By Jack Cumming
Recent years have seen a number of senior living organizations choose new names. Usually, these campaigns are called “rebranding,” and they are often a defining initiative. The substance of the business remains unchanged. At the highest level, the continuing care retirement community industry has sought to rename itself as the “life plan community” industry.
As sages often ask, “How’s that working for you?” Is the industry’s reputation stronger now than it was before this costly name change? My impression is that Americans still much prefer to age without having to uproot or move.
Lessons From Cruising
For the industry, the thought behind the name change was that words like “care” and “retirement” weren’t as well received now as they once were. Both nomenclatures include the idea of “community,” but that’s where it stops. We might ask how a community is a life plan. To me, a life plan sounds like something an insurance salesman puts at the top of a sheet full of numbers as a tool to sell life insurance.
It was no surprise for me to find American Family Insurance Company at the top of a Google search for “what is a life plan.” None of the 100 possible life plans the insurance company imagines includes “moving to a CCRC,” much less to an LPC. What a life plan is not is giving up freedom and homeownership to live in a not-for-profit housing community.
In the end, a brand is not a name but the reputation for quality and customer satisfaction that an organization gains or loses by its actions and results. This reflection on branding was triggered by a recent interaction with two cruise lines — Royal Caribbean and Princess — which are well-known brands, in contrast to the relative obscurity of most senior living brands. To set the stage, my wife and I are on a short cruise as this is being written.
Senior Living Brands
Those in the senior living industry know well that not all senior living communities are the same. The public may have some notion of differences, but for the most part, members of the public have no idea how to make fair comparisons among senior living brands or communities. There are thousands of communities and myriad corporate entities.
Few senior living corporations have the scale to achieve the kind of branding success that we associate with Procter & Gamble. Brookdale comes close, but it is struggling to keep a positive brand reputation. Acts is excellent but is not well-known. Kendal is my personal favorite because of its Quaker values that put resident interests before corporate aggrandizement, but it is confined mostly to the Eastern United States. The result is that the industry, as an industry, has struggled to put a positive face on its offerings.
Cruise lines do have national brands. We’re now on a Royal Caribbean ship for the first time in over a decade. After Royal Caribbean abandoned its West Coast business, my wife and I shifted to Princess, so we now have super-elite status on both Royal Caribbean (because of our history) and on Princess.
We decided to give Royal a try to see if it matches Princess. Offhand, though, we noted that its itineraries had nowhere near the imagination that Princess brings to West Coast cruising. Booking, too, was difficult, so in all honesty, we started our trial off balance.
Those two brands are both national. I suspect, too, that you have more of a visceral response to those cruise names than you do to senior living brand names like Acts or the Evangelical Lutheran Good Samaritan Society. Our initial impression after booking and boarding this cruise is that Princess has the executive leadership to give it the edge. That edge is a product primarily of technology.
Princess offers a fob-like “medallion” that interacts with app software in the cloud to get passengers seamlessly onboard (boarding is a huge hassle with Royal Caribbean). Princess is much more welcoming and makes sure you know what’s what and what benefits you have. Princess also makes skilled use of artificial intelligence, while Royal Caribbean seems stuck in the 1990s.
Royal Caribbean can learn from Princess. And most everything, apart from mass feeding centers on Royal Caribbean, is a billable upcharge, while Princess is inclusive. These are all factors that also distinguish different senior living options. But, with senior living, it’s much harder for customers (residents) to change communities than it is for customers (cruisers) to simply go to the better cruise line.
Customer Experience in Senior Living
Some senior living providers welcome technology, while others offer hollow talk of technology’s human side. Some senior living providers offer inclusive packages, while others prefer upcharges and special tiers. These factors have the same impacts on the customer experience in senior living as they do in cruising.
Take those upcharges. They inhibit the sea experience, as cruisers fear unexpected charges if they relax seamlessly into the onboard experience. Similarly, those upcharges in senior living for care services (Type B, C, and D — rental contracts) inhibit people from revealing their health status for fear their sharing may be used against them to up their charge levels to benefit enterprise business interests.
We hear talk of a coming era of consolidation for senior living operators. That will improve the offerings for residents, attract more market share to the industry, and begin to allow recognizable brands to lift the industry’s lagging reputation. Looking at the cruise lines, which we should add were hit harder by the pandemic than were senior living corporations, it’s increasingly evident that leading-edge technology will be critical to improving the human experience.
For those senior living operators with the foresight to seize the future and to make the most of it, while attracting residents with a better living experience, the years ahead are bright ones. For the rest, though, they are likely to be superseded and to wither away as larger enterprises with positive brand and reputation associations gain market share and grow. Naming and renaming will be of little consequence. The race will go to those with the better substance and greater value. An organization loses its identity when it renames, but the determinant of success or decline is its reputation for customer value.