Recently I was asked to lead a panel to share best practices for building a strong brand in the long-term care and affordable housing category at a national event hosted by Leading Age, the leader and advocate for the industry. The dialogue was preceded by the presentation of two case studies describing comprehensive brand building initiatives, recently completed by two of the industry’s most respected leaders represented on the panel. The ensuing dialogue with the participants was insightful and instructive. The audience’s comments seemed to jell around a few common brand related issues facing the industry.
Theme Number One: Brand is Relevant. The most common thread among the group was the emerging need to incorporate brand building as a new organizational competency. This category seems to be following a predictable pattern that elevates brand in the eyes of leadership. The industry is going through considerable change, the kind of change that threatens the weaker players and excites the leaders. Simply stated, long term care is facing an ever-tightening vise of cost pressures from their traditional payers (primarily government and insurance companies). The demand for their services is strong and growing. Strong demand = good news; cost pressures = bad news; more customers, less revenue = really bad news! This dynamic often leads to consolidation in the category, which translates into increased mergers and acquisitions.
Category leaders turn to a focus on brand building to exert their market leadership position and accommodate identity changes due to acquisitions and mergers. The most sophisticated leaders use a focus on brand as a way to align the organization’s culture around their strategy of creating value in the face of the challenging dynamic market environment. For these leaders their strategy was a combination of leveraging their legacy strengths (their “brand” of operating excellence) in a way that is relevant in today’s market demands.
Theme Number Two: Brand Definition Must Be Authentic. Most everyone agreed that it is not easy to clearly define an organization’s authentic and differentiating qualities, i.e., its brand. Everyone seemed to be clear this challenge was far beyond defining a tag line or market position statement. To be valid, the definition of the unique qualities of an organization in this category needed to be centered on a bone fide ethos of the organization. Defining this quality was difficult, but necessary to get buy-in from employees and to distinctively represent the organization in the marketplace. Many felt that being a mission-driven, non-profit organization was a very helpful in discovering an authentic ethos. The challenge arose articulating that ethos in a way that was differentiated from other organizations and in a way that was specific enough so that employees could deliver on its inherent promise and that external communications would set it apart from others.
Theme Number Three: Rationalize Place and Identity. Historically each long-term care facility has its own individual identity. The exceptions were those facilities that were a part of a larger monolithic system, e.g., Good Samaritan Society. The reasons for each facility having a unique identity were based in practicalities. In many cases the facility identified closely with the community it served and demonstrated its commitment by using the name of the community. Also, the industry was traditionally highly dispersed and comprised on many individually operated and owned establishments. Industry consolidation is a major driving force throughout the industry. As a result, many individual facilities are becoming a part of a larger organization which naturally fosters a discussion of the need for a separate identity. Interestingly the discussion of identity discussion shifted from one of marketing efficiencies to that of organizational culture. The discussion of identity centered on how cultures coalesced around a facility’s identity. Many shared a common dilemma – how to build a culture that was tuned into its community, while building a set of cultural norms that leveraged organizational efficiencies and executing a common strategy. Practically this boiled down to deciding whether to implement a monolithic identity (one brand for all facilities); a system of segmented identities (each facility has its own identity) or a consolidated identity system (each facility has an individual name endorsed by the system name). It was interesting to watch the participants relate culture orientation to identity determination.
Theme Four: Caring for the Brand Inside. The final key topic of discussion focused on the importance of building a culture that could sustain a distinctive brand. The group quickly understood that the desired brand in the marketplace (defined by their strategy) was only as strong as the brand on the inside (the culture). The implications for the group seemed to cluster around the following themes: restraint, enthusiasm or opportunism. Some participants saw challenges with their culture that may slow down some of their brand building. Others were excited because it was evident that all of their work to build a strong culture created the opportunity to use brand building as a competency to get credit externally for a culture poised to excel in the dynamic market. The last voices saw possibilities to use a holistic perspective to brand building as an organizational development tool to align their culture with the opportunities being created by the changes unfolding in front of their organizations.
It was fun watching the participants learn from each other and leave the room with a new set of insights and the enthusiasm to put them to work.