Seth Anthony

As communications professionals in the world of marketing, the way we frame language around our products is very important. In the digital realm, it becomes vital — especially in a world of search engine marketing and optimization that’s driven by customer vocabulary. Through this, users influence how organizations market themselves; meanwhile, providers try to influence a user’s search language by changing industry-accepted terms.

A great example of this is the term “Continuing Care Retirement Community.” It was adopted by the aging services field, but over time, it failed to truly describe what consumers want. Recently, the industry leaders (including our team at Varsity) pulled together to recommend the term “Life Plan Community” be adopted as a more aspirational term for the Boomers. Let’s pull back a bit further and think critically about how we continue to use language as senior living marketers.

If you perform a Google search for retirement communities or senior living options, you’ll generally run into two euphemisms used by marketers — “luxury” and “affordable.” I ask myself, if I were in the market for aging services, what do these terms say to me?

Luxury — “Luxury means the finest amenities and high-end dining” or, perhaps, “Do I have enough money to afford this property?”

Versus

Affordable — “Oh, great. A community that won’t break the bank and that I could actually afford” or, perhaps, “I guess I’ll settle for whatever an affordable community has because I can’t afford luxury.”

There are upsides and downsides to how we interpret these shorthand phrases. Certainly, marketers like them because they force consumers to self-segment. Those without assets will naturally avoid luxury, and those with money wouldn’t be interested in the more limited offerings found in the affordable space. Certainly, as we manage search engine marketing campaigns, providers often identify “affordable” as a negative keyword, meaning that if a user enters that phrase in his or her search, an ad will not be shown because the organization assumes that the user can’t afford its offerings.

Maybe you’re like us, and you’ve noticed something missing. Yes, just like the rest of America, we’re forgetting the middle class. Middle class used to be something everyone aspired to. It was a positive to be middle class, and people were proud of that label. Today, it seems that if you aren’t part of the upper, then you’re just part of the lower. When did that change? When did aging services stop engaging with the middle class?

For instance, let’s look at these search terms from Google Trends. This data is only for the United States, over the last 12 months, and shows the popularity of each phrase when it comes to searches:

The blue bar is “affordable senior living.”

The red bar is “luxury senior living.”

The yellow bar at the bottom is “middle class senior living.”

As you can see, no one searches for “middle class senior living.” There are plenty of reasons why this may be, but certainly it’s not a term used by providers to market their products. No one wants to be labeled “middle class,” it seems. What, then, is the term used by average Americans to find a middle-of-the-road community? In this case, there isn’t a universal answer — and, in my mind, that’s an opportunity.

While many communities are focusing on luxury and are trying to bring in asset-laden residents, there’s a strong middle class, driven by Baby Boomers, that are going to be looking for a retirement option. If providers can find a way to cater to this segment, they could potentially have much to gain. Marketers need to begin working now to define what middle class retirement accommodations look like and educate potential residents on how to find them.

Language is an amazingly powerful tool. As marketing professionals, we have a way of impacting how people perceive and interact with the products we make. No one would describe an Apple product as an affordable brand, but many do think of it as a luxury. Yet, for many Americans, it’s a luxury they can afford and represents a certain amount of prestige and status.

As we look to the future of marketing in the senior space, how do we capitalize on this and tell middle class Americans that a quality retirement experience is a luxury they, too, can afford?

That’s something that we, at Varsity, are thinking quite a lot about.