The Elephant in the Room

Seniors housing branding needs to answer an uncomfortable, but obvious, question: Will my parents be safe here?

By Lynn Peisner

Senior living has been weathering a public relations fiasco since March. Media portrayals of senior communities as hotbeds of coronavirus infections played a role in ceasing move-ins as the general public has presumed that the “nursing home” presented in news reports is synonymous with all levels of seniors housing. 

Marketing and branding experts, along with owners and operators, are working hard to turn that around.

“All senior living got lumped into the same category,” says Bryan Herrman, senior vice president of insights and strategy for Kansas City, Missouri-based GlynnDevins. “This is the biggest issue for the industry. There’s a real need for education on defining the different levels of care, the different types of communities, and which communities are being the most impacted by the virus. 

“There’s a lack of understanding in the media that’s causing confusion around what is the real situation within communities across the country. I think that’s the biggest challenge right there.”

Seniors and their families have good reason to be concerned. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), eight out of 10 COVID-19-related deaths occur in the 65-and-older age group. This reality appears to have affected occupancy in senior living communities. In early July, the National Investment Center for Seniors Housing and Care (NIC) reported that seniors housing occupancy fell 2.8 percentage points in the second quarter of 2020 from 87.7 percent to 84.9 percent. NIC experts said this is the largest quarterly decline since data reporting began in 2005. 

To drill down into the numbers and understand the effect of the disease on housing trends in more detail, NIC has issued a request for proposal (RFP) for a national study on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on older Americans. 

The study, funded by a grant from NIC, is expected to track fatalities as well as issues such as mobility at independent living, assisted living, memory care and skilled nursing properties, and compare them to metrics of people of similar age and health characteristics in non-congregate care settings. As of Sept. 18, a total of 196,277 Americans have died from COVID-19, according to the CDC.

Educate prospects

One point most operators and marketing specialists can agree on is this: Now is not the time to deliver aggressive sales pitches to prospective new residents. Educating the public about a community’s safety has taken precedence over all other marketing and branding initiatives that may have been on the table before the COVID-19 crisis. 

“We have to nurture relationships during this environment versus selling,” says Herrman. “Some of that has been forced upon us. But we need to rebuild confidence, trust and reputation as an industry, and to rebuild brand equity at that local level.”

Brenda Bacon, president and CEO of Brandywine Living, echoes Herrman’s comments, saying her priority at the moment is communicating a message of safety. That’s a shift from what prospects were seeking before the age of the virus. 

“Prior to COVID, families were concerned about supportive health services and, of course, the lifestyle their mom or dad would have in our communities,” she says. “Now, they are worried about whether their loved one will be safe in any communal environment. 

“The impact of COVID on our elderly population has been astounding. The first thing I would want to know as a customer is: ‘What measures are you taking to make sure my mom can be safe and social?’”

Bryan McKeever, vice president of marketing and sales for The Roche Associates based in Wilbraham, Massachusetts, says there are four main parts to the anatomy of a branding message today: 

• First, drive home the point that the community is a safe place. 

• Secondly, ensure a description of specific safety measures is in place. 

• Thirdly, provide examples of how a community is engaging with residents while respecting social distancing.

• Lastly, point out that the community has had few, if any, cases of COVID-19 if that’s the case.

“Just to give you an indication of messaging in this day and age, there’s very little about the community itself, about amenities or services or the hospitality angle,” says McKeever. “It’s all about the safety aspect and saying, ‘We’re open and we’re here for you.’” 

The right response

“What a difference a couple quarters make,” remarks Max Newland, managing director of Kayne Anderson Capital Advisors. The Los Angeles-based company is an alternative investment firm that manages investments across multiple asset classes, including energy, real estate, credit and growth equity. Newland’s comment sums up the massive retooling of marketing and branding that happened virtually overnight in senior living. 

According to Jen White, senior vice president of creative and content with GlynnDevins, the ideal marketing and branding response to coronavirus concerns in senior populations can be boiled down to two parts: the first step is respond to the crisis. Then establish a content solution to virtual sales for an industry that bases most of its sales on in-person events. 

“Virtual sales weren’t something a lot of communities were necessarily doing before the pandemic,” says White. “Having people onsite was the biggest way to showcase how wonderful a community is.”

Part one of that solution means not ignoring the elephant in the room. 

“Early on [in the pandemic], the big questions from our clients were, ‘Do we stop talking?’ ‘Is this a time to go quiet?’ But these communities still have to keep their pipeline filled,” explains Herrman. 

“And the cost of doing nothing far outweighs the cost of maintaining brand awareness during this time,” continues Herrman. “So it’s not a question of if we should say anything. It’s more a question of what should we be saying. Our position is that this is the time to nurture, to educate, not to hard sell. But you still have to be out there talking.”

Every community is different in terms of the right way to handle this challenge. In the case of The Roche Associates’ client Keystone Place at Wooster Heights — a new-build, 140-unit independent living, assisted living and memory care community in Danbury, Connecticut — the primary goal was simply to not lose the sales that had already been made prior to the community’s scheduled fall 2020 opening.

“Prior to COVID, the community had 55 active deposits,” says McKeever. “During the pandemic shutdowns, a big part of the marketing strategy became a matter of depositor engagement and retention, so a number of virtual events and initiatives were put into place.” 

For example, every Friday the marketing and sales team holds a Zoom call with depositors to simply connect and communicate. 

“The team stays engaged with those individuals, and they ease any fears,” says McKeever. “We lean on the track record of Keystone Senior Management Services as an operator and the tremendous job they have done to prevent any outbreaks in their communities.”

McKeever adds that sales and marketing teams are now pivoting to lead-generating activities and marketing events that provide prospects the opportunity to engage with the sales team either through small, socially distanced, in-person gatherings or virtually.  

“We’re providing prospects options to connect with the sales team in a manner that is most comfortable for them,” says McKeever. 

Brett Fails, director of digital marketing at Austin, Texas-based Threshold, says his agency focuses on educating prospects about a community’s current policies and ensuring they understand the availability and usefulness of virtual tours during this pandemic. 

“Communities should focus on the language describing virtual tours,” says Fails. “And they should ensure the creative and the ads are reflecting the current options of engagement, such as joining a VIP list or reaching out to hold a virtual tour for the prospect and their family.”

In addition to holding virtual tours, many senior communities have added a tab at the top of their webpages that are dedicated to COVID, showing how the pandemic is being handled onsite. This content can consist of updates on when the staff was last tested, details of plans to begin social activities, or how the community is contributing to neighborhood safety as a whole.

“We’ve been rolling out aggressive testing protocols since April, specifically requiring testing for residents, family members and staff that far exceeds local Department of Health standards,” says Newland. “At a few communities, we have partnered with local labs to offer testing to our residents and neighbors.”

Kayne Anderson Real Estate Advisors and Watermark Retirement Communities are preparing to open The Watermark at Brooklyn Heights, part of Watermark’s upscale Élan Collection. 

“We operate across 21 states and are adhering to all local guidelines and have a nationwide task force in place, led by our COO who was previously with the largest hospital system in Tucson, Arizona,” says Bryan Schachter, chief investment officer of Tucson-based Watermark Retirement Communities. 

“There were numerous changes required in terms of day-to-day operations, including dining, community life, sales and marketing. We have developed our staged reopening plans that differ for each of our communities, based on each one’s status and location,” adds Schachter.

Tools for a tough job

Marketing firms are tailoring their offerings to support senior living clients. Jessica Kraft, executive vice president with Minneapolis-based Bluespire, says her company is providing specific COVID-19 content and tools so clients can build their brands and messaging, and accelerate their digital transformations to reach their target audience more effectively.

Bluespire has focused many brand implementation strategies on virtual engagement opportunities such as virtual tours and personalized digital brochures. The firm is also leaning on its C2 Mar.Tech platform, which is a tracking and management system for search engine optimization (SEO) and multi-channel campaigns. 

“We are also leveraging marketing automation, content creation and communication tools — including our senior-living-specific
COVID-19 content library and the COVID-19 digital command center,” says Kraft. 

The Roche Associates quickly developed “COVID-19 SOS Communication Products,” a menu of six service packages developed to engage audiences through a variety of conduits. These conduits include virtual events such as interactive webinars and keynote speakers, social media campaigns, telemarketing, script development, real-time reporting on prospects, digital and direct marketing, and more.

Marketing during the virus isn’t as easy as simply switching from in-person to online tours. A multi-pronged approach is most effective, says Joseph Roche, president of The Roche Associates. His company’s pre-COVID data indicate that somewhere between 12 to 15 percent of sales can be tied back to digital marketing.

That led Roche to the obvious follow-up question: Where do the other 85 to 88 percent of sales come from?

Professional referrals, resident/family member referrals, direct mail, and in-person or virtual events are all part of a sound marketing strategy, according to Roche. 

“We really did an enormous number of events, as well as all the multi-channel marketing support for those events, including
follow-up phone calls by The Roche Associates’ professional telecommunications team aimed at prospects and referral sources,” he explains. 

“These calls are designed to generate positive interactions and engagement with our sales teams. Before COVID, after COVID — if you’re just relying on the internet and digital marketing, I can tell you you’re not going to get the results you want,” emphasizes Roche.

Valerie Whitman, vice president of senior living with LeadingResponse, says that operators should supplement tours with content that makes a property stand out. She advises seniors housing communities to provide the same type of grassroots content most other businesses are currently using in their advertising and messaging — stories about what’s being done for the local community, their staff and for their audience. 

“Virtual marketing events, landing pages and direct mail should be sure to utilize stories,” says Whitman. 

She explains that stories can be about family members visiting from outside a window or, as one LeadingResponse client is doing, allowing its staff to order their personal groceries through the senior living community’s food distributor. This enables staff to skip the grocery store on the way home from work. It not only makes their off-the-clock hours a little easier, it also lessens potential exposure to the coronavirus. 

“Great human-interest stories are playing out across most industries, and we want to make sure senior living is doing its part to showcase what they are doing,” says Whitman.

Prospects’ need for safety assurances might not magically disappear after a coronavirus vaccine is developed and distributed. “I wouldn’t just limit safety messaging to
COVID-19, but other infection prevention and control measures,” says Roche. 

“That’s the hot button, but I remember years ago at one of our communities, overnight we had 25 people in the hospital at once due to the flu. To solve the problem, we had Dr. Joan Roche, who is The Roche Associates’ clinical director, evaluate what was going on.” 

Joan Roche found that some of the nurse’s aides were not properly changing gloves as they went from room to room. Additional training and new protocols were immediately put into place regarding changing gloves after attending to each resident, and the problem cleared up within a week. 

Obviously, the thing we need to focus on right now is COVID-19,” says Joe Roche. “But we should also emphasize the importance of having safety measures in place for all forms of infectious diseases because they can blow through seniors communities quickly and with consequence.” 

Whitman agrees that it’s a smart idea to make safety more of a permanent marketing tactic. “We’re still providing that general community information, but we’re also providing information on what we are doing to keep residents and staff safe.”

That’s especially true today as a growing number of consumers question what happens in the future if a terrible flu season or another novel disease strike.

“It’s going to be a little different for each brand, but it’s important they utilize some storytelling combined with factual data on what they’re doing, and what they’ve been doing all along,” says Whitman.

An authentic voice

Credibility is key in branding and messaging right now. Joe Roche suggests that communities place a registered nurse in the spotlight for events and marketing initiatives. 

“My advice to senior living communities nationwide is to make sure you have a nurse with very good credentials on any webinar having anything to do with COVID-19. That’s who all of our clients want giving their presentations.”

Preliminary results from a study conducted by ProMatura Group on the impact of COVID-19 on seniors housing that were released in late June reveal that more than half of prospects shopping for assisted living or memory care indicated that having a primary care physician on site or via telemedicine is essential. 

“In order to meet this customer expectation, exploring formal or informal relationships with a hospital or physician provider network will be important,” says Joe Roche, adding that many communities are already spending more on staffing, equipment and services now than they originally anticipated. “That could be a major change for a lot of these assisted living communities as they try to keep pricing levels within reasonable limits, because physicians don’t work for nothing.” 

How much money operators should invest in marketing is the age-old question. There are a lot of variables involved with calculating a marketing budget. For example, an existing community that is underperforming likely faces challenges that differ from a start-up community.

“Pre-pandemic, I would suggest many operators were not budgeting nearly enough,” says Roche. “Generally, we suggest that an existing community budget at least 5 percent of revenue to generate the leads needed to meet occupancy goals. New start-up projects should be budgeting between 3 percent and 5 percent of the total construction and development costs, depending upon the size of the community, through lease-up and the achievement of 92 percent or greater occupancy.”

In light of COVID-19, many operators are well advised to take a hard look at their marketing spend. 

“In times of crisis or occupancy decline, operators may shift into cost-cutting survival mode, with marketing or resident dining budgets oftentimes among the first on the chopping block,” says Roche. 

“While fighting the virus has certainly resulted in higher expenses, I would highly caution against a marketing budget cut or deferring marketing. Now more than ever, operators need to communicate via a multi-channel marketing strategy the major benefits of living in a senior living community, and why their community is a better option than the competition.”

A positive spin

While the pandemic has created a branding emergency, there are signs the situation is getting better. The ProMatura study shows that the virus has primarily affected move-ins in independent living. Seniors who are considering the possibility of making a lifestyle change are delaying their decision because they don’t have an imminent care need. But the branding and marketing efforts deployed since the coronavirus outbreak began may be moving the needle on that issue.

GlynnDevins started tracking confidence and sentiment back in March, when only 22 percent of seniors and their families believed independent living was a safe place to be during a health crisis. In May, that figure rose to 33 percent.

“We believe that upward shift is a result of some of the education the communities and the industry are doing on defining the different levels of care, how those different levels are being impacted, and what communities are doing as precautions to ensure the safety of their residents,” says Herrman. “We think that education is breaking through. Still, with only 33 percent of respondents believing communities are a safe place to be, we’ve got a lot of work to do to rebuild that confidence.”

Health risks notwithstanding, the era of the coronavirus has reinforced the idea that people need personal connection and interaction to thrive. This was true for seniors living at home alone even before the virus hit, but now that need is amplified as vulnerable populations like seniors are being asked to isolate and distance. Connections that seniors may have had before with friends, neighbors, family or even a familiar store clerk have mostly been compromised.

“A lot of our clients want to show how living at a continuing care retirement community (CCRC) has advantages, even during the pandemic,” says White. “No matter what happens, you’re set. That’s always been what a life plan community is about. 

“But it’s even more paramount right now with the residents having their emotional needs met and receiving emotional support. Meals are still being provided, prescriptions are still being filled, and you’re still being connected, even if it’s virtually, to a community of peers and friends. I think that’s important.”