By Mary Ann Donaghy

As a career consumer marketer, I have always had a great appreciation for really strong brands — brands that know what sets them apart and who their customers are. It takes courage, conviction, and commitment by the companies who build these brands to bring them to life at every customer touch point.

Branding is not just a logo or a tagline or a font. Branding is a decision about who you’re going to be — and who you are trying to get that message to. Then planning marketing and operations decisions to ensure that every customer interaction builds up that brand.

There are a few brands I’ve fallen in love with through positive experiences as a consumer, and they have provided inspiration for my work as a marketer. Southwest has been a favorite, with their creativity, brand personality, and hiring priorities. But after a recent “stay and play” at Latitude Margaritaville, I just may have a new favorite.

Latitude Margaritaville

Latitude Margaritaville is a brand of 55+ active adult communities developed by Minto USA. These communities have been wildly successful since their first development in Daytona Beach, Florida, and now in their expansion into markets, including Hilton Head, Panama City (Watersound), and reportedly Texas.  All it takes is to spend a few days there to understand why.

A widowed friend and I spent three nights and four days at Latitude Margaritaville in Daytona Beach recently as part of their Stay and Play program. For about $500, potential buyers can get a taste of what it’s like to live the Margaritaville life, one that is inspired by the music and lifestyle of Jimmy Buffet. It’s where “Changes in Latitude” is code for changes in attitude … and isn’t that what everyone wants at this stage of life? Anyone who listens to Buffet’s music or is a full-on Parrot Head knows it’s all about fun, music, and perhaps a few libations. Think Key West and the Caribbean. From a branding perspective, Latitude Margaritaville brings it in spades. It’s truly a master class in branding from the very first moment.

Where is Margaritaville?  It’s in your mind.
— Jimmy Buffet

The First Impression: The Sales Center

Driving in, it’s clear you are entering someplace special with an island vibe — the building design, color scheme, and signage are all uniquely Margaritaville. The lines between the parking spots even have palm trees painted on them. Who thought of that detail? Brilliant.

Every element of the sales center brings to life the brand and lifestyle they are selling. From the directional signage outside to the immersive experience they create within the center, everything creates a vibe that feels like you’d be on a year ’round vacation where you’d never want to leave.

After going through the sales center, if they haven’t piqued your interest, then this is definitely not your sort of place. It’s clear what you’re signing up for.

Some of the brand brilliance includes:

  • Clever signage at every turn, from the directional signs in front of the building to the bikini-clad female-shaped icon indicating the women’s bathroom
  • Beach vibe details including sand, Adirondack chairs, pilings and rope, and custom font that sets the visual brand apart
  • Vibrant images of the amenities and lifestyle a buyer can look forward to
  • Merchandising the space with items that can be found where else but the online Margaritaville store
  • A selection in the design center of finishes and fixtures that bring the buyer’s own version of the island vibe to their future home

The Home

My friend and I were given a fully furnished unit near the town center and model homes. I didn’t know what to expect but was blown away from the moment we entered the garage to find our own Margaritaville-branded golf cart. That set the stage for everything else we experienced after we walked in the door. Not only was it beautifully decorated (coastal/beach design of course), but the thoughtful details were a total “wow” as we explored the space:

  • Margaritaville branded blender and margarita glasses on the kitchen island
  • Branded coffee mugs with a complete array of coffee options
  • Snacks in a clamshell bowl
  • Branded water bottles, margarita mix, and Landshark beer in the refrigerator
  • Branded binder with instructions
  • Branded welcome mat at the door and umbrellas in a stand at the door
  • Computer in the study with branded screen and notepad
  • Branded beach towels on the bed for us to keep
  • Towels in the bathroom: “It’s Five O’clock Somewhere”
  • Branded bathrobes in the closet

Seemingly every detail and opportunity to delight guests was considered.

The Common Areas

After settling in and enjoying a requisite margarita, we took the golf cart a short drive to the town square. The brand brilliance continued:

  • Fins Up fitness center (“fins to the left, fins to the right …”), which was not only well-branded but is a large and well-equipped gym by anyone’s standards.
  • Paradise Pool — a big, resort-style pool with walk-in access, bridges, water volleyball area, and live music every afternoon.
  • Latitude Bar & Chill, which was open and airy and felt like a resort pool bar — the food, service, and drinks were all great. At night, there is a DJ, and groups of women can be found dancing with abandon.
  • Barkaritaville pet grooming center and dog park for the beloved canine friends.

The Beach Club

The second day of our visit, we drove the 15 minutes through Ormond Beach to the private Margaritaville Beach Club, which provided residents the Latitude experience right on the beach.

The brand mastery continues here with Margaritaville logoed beach chairs for use by residents, a pool with outdoor surfboard shower to rinse off the sand, a private self-serve bar, and full bathrooms with showers.

We drove in order to check out a fun restaurant in Ormond Beach, but there is a fully branded bus that leaves every hour from Latitude to go the beach and that returns every hour as well.

So, Who Lives Here?

Throughout the visit, we made a point to talk to residents to find out what are the common threads that connect the people who buy or rent in this community. We first noted that the average age seemed far younger than we anticipated. Probably an average of early 60’s. We found out that many are still working and are going back and forth to another home, mostly farther north.

These residents are active and want to stay that way. They were not only playing pickleball, tennis, and bocce ball, but they also enthusiastically joined in the pool volleyball games, the Saturday farmer’s market, and the Friday night movie social.

We met a retired couple from Northern Virginia who had been career CIA, a couple who owned an RV dealership outside Chicago, and a widowed female who was a retired Oracle executive. They were people who could have chosen far more expensive and luxurious communities, but they chose Margaritaville. Why? Because they share the values of the Margaritaville brand promise—friendliness, socializing, activity, music, and fun.

Can Margaritaville Survive Future Generations of Residents?

In another stroke of marketing genius, Margaritaville has tapped into the enthusiasm that the children of boomers have gained for Jimmy and his music. They’ve created Margaritaville University, an initiative to spread the Margaritaville gospel to college campuses nationwide. This program has trained more than 1000 brand ambassadors who are working in 350+ colleges and universities nationwide to bring to life the Margaritaville attitude and lifestyle to their generation.

Part of my love and fascination with Buffett is that people of completely different age ranges, colors, creeds, and backgrounds feel a very unique yet similar feeling when they hear his music. I think the Buffett fandom is a beautiful representation of the human race. We’re similar in far more ways than we are different.
Zach, a Margaritaville University Ambassador

So, for the naysayers who think that a themed active adult community like this is not sustainable for the long term, I’d say Jimmy and his marketing team have thought that through as well.  At the ripe “old” age of 75, Jimmy Buffet is still inspiring fans of all ages … and his active adult communities certainly are too. And likely will for decades to come.