By Jack Cumming

Recent decades have seen changes in our vocabulary. Employees are now “team members”. News outlets now give us opinions as often as they present unbiased investigative information. And public relations has become “brand management”.

Our Branding Culture

Senior living exists within this common culture. Renaming and rebranding have become common actions for new CEOs. It wasn’t always so. Sometimes it can seem like practices that are common today have always existed. In truth, though, the first American President to even have a Press Secretary was Herbert Hoover in 1929. Now, it’s common for corporations, including senior living corporations, to try to control the messaging around their business and their practices. Spin seems to dominate the news cycle.

A central truth of public relations contrasts with this recent practice. That truth is that the best publicity is word-of-mouth. We live in a nation in which freedom of speech is central. That frees people to share both good and bad experiences. If your business succeeds in having a positive message about your value proposition go viral, it can influence the discussion and bring you success in the marketplace. On the other hand, if you come to be seen as manipulative, putting corporate interests before customer benefits, that can cause irreparable damage. Arthur Andersen, for instance, once a respected accounting firm, was never able to recover from its implication in the Enron scandal.

Learning from Apple

Senior living can learn lessons from other businesses. A recent example involving Apple Inc. illustrates the perils of today’s approach to branding as message control. The iPhone now has a useful feature called the App Library. A customer, the author, wanted to know if the App Library could replace the home screen and be used to organize the complexity of apps on today’s iPhones. The question was posted in Apple Support Communities. The inquirer believed that there must be a way for Apple users to take advantage of this promising advance. It was a technical inquiry to find out how to do what seemed obvious.

The response couldn’t have been more surprising. It shows how defensive Apple has become about its brand. An innocent question can be seen as a threat. Who knew? A suggested improvement is perceived as criticism. Who would have expected that? A simple, “Thank you for your suggestion. We’ve passed it on to our development group for consideration,” might have sufficed. But no! Apparently, Apple requires that it be seen as infallible perfection until, and unless, it announces on its own in advance with the hoopla for which Apple is best known.

Apple’s Messaging

The first response was from an Apple customer participating in the Apple-sponsored Apple Support Communities, stating that moving the App Library to the home screen wasn’t possible, (“You can’t. You have to have at least 1 home screen. You can send Apple feedback if you like.”) The inquirer thanked the respondent and surmised that Apple monitors the forum. The response to that was telling, “They do not monitor these postings. This is a user to user support forum and Apple does not participate here. They get their user feedback from the Feedback page.” In short, customers had best cater to Apple’s whims or their ideas are of no value to Apple.

That was shocking, but the next development was even more shocking. It revealed that Apple does, in fact, monitor these postings. But even more, it revealed that Apple suppresses speech unless it accords with the brand control measures that Apple imposes. The inquirer received a chilling email from Apple reading, “We removed your post ‘App Library’ because it was nontechnical or off-topic. We understand wanting to share experiences, but these forums are meant for technical questions that can be answered by the community.” In short, to paraphrase, “We’re big. You’re small. Get lost.”

Lessons for Senior Living

What’s the lesson here for senior living? After all, that’s your business; it’s our business. The lesson is simple. Reputation matters. Senior living operates in local communities where word-of-mouth spreads quickly and with impact. Branding and messaging can never cover a flawed offering. If you put customer and resident welfare and value first, that will be known regardless of what you post on social media or the attractiveness of your website. If you put enterprise growth and earnings first, that too will define your reputation.

In today’s transparent culture in which anyone can find a platform to broadcast a message far and wide, a message controlling approach to branding is destined to fall short. On the other hand, if you sincerely obsess about those you serve, and give them the best value achievable for the price you charge, then those customers and their friends and families will become your salespeople into the markets you seek to reach. It’s that simple. Your offering trumps your branding. Branding for a low-value offering only puts lipstick and perfume on an ugly reality.

People come to senior living seeking peace of mind and empowerment in the face of the growing challenges of aging. Meet those needs. Put those people first. And the world will beat a path to your door hoping to be admitted.

Click here for a story of how just renaming rebranding without substance to explain it can be disastrous for a recognized national brand.