language Archives – Varsity Branding

Tag: language

What do you call a single-family, detached or semi-detached residence at your community? Is it a villa, a cottage, a townhouse or something else entirely? I’ve worked with aging services providers that have built homes that are exactly the same, in two different locations, calling them a villa in one community and a cottage in another. Outside of the physical location of the structures, they were identical in every way.

This led us to wonder ­— are we, as aging services marketers, confusing potential residents because of the language we use to describe our products?

Let’s go back to the basics. What’s the definition of each of these housing types? For the purpose of consistency, we’ll utilize as our point of reference for our definitions.

Villa — a country resident or estate; in British parlance, it can also denote a semidetached dwelling house, usually suburban

Cottage — a small, usually one-story, modest dwelling that could be owned or rented, sometimes as a vacation home

Townhouse — a house in the city, especially as distinguished from a house in the country owned by the same person; one of a row of houses joined by common sidewalls

Condominium — an apartment house or other multi-residence complex in which the residences are individually owned but with shared responsibility for common areas

Bungalow — a cottage of one story; popular during the first quarter of the 20th century, usually having one and a half stories, a widely bracketed gable roof and a multi-windowed dormer, frequently built of rustic materials

Mew(s) — a place of retirement; chiefly British; a street having small apartments

Carriage house — a small home, usually part of a larger estate, adjacent to a main house

I’ve found all of these terms used to describe residences in one community or another. Objectively, many of these residences were very similar, the only major difference being whether they were detached residences or not.

Put yourself in the shoes of Boomer or seniors that are attempting to compare options and services. They may be trying to decide whether your 1,700-square-foot villa is comparable to another community’s 1,700-square-foot cottage. Or maybe they are considering a 1,200-square-foot carriage house or townhouse. Do the descriptors “cottage” or “bungalow” equate to “small” in their minds, or does “villa” make them think of a memorable trip to Tuscany? The sheer brainpower it takes to sift through all of the options could be staggering.

Throughout the years, branding has shown us that the best-selling products are those that can be described simply and that can easily show their value. Can you say that about the residence mix at your community? Perhaps your community isn’t even the challenge, but other campuses surrounding yours are using different language in an attempt to position themselves in the market. How could this trend be helping or hurting your marketing efforts?

This post is somewhat rhetorical. We don’t have a succinct answer to the problem; rather, we want to ask the question and start a conversation. How much does the language we use matter? Does it create confusion in the marketplace simply because we want to make a product sound more appealing? What will we be calling our senior living residences of the future?

All I know is that, as long as I’m not living in a tiny house, I think I’ll be okay.

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?”


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.

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