Build Your Brand from the Inside Out

A four-phase strategy to build an internal brand promise while creating opportunities to bolster staff dedication.

By Mike Ulm, Pathway to Living

When I started out in this industry years ago, my perception of seniors housing was steeped in some widely held misconceptions. In fact, the first time I stepped into a nursing home I was filled with angst, scared both to and of death.

But that changed quickly when I formed a very special connection with an 88-year-old resident who not only shared a love for baseball but had actually grown up with Babe Ruth. It was my “hooked moment” that led to a lifelong passion for the industry.

As Pathway to Living’s new vice president of culture and brand loyalty, my goal is to create that “hooked moment” for team members who haven’t yet found one as we continue to implement and bolster a strong internal brand promise.

To achieve a strong internal brand promise, there is a four-phase process — discover, define, integrate and activate — that I suggest for any seniors housing owner-operator looking to grow a team of unified, dedicated professionals.

Phase One: Discovery

Through the three-step discovery process, you will introduce the internal brand promise initiative and gather ideas from a wide range of leaders and team members, in turn creating excitement and a sense of shared ownership. It’s an opportunity to gain insights and ideas that will lay the foundation for the rest of the process.

During step one, the kick-off, you will partner with corporate, regional and community leaders to establish a sensible communication plan to introduce the process. Through a combination of in-person meetings, conference calls and video presentations, this step educates participants on the concept and builds excitement.

Step two consists of onsite small group sessions through which company leaders select 10 to 12 communities to participate in in-person focus group sessions. These create the new internal brand and an improved process. The focus of these sessions is to identify current best practices, explore new ideas, and discover the key concepts and words that warrant inclusion in the brand promise.

Small group sessions create positive experiences for the communities, collecting dozens of applicable stories and hundreds of ideas while planting the seeds for each community to buy into your branding solutions. These sessions should include a sampling of team members — front line, supervisors, department leaders and the executive director — to create a sense of unity and inclusion.

The final step of discovery is the corporate leaders discovery visit. This is a two- to three-day internal workshop to gather feedback across the leadership team while encouraging increased focus on best practices, brainstorming new ideas to consider and discussing important branding words. By calling on these leaders to give honest feedback and help author this important organizational tenet, the team will appreciate their inclusion in the process.

Phase Two: Define

In this internal brand and scope-of-integration phase, your goal is to define the promise in a simple, powerful sentence. Include words or phrases that were identified during the discovery phase as resonating across the organization. A key litmus test here is that this promise applies to everyone at the firm and aligns their actions to the mission of the company. It answers the question of “what are we really trying to do?”

It’s important that team members — from corporate leadership to site teams — understand the objective at its finest points. Residents and their families should feel a sense of consistency at every phase of interacting with staff. Whether that is the language used in greeting visiting family members, how appointments and activities are scheduled, or what a caller hears when they call the sales team for the first time, the words and phrases should speak to the organization’s goal.

Phase Three: Integrate

Here you will partner with leaders to integrate the new internal brand promise. Deliverables will include weaving the promise throughout programs, processes, procedures and training tools via internal documents, emails, intranet applications and other internal communications.

Company leadership will help select community stars to assist in making sure you keep the solutions real and achievable. Be sure to select individuals who, during the previous steps of the process, showed enthusiasm and made thoughtful, important contributions.

Phase Four: Activation

In this final phase, you’ll map out an organized and supported process focused on educating and inspiring a unique/creative delivery of the internal brand promise.

This is a time to celebrate the success of the entire process and unveil the new brand process. Use actual stories that influenced the creation of the promise to motivate and inspire staff while rewarding them for their valuable contributions. By creating meaningful deliverables via internal communications, an organization demonstrates how the promise will guide day-to-day actions.

A contest is one effective and fun way to promote activation and assure that the essence of the new brand promise is understood. Ask teams to submit examples of how the brand promise is alive in their daily work and interactions.

The benefits of this process are two-fold: the feedback can be used to create additional training materials and establish best-practices, while the exercise will also allow you to identify any clarifications that a particular group might need regarding the focus of the new brand promise.

By adopting this four-phase process, an organization ensures that the goals and interests of your staff are aligned, which then translates to an improved resident experience. Beyond educating and unifying leaders and associations, the process creates an abundance of opportunities for each individual to experience his or her own special “hooked moment.”

With a dedicated staff and strong internal promise in place, only then can you begin to spread your message to the public, helping to erase some of the misconceptions of seniors housing and inform communities about the great work you’re doing.


Mike Ulm is vice president of culture and brand loyalty at Pathway to Living, a Chicago-based developer, owner and operator of seniors housing communities. The company is the seniors housing arm of Chicago-based real estate investor and operator Waterton.