can’t be tossed out wholesale. But, the underlying theme of focusing on emotional rather than functional needs to innovate offers perhaps a new way forward, according to Nadelstumph.

“As senior living operators, innovation should be part of your business practice and your strategy,” she said. “It does bring a return to you if you’re focused on it and you’re doing it the right way.”

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