Branding: How to Get it Right

Branding: How to Get it Right

Branding: How to Get it Right


Mike Peacock: Hello. Welcome back to Cosmic Soup. Today, we’re going to dig into the mystical world of branding. Trust me, there’s way more to it than the average person could even wrap their heads around. But fear not. Today’s guest, Cynthia Thurlow Cruver, is an expert on the subject and she will shed some light onto why it’s so important and what it can mean for your success and for your future.

Cynthia got her start in marketing in her early 20s in the ski industry and kept moving up from there, eventually unifying a worldwide timeshare brand, working in agencies on a wide variety of consumer accounts and, ultimately, owning her own agency and working on some big brands like T-Mobile, Microsoft, various tech companies, banks, and healthcare. She and her team apply sophisticated branding and marketing techniques to the aging services industry.

Full disclosure: Like Shawn, Cynthia is also my boss, even though she hates to be called that. Cynthia, thanks for joining me again today on the Soup.

Cynthia Thurlow Cruver: [Laughter] Thank you, Mike. It’s great to be here.

Mike: Woo-hoo!

Cynthia: Woo!

Mike: Also, just to bring up old history again, back when I worked for you at Destino, you did own another company. Now, was that 3AM back in the day?

Cynthia: It was 3AM, yeah.

Mike: I do remember that, and so you’re just really plugged into the heartbeat of this topic with marketing and branding.

Cynthia: I love it. It’s really fun because what it boils down to, it’s psychology.

Mike: Hmm.

Cynthia: Mm-hmm.

Mike: Well, I know you’re itching to have me ask you this, so rather than make you wait until the end, we’re just going to get it out of the way now. You’re in a low of communities across the country. Having seen so many, I’ve got to ask you this. If you were going to build your own dream community for yourself, your loved ones to live in when you retire and just hang out there for the rest of your life, what’s it going to be?

Cynthia: Well, let me tell you. My community would be on at least 50 acres. It would have walking trails. We would have organic gardens. We would have chickens and some pigs. [Laughter]

Mike: Wow.

Cynthia: And it would be an arts-focused community, so we would be working in the fine arts. There would be a yoga and meditation component, and we would share food cooking, food raising, food cooking. We’d probably can together fresh foods.

Mike: What?!

Cynthia: Yeah.

Mike: You’re talking about a fully self-realized community that can grow its own food and have activities centered around that.

Cynthia: Yes, that would be my big dream.

Mike: Wow! That’s epic. That’s actually super cool and you need to get started on that right now—

Cynthia: Uh-huh.

Mike: –making it happen.

Cynthia: [Laughter]

Mike: I think we’re not too far away, though, actually, you know, when I think about all the cool things that are happening in the industry right now. It’s a dream, for sure, but I don’t see a reason why it can’t be realized.

Cynthia: It could absolutely be realized. I’ve been to communities that are sitting on, you know, 100, 200 acres of land and some do have farms that somebody is operating a farm. It’s just what’s not happening is programming is not being plugged into the farming.

Mike: Yeah. Yeah.

Cynthia: That’s the magic right there.

Mike: It’s there as a concept but the execution side of it is probably not just where it needs to be.

Cynthia: Right.

Mike: Awesome. Well, we’re going to revisit that someday in the future because I think there’s a lot to that that we can actually have full-on discussions about, so don’t forget about that. I’m going to ask you about that again down the road.

For now, let’s talk about what it is you do. I’m going to throw out the B-word: branding.


Mike: We need some context. Tell us about this. This is a seriously – this is a high-level concept, or is it? Break it down. What is branding and what does it mean for this industry?

Cynthia: Well, you know, branding is – what branding is not, it’s not a logo. It’s not colors. It’s not a font. What branding is, is truly the DNA or the soul of a company and it’s how that soul is expressed—

Mike: Okay.

Cynthia: –through everything: The way that we answer the telephone. What does our lobby look like? What do the employees wear? How do the employees act? What is the cultural vibe of our organization?

Then also, in senior living, it’s: What’s our location? What do we offer? How are we different? How do we stand out?

We match all of these things up and we develop a brand. Then that brand gets executed. The very baseline is to create a culture booklet. We need to boil that down and tell our employees who we are, like, this is how we conduct ourselves. This is who we are. Then, of course, it plays out through all sorts of visual communications, marketing, and operations procedures, even community design, interior design, and architecture.

Mike: Really, what we’re talking about when we’re talking about branding is forming a true identity that people recognize you as having.

Cynthia: Yes.

Mike: That covers all facets, not just the way it looks.

Cynthia: All facets and I think sometimes what happens with organizations is they want to do a lot of marketing and they don’t have a brand. That’s challenging because now you’re spending a lot of money trying to generate leads and you’re sending them into a nonbranded organization. They’re just not going to react as well and you’re going to waste a lot of marketing money that way.

Mike: Hmm. What can be some of the results of uninspired or just plain bad branding?

Cynthia: Well, a lot of wasted money, like I just said, census challenges, confusion, lack of culture, human resources.

Mike: Oh.

Cynthia: A really tough time hiring.

Mike: And keeping, I would assume.

Cynthia: And keeping, yeah. It’s sort of like, we’re all human and humans, essentially, we’re animals, basically. We’re pack animals.

Mike: Right.

Cynthia: And so, as a group, we all want to know, what am I supposed to be doing? Why am I here? How do I fit? How can I get better? How can I grow? How can I get more money? We need all of these things and, really, a brand is one of the ways to kind of tie that all together.

Mike: Mm-hmm.

Cynthia: For human resources, people can recognize, like, “Whoa, that’s my tribe. I want to work for that company because they’re really cool.” Then, all of a sudden, it’s easier to hire and it’s easier to retain staff.

Mike: Got it. What are some identifiable elements of good branding that you’ve seen out there? What makes it really, really effective?

Cynthia: Oh, great. Okay. Surprisingly, photography, like a custom photo library because people respond to photos. They recognize photos. It’s the very first thing that you might notice about a brand if you were being marketed to or if you stumbled across a message. Creating a custom photo library that is supportive of the brand identity and communicates that vibe, that feeling, that’s a perfect way to really gel your brand into something that’s recognizable.

Color palettes: I think there’s a tendency in this industry sometimes to be really passive about color palettes. If you think about what the psychology of that is, it’s like, “Oh, I’m older. Am I fading away?”

Mike: Ah…

Cynthia: Because it’s kind of faded out versus a strong color or a color that’s vibrant that exudes life would be recognizable as being different in the industry too.

Mike: Okay. When we’re talking about photos, this kind of ties into a conversation you and I were having a couple of days ago when we’d talk about making sure that your photos and your branding matches what’s actually going on at your community. Hey, this person doesn’t look like me or this area doesn’t look like the area I’m from. How do we make sure that we’re going about branding these things properly to make sure that residents don’t look at that and don’t connect with that?

Cynthia: That’s a really good question. Senior living, at the end of the day, is a hyper-local business. It’s a community. It’s in a physical geographical location that has a very specific feeling.

Sometimes, a mega organization, national, that brands nationally and, all of a sudden, poof, there goes the local nature of the community. That can lead you down some bad roads. It will inevitably end up in bad census.

What we want to do is present. There is a matchup between what are selling, what does the target audience wants to buy, and then, authentically, what do we offer? When you match those three things up, you boil it down into, this is an identifiable brand. It’s true and it’s going to resonate with target audiences that we want to recognize it as being for them.

What we don’t want to do, though, is kind of another pitfall that happens in this industry is, let’s put pictures of gray-haired people all over everything because—

Mike: Right. Yeah, you see a lot of that.

Cynthia: Right, and what? Because I have gray hair, I’m going to want to buy your brand because I see gray-haired people? That’s faulty thinking because the market actually doesn’t really want to see older people on things.

An AARP study recently announced the results of a study that says the majority of photos featuring older people in marketing have gray hair when, in reality, not that many people have gray hair. People color their hair now. How many women don’t color their hair? Not that many anyway.

Mike: Right.

Cynthia: Especially women are sensitive to that, too.

Mike: Sure. No, that’s a great callout. Just for clarification purposes, you used the word twice now. I want to make sure everybody understands it. When you refer to census, what exactly does that mean?

Cynthia: Well, census means how many people – how many apartments do you have or buildings or apartments do you have to sell and then how many people are in there. If you had 100 and you had 80 people or 80 residents, you would have an 80% census.

Mike: Got it. Okay. Awesome. Thanks for the clarification. How do we measure and qualify the success of a branding campaign? How do we know that what gets attributed is actually as a result of the campaign versus just organic stuff out there in the world?

Cynthia: Well, there’s usually a before and an after. A lot of times, because we work a lot in turning around communities, census challenged communities, and what we know to be true is, we might start out with a community and they’re at 80%, 85% census. They’re probably financially stressed. Two years later, they’re at 100% and now they’re building a waiting list.

Their average age of resident, if it’s independent living, starts dropping. It can drop as many as five to ten years. The reason for that is, again, matching up who do we want to attract and what will attract them so they can recognize this community is for me. When we start messaging younger in a more vibrant way, a younger cohort will respond and then, boom, your age drops.

Mike: Oh, wow. We’re talking about, when we look at a census, let’s say that it’s 75%. For the record, is that not a good number?

Cynthia: Superbad.

Mike: Okay.

Cynthia: Yeah.

Mike: Obviously, 100% is the target plus having people waiting in the background, but what do you think the average census is for somebody who decides to say, “Listen, I think I need a rebranding”?

Cynthia: Probably 85%.

Mike: Okay.

Cynthia: Yeah, and so, at 90%, a community can pay its bills, basically. You know you’re going to be breakeven. Out over 90%, that’s the profit. That’s the gravy.

When communities are sitting at 90%, they’re really not as profitable. Even for nonprofit companies, you have to be profitable. You have to pay the bills and, ideally, be building up some reserve financials.

Mike: Sure. Is this a CEO level topic when we talk about branding? Who decides, really, kind of, that this is the avenue that needs to happen?

Cynthia: Everybody. Oh, my gosh. Well, CEOs for sure. The CFOs are all over it because they’re usually the people who are paying the bills or responsible for paying the bills. Operations cares because they’re trying to hire staff and it’s really hard to attract talent in this industry anyway. But if you don’t have a great brand, it’s even harder.

Sales and marketing cares because they’re held to the fire to build census and make sales. But if they’ve got a bad brand, they can’t do that, so they’re in a bit of a catch 22. I see that quite a bit. They’ll be asked to make more phone calls. Go out and do more outreach. Well, you can do that all day long but if your brand is bad, if people don’t want to buy your product, it’s not going to move the needle.

Mike: Yeah. Is it possible to have really good branding but just due to time, progress, and changes in society that maybe just a refresh should be planned anyway just due to things changing in the world?

Cynthia: Yeah. Yeah, that is absolutely true. Brands aren’t forever. They’re not timeless forever. I would say just a refresh with some language, it’s always a good idea.

Everything changes and, certainly, change attracts interest as well. When an organization maybe is doing a repositioning or they’re doing some remodeling, that’s the perfect time to do a little brand refresh and get some press out there. Things are changing. We’re moving. We’re getting better.

Mike: Okay. What does a rebrand entail? What role do, say, for instance, you and 3rdThird Marketing play in guiding the client through the process? How many hands are in the pot to make a rebrand happen?

Cynthia: Well, there’s a whole team but we start out with a lot of research. We want to look at the competitive landscape. We want to perform focus groups, interview residents. Usually, the best, newest residents are the people we want to talk to.

We also will invite people who are not residents or leads to the community and interview them. When you’re going to look, what are you going to be looking for? We want to build a brand that’s going to be at least five years forward-thinking. That’s one piece of it. It’s research.

Then in research, we always – almost always find some operational shifts, so we have operations consultants who are involved in that. Culinary, as you well know—

Mike: Mm-hmm.

Cynthia: –because that’s what you do.

Mike: For sure.

Cynthia: All of these professionals are analyzing: What is this community? What does it offer? Are there some operational tweaks that it does need to make to make a stronger brand?

Then we recommend our best ideas. Communities usually will take many of those ideas and implement. Then it goes into copywriting, creative direction, and art and then production. Then there needs to be a marketing rollout, a plan that involves human resources because we want to really get buy-in from the teams first so that they understand what our new brand is.

Then we also want to usually community, if it’s a nonprofit, to the boards, the residents. If it’s a for-profit, to the residents so they can understand it. They usually get pretty excited about it.

Then it goes into the public realm, so we start marketing and working on PR.

Mike: Wow. That’s a lot of stuff.

Cynthia: Mm-hmm.

Mike: It’s a lot of elements. How long does the average rebranding take, assuming that it’s not just a complete disaster from the get-go?

Cynthia: Well, I mean you really want to allow about six months—

Mike: Okay.

Cynthia: –from soup to nuts.


Cynthia: Pardon the pun.

Mike: This isn’t something that – it’s not a quick turnaround, boom, get it done. It takes proper time and planning and management and communication, of course, so that everybody understands what the ultimate goal is and everybody can get on the same page.

Cynthia: Absolutely. Even more so in nonprofits because nonprofits are run by boards.

Mike: Right.

Cynthia: It’s super important to get the board’s involvement and get the board’s buy off as well as the resident council’s.

Mike: Let’s say that a community is doing pretty good. Maybe one or two areas could use a pick me up. Would they need a full rebranding or just a partial or is there even such a thing as a partial rebranding or would that be just considered a refresh?

Cynthia: We call it a facelift.

Mike: Okay.

Cynthia: A little nip. A little tuck.


Cynthia: Yeah, we can absolutely do that. Sometimes, it’s not a disaster. It just needs a little refresh.

Mike: Maybe outdated.

Cynthia: Mm-hmm. A lot of times, it’s bad photos.

Mike: Yeah.

Cynthia: Somebody is just using really bad photography, and so we want to clean that up. Maybe a little color palette shift. Yeah.

Mike: Sure.

Cynthia: It doesn’t always have to be a whole rebrand.

Mike: Well, I think the question that’s going to be on everybody’s mind when we’re talking about all this crazy branding stuff, what’s this going to cost me? What’s this going to do for the bottom line? How do we approach this?

Cynthia: Oh, it could be all over the map depending on how big your community is or your organization is. Are you a multisite? Are you a single site? Let’s just say that you’re three locations.

Mike: Okay.

Cynthia: That’s a good average. You would want to plan on investing about $250,000.

Mike: Okay.

Cynthia: That would get you some rebranding, a little PR, organizational consulting, and then a rollout for about a year.

Mike: That’s spread out over the course of just the project. You’re not coughing up all that money at one time in your quarter and going, “Ahh!!!”

Cynthia: [Laughter] Yeah. No, you don’t have to cough it up all at one time.

Mike: [Laughter]

Cynthia: The good news is, there is a return on investment for that. What we traditionally will see, you know, maybe a 12:1 ROI.

Mike: Oh!

Cynthia: Yeah, 20:1 ROI.

Mike: That’s a big number.

Cynthia: 30:1, I mean the ROI is significant and so I think that’s something that, for some reason, nonprofits seem to understand that. Sometimes, the for-profit organizations, they just don’t understand the ROI idea.

Mike: Sure. Well, they’re looking for more short-term gains because of possible stockholder obligation or personal investment obligations, things like that, that may be the not-for-profits aren’t quite as heavy into that.

Cynthia: Yeah, you’re absolutely right.

Mike: In your experiences then, the upfront costs and the long-term costs of a rebrand are pretty much just negated by the benefits and the additional revenue that they’re going to get by consistent visibility.

Cynthia: Mm-hmm. Well, if you look at one apartment, let’s just say that one apartment is $6,000 a month. That’s $72,000 a year.

Mike: Mm-hmm.

Cynthia: Times, let’s say you’ve got 20.

Mike: Right.

Cynthia: So, do the math.

Mike: I’m not going to do the math in my head.

Cynthia: [Laughter]

Mike: But, yeah, somebody out there who is on the accounting side of things probably already has the answer for us.

Cynthia: [Laughter]

Mike: Yeah. No, it’s a good illustrator. When you just look at a daily cost, a monthly cost, a yearly cost associated with that, a lot of times the cost of doing a project is paid for with just an increase in occupancy by two or three people over the long-term too.

Cynthia: True. Well, actually, that brings up another really good point because the other byproduct of rebranding is being able to increase your pricing.

Mike: Yeah.

Cynthia: Because we create more demand, we are building a waiting list, and then you can increase your pricing.

Mike: Yeah. Yeah. No, that’s absolutely true. The demand always – that’s the holy grail of, I think, any industry is when your demand is pretty much exceeding your capacity. A good rebranding gets the message out there, creates a level of excitement, and gets that, “Ooh, my god. I want to be,” factor.

Cynthia: Yeah. Success breeds success.

Mike: Yeah.

Cynthia: When people see something that is successful, they want to be a part of it.

Mike: Sure.

Cynthia: That means, I want to work there or I want to live there.

Mike: I’m curious then. You talk about branding. Are we putting together the elements based off the person who could potentially go into the community seeing the elements or the person who will be responsible for that person going into the community viewing the elements?

Cynthia: It’s both.

Mike: Okay.

Cynthia: [Laughter] Okay, so there are two scenarios. Here’s an independent living scenario. I’m 72. I’m going to move somewhere. I’ve picked out the perfect community for me but what am I going to do next? I’m going to ask my adult child, “What do you think? Do you think I should do this?”

Mike: Okay.

Cynthia: The adult child, that has to resonate with the adult child as being a good solution. Now, if you flip that and you say it’s the adult child looking for a place for their mom, number one, it has to fit their needs. They measure it based on, like, would I live there? It has to be good enough for me if I’m going to expect my mom to live there. The second thing that has to happen is the adult child has to sell the idea to their mother. Believe me, I’ve had to do it. [Laughter]

Mike: Yes. Yes. You went through that with your mother as well.

Cynthia: I did. It’s not easy. Really, we’re creating a brand so that when the mother sees the community and the materials and everything, she thinks, “This is for me. Okay, this is a really great place.”

I’ve heard that in focus groups where a woman told me one time, “Yeah, when I walked through the door with my granddaughter and I saw how it was decorated and I saw the brochures and everything, I said to my granddaughter, ‘Grannie can live here.'” Like, this is where grannie can live, so it works.

Mike: Awesome. Well, I’d like to know what effect does a really well-branded community actually have on the lives of its residents? Once they’re in these places, do you feel that they have more pride because they’re represented better? Do you think there’s some kind of a correlation between that?

Cynthia: Absolutely. I like to talk about culture editing a lot. We are all culture editors in this industry. Whether you’re an owner, a management company, how we communicate about aging services affects how people feel. If I’m living in a community that has a really strong brand, that’s positive, it’s vibrant, it communicates energy, then I’m naturally going to feel better about where I live. I’m going to feel better about myself. I’m going to be proud of where I live, and that’s a really important piece of this.

Mike: Yeah. Awesome. Well, speaking of the lives of the residents, let’s ask you the other burning question that we like to ask all of our guests, which is, what are the top three things that you think a community can start doing today that will make a positive impact on the lives of everybody involved?

Cynthia: Wow. Okay. I do spend a lot of time in communities.

Mike: Mm-hmm.

Cynthia: And I spend a ton of time talking with residents. I have a pet project that I would love somebody to take on.

Mike: Okay.

Cynthia: It’s the elephant in the room, which is, we’re all going to die, right? Some of us are closer than others in years.

Mike: You’re looking at me in a very specific way. I’m just saying.


Cynthia: Something that I see missing from communities is psychology, a way to give residents talking tools, platforms, or ways to just talk about how is it going, how are they feeling. Some organizations do have talk circles and that’s fine, but what about age coaching? Why don’t we have age coaching?

Mike, you’re 80 years old. How are you feeling? What are your goals? What do you want to do between now and 90?

Mike: Sure.

Cynthia: How can we help you make that happen? Give people the tools that they need to live the best life that they can, psychologically.

Mike: Okay.

Cynthia: Yeah, so that’s one thing. The other thing that I think communities can do, of course, pet project, culinary.

Mike: Yeah.

Cynthia: It’s huge. Give people food. Make food available that’s delicious and it supports your mind/gut connection. It’s going to make your brain feel better. It’s going to make you emotionally feel better. When you feel better, you’re going to sleep better and you’re going to be more active. I think food, upgrading food is huge.

Then the third thing is just esthetics. That’s an intangible thing. Fresh flowers. Beautiful lighting in the dining room. I’m not talking – it doesn’t have to be dim-dim because I get it that people at later ages, they need some light.

Mike: Sure.

Cynthia: But let’s set the table. Let’s have some nice, lower music or do some things that are just esthetically pleasing because that’s what makes life rich.

Mike: Yeah. You know that also ties back into the branding. If that’s the identity of the place that you’re in, “Hey, I went to this dining facility inside the place that I live and they had awesome lights. They had music in the background. The colors were nice. The menu was a really nice, easy to read shade.” All that kind of stuff definitely can affect, I guess, just your daily response to things.

Cynthia: How you feel. Okay, I’ve got four, actually.

Mike: Throw it on us.

Cynthia: I’m going to take one back.

Mike: Nope. Don’t take one back. Just add to the pot.

Cynthia: Cocktail bar or happy hours, you know, there’s got to be, every day. When I go into communities that have happy hours, people are happy.

Mike: Yeah.

Cynthia: Remember, when they’re happy, they’re talking. There’s stuff going on.

I’ve been in assisted living communities. In fact, Rose Schnitzer Manor in Portland, Oregon. I love that community. They have a martini bar and their 85, 90-year-old residents get dressed. They put on lipstick. They get their earrings.

Mike: It’s like a night out on the town.

Cynthia: It is, and it’s every day. They’re having their martini and then they go have dinner. It’s an amazing social scene. I love it.

Some communities, they shy away from alcohol.

Mike: Mm-hmm.

Cynthia: I get it if people medically are not able to drink.

Mike: Sure. There would have to be some kind of clearances and things like that set in place.

Cynthia: Yeah, but other than that, again, going back to culture editing, it’s not our job as an industry to tell adults whether or not they can partake in something that they probably enjoyed their entire life.

Mike: Especially in the independent living sector.

Cynthia: Yep.

Mike: I love that. I am a huge fan of that and that’s just fantastic.

Cynthia: That’s my number four. It might be my number two.

Mike: Right.

Cynthia: I don’t know. I forgot what number two.

Mike: It was number 2.5.

Cynthia: Okay.


Mike: We’ll call it that. Awesome. Well, this has been a fantastic conversation. I didn’t have a lot of insight into the mystical world of branding, so you did shed some light for me as well.

Cynthia: Thank you.

Mike: And I hope for the listeners. Maybe you’re struggling with some certain elements. Maybe you need to take a look. What can you do? How can we raise the bar? How can we get our occupancy up? How can we improve the morale of our residents?

Take a look at your branding. Take a look at what you look like. Take a look at the moods of your people.

If you have any questions, reach out to somebody who does this. Cynthia, how can they get a hold of you in the world if they have specific questions related to branding?

Cynthia: Well, Also, I don’t know if you’re going to talk about this but ask us branding questions because we’re going to have some question and answer sessions. Right, Mike?

Mike: Absolutely, yeah, so hit us up for our mailbag episodes. Get us your questions. Get us your comments. Like Cynthia said, and we’ll get back to you on all the awesome stuff. Thank you, Cynthia.

Cynthia: Thank you, Mike.

Mike: Woo-hoo!

Cynthia: Woo!

Mike: And thank you so much to all of you for listening. We are absolutely honored to have you here with us on this amazing journey. We’ll be back real soon to dive into another epic bowl of Cosmic Soup.


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