Whether condos, cruises, autos or health care services, future products will have to appeal to consumer’s hearts; not just their heads. While I cannot paint a clear picture of the future of planned communities for older adults, I can state with absolute certainty that the answers to successfully marketing and operating communities will not be found in the rear view mirror. Maintaining the status quo, following industry standards, getting back to the basics, doing it the way it has always been done are all recipes for future disaster. Rather than doing what’s always been done; it is time to consider the future as a blank canvas rather than a paint by-the-numbers kit.
When it comes to marketing, not much has changed in the past couple of decades. Ads still hype the features and benefits of “one of a kind” homes where “new” friends, “quality of life” and “peace of mind” are assured. Too many marketing office personnel still carry titles like “retirement or sales counselor”. Too many brochures reinforce stereotypes by using exclusionary terms such as senior, nursing center, retirement, etc. Too many health care centers still operate using the medical model with its focus on structure, rules and learned dependency. We need to realize that the mind is not processing your words you use, but the images the reader’s life experience has come to associate with those words. Change, it would seem, is everywhere but aging services.
Oh sure, models used are getting ‘a little’ older…even more realistic in many ads. Communities feature more common space, fitness equipment and preventive health programs. However, it takes a unique team to successfully install a new paradigm. That change team that will begin by repositioning “retirement” communities as a unique brand of planned community where the emphasis is on “health” – not care. Holistic health of the body, mind and human spirit.
I’m not talking about a “facility” run by a bureaucratic rules-oriented Executive Director; but an empowered “community” where members embrace lifelong personal growth; not one that focuses on a calendar filled “activities.” Communities should be places that foster the enrichment of body, mind and spirit regardless of the healthcare setbacks. Operational teams must come to recognize that a positive culture is developed from the inside out and all systems are interconnected.
The challenge is obviously a leadership and operational as well as a marketing dilemma, but one thing at a time. To create a paradigm-busting team, organization will need to concentrate on both the team’s perceptions, understanding of later life values and the tools available to them.
Recruiting or Educating a Team. Teamwork is a “principle-based” value. If you value teamwork, you must therefore be willing to commit to the principles that foster the growth of teams. Simply stated, principles are guidelines for human conduct (the marketing process) that are proven to have enduring, permanent value. Principles are fundamental. When applied to marketing, your principles should be a reflection of the consumer segment you are serving – those principles are:
- Fairness…this incorporates equity, trust and will ultimately aid in establishing value for your offering.
- Integrity & honesty…these principles are critical to building relationships with current customers, prospects and associates.
- Service/altruism…this relates to the need that most of us have to give something back to our community, family and friends.
- Quality…this must be seen through the eyes of the consumer. It is not a manual or a policy. It is a philosophy of putting both internal and external stakeholders first.
- Trust…the belief in a shared vision of the most positive and productive future possible for all stakeholders.
One statistic that has always confounded me is that we hire 80 % of all personnel based on their aptitude, and terminate a like percentage because of their attitude. Wouldn’t it make more sense to focus on attitude and values in the hiring process and train for aptitude? If we are attempting to create a unique marketing team, we must approach the challenge with a new focus. Is experience that no longer seems relevant valuable? How do you assess attitude? How do you assess one’s values?
First, you should be interested explore how one “feels” about their own aging. Are they looking forward to their next major birthday – 30, 40, 50 or 60? If a person is not comfortable with their own aging, it will take them longer to build rapport with older customers. Next, you might ask them to share any experiences that shaped their perceptions of the aging process. Have applicants share their experiences around or with older people while growing up, in their professional lives or through community service. If they describe positive experiences, they will intuitively do well. On the other hand, if they fear their own aging, they may be victims of decades of stereotyping and do poorly regardless of traditional sales training.
Second is what Tom Peters would call a blinding flash of the obvious. What was your “very first impression” of a marketing candidate? Did they smile naturally? Did they make eye contact and offer a firm, warm handshake? Remember, if someone does not smile naturally; it is not a skill you can teach. Once on the job, they will have 4 seconds to make a first impression; and consumers will not differentiate between the sales person and the offering.
Finally, ask about a potential team member’s values, beliefs and vision of an aging America. Do their values mirror shared purpose of your community/organization or merely polish the medical model of the past? You may even want to validate the applicant's responses by asking for the names of a couple of older adults with whom they have very positive relationships that could provide either personal or professional character references. Then follow-up by asking those references to describe their relationship...is it an analog (exact representation) of the applicant's perception.
Tools. Today’s older consumer is better educated, healthier, wealthier, more involved, more self-directed and will expect service in return for the monthly fees in a community or dollars paid for a product or service. We can no longer fall back on the scientific model of logic, verifiable experiences and operation certainties. They are all traps that prevent us from looking to the future. It is not enough to “tweak” current systems, procedures and concepts. We need to reinvent them.
If marketing personnel will just take time to listen, the best tool available is the mind and experiences of both current community members and prospects. We need to learn to reach beyond the stereotypes in order to prevent the self-fulfilling prophecies of aging from dictating the lives of those we serve. We need to tear down marketing hierarchies and involve the consumers in the marketing and governance of their communities. Each prospect has a story to tell. The job of the marketing representative is to fit your offering into their story.
With the advent of the Internet, marketing has shifted from monologue to dialogue…the consumer has regained control. They can comparative shop on line from the privacy of their home. They can communicate with peers throughout the United States; and share their experiences and perceptions – good and bad. It is not enough to have an attractive web site and colorful image brochure. You must create an experience that encourages visitors to return…one that educates and informs as well as promotes.
Even before a community is operational, community members are your most effective marketing resource. They will not separate how they are treated, involved and respected during pre-construction from future community life. Of course, a marketing committee is a very good place to start. Committee members can serve as an excellent sounding board, comparison shoppers and help guide overall positioning strategy. Even Resident Council, (I prefer Partnership Council), can be a valuable resource considering their vested interest in future community success. The key is to stop selling and start listening.
Of course, collateral material, traditional print and direct mail advertising are still workhorses in generating prospects. They should be developed using an emotional, story- telling approach as much as possible. The appeal must be to the heart as well as the head. Since the human mind has an irrepressible urge to complete an unfinished picture, marketers must learn to use that knowledge to their advantage. For example, I have used for all life can be as a positioning tag line in order to leverage the consumer’s creativity. This allows the consumer and not the marketer to create an image that fits their desires, needs and aspirations.
The success of the Eden Alternative/Greenhouse (household model) is built upon the same philosophy that makes Ritz Carlton Hotels unique – letting the person closest to the problem solve it or as management does unto staff; so staff shall do unto management. There is no better team building principle upon which to build a positive culture. If the marketing team shares a common vision, has an intuitive sense of the needs and values of older consumers, makes a positive first impression and practices the art of listening to understand rather than to overcome objections, they will succeed.
Each consumer is as different as fingerprints, and should be approached accordingly. Prospects should therefore be approached with the knowledge that they know what it will take to “sell” them. Marketers just need to learn to go where the consumer is rather than expecting them to come to where the marketer wants them to be…that’s inclusionary marketing. It is powerful force if you let it work for you. As Ben Kenobi advised Luke in the Star Wars movies, “just let go and let the force be with you”.