EPISODE 004: ARVIND BALA, SENIOR HOUSING MARKETING EXECUTIVE
[00:00:00] Michael Mahoney: Hi Arvind, great to
speak with you.
[00:00:05] Arvind Bala: Likewise, Michael. Great
to speak with you.
[00:00:08] Michael Mahoney: I’m curious what
inspired you to pursue a career in marketing and branding?
[00:00:17] Arvind Bala: Yes. Going back in time, I
studied hospitality for my undergrad, and I spent the first couple of years in
the trade, managing a restaurant. At some point, over the turn of the millennium,
from 1999 to 2000, I made a decision that this was not a space where I could
spend the rest of my life because I was seeing my peers enjoying New Year’s Eve
or Christmas day. Those were the busiest days in the hotel and hospitality
industry, and I was seeing myself being at the frontline, operating a restaurant.
I really wanted to be in a space where I could— Initially, in my younger years,
I just wanted to explore some alternative careers and see where the path takes,
but I was still fascinated by the world of hospitality, so I wanted to be
connected in some way. That really took me away to take a break and invest in
my education a bit. Then I did my post-grad in marketing and wanted to come
back to hospitality because I thought I could have a greater influence, and
quite frankly, meaning I can make more money for the companies I operate, and
by virtue of that, make more money for my own self. That’s what really brought
me into marketing. It was purely for financial reasons backed by my education. Once
I spent some time learning about marketing, I got really fascinated with it, and
25 years later, here I am still doing that.
[00:01:36] Michael Mahoney: Well, let’s dive in
and talk about brand management and brand building. As you know, this show is
about our listeners learning how to find and position their brands at senior
housing providers in ways that create meaningful and emotional connections
between their brand, their residents, and their employees. I’d like to talk
today about your 10-step approach to building and managing a brand from the
perspective of senior housing. Can you take us through that? You go with
situation, strategy, and solutions. Start walking us through that process, if
[00:02:24] Arvind Bala: Yes, Michael. This process,
as logical as it sounds, is not something that is practiced in the marketing and
branding space. Again, this is just anecdotal, but eight out of 10 marketers, if
you give them a problem, a business problem, that a certain product needs to be
marketed or needs to be brought to market and so on, they’ll dive into the
solution aspect. That is, they’ll think about what is the price, should I
discount it, should I sell it at a premium, should I think about communicating,
which channels whether it should be social media or advertising. They get into
the tactical world of bringing the product to market. That’s what I’ve experienced
through my 25 years with most of the marketers in that space. The approach that
I’ve been taught to think, quite frankly, is you step back a bit, step away
from the problem at hand, and you form a strategy. To form a strategy, you need
to step back a bit more and understand the market first. The first step in a
marketer’s journey to bring a product to life is to do a situation analysis. That’s
really where it starts. We can slowly build our way through situation and
strategy before you come to the solutioning part, which is tactical.
[00:03:48] Michael Mahoney: Okay. Let’s start with
situation because I’ve seen your framework. I know you begin with understanding
the current state of the market. Can you tell us about that, and then how do
you see the current state of the market for senior housing?
[00:04:07] Arvind Bala: Yes, so it’s a two-part
question, Michael. Before you even understand the market, the first step in my
mind is to understand your organization. That’s where you really need to start
because company’s a large, medium, and small. In respect to where you are on
the spectrum, unless you’re a solopreneur because then you know exactly what
your business is about yourself, the vast majority of the times you need to
bring along a team in this journey. This is another fault of many marketers.
They operate in a silo marketing as a discipline or a department, but really
marketing is business. You got to first understand the business, understand the
mindset of the leaders who are in the business, the founders perhaps. Have a
conversation with them and understand what’s the basal orientation of the
business. Are you production-oriented, that is, it’s all about scale of
production, processes, and efficiency like a McDonald’s, or are you about purpose
like Patagonia, purpose before profit, or are you customer-oriented like
Amazon, which is the singular focus is on the customer and the whole reason why
a company exists is to solve a customer problem. So, really having conversation
with the leaders and the founder helps you to understand what’s the basal
orientation of the organization and it can only be one. I haven’t come across
any organization having worked in different parts of world with different
organizations. I haven’t come across where you have multiple orientation.
There’ll always be something. Finding that out is the first step. Then once you
know that, then you start to research. You research the market, and you
research who your customer is. That’s a secondary step.
[00:05:50] Michael Mahoney: So, if you ask the
question, what is your orientation and you hear multiple answers, or multiple
orientations, then you’re not there yet. You’ve still got some work to do.
[00:06:01] Arvind Bala: Yes, you got some work to
do and you really need some line of questioning to get that alignment because
if you’re trying to be everything to everyone as a business, you end up
satisfying nobody. you look at any great brands, Apple, and Google, they’re
successful because they have a singular orientation. Someone, the founder, or
the leadership going back in time, determined, and decided that this is the
singular orientation we’re going to have, whether it was by design or
organically, that’s a different story. But really, they all have a singular
orientation and that really helps them to stand out and differentiate the
product, which is more about the strategy, but we’ll come to that.
[00:06:49] Michael Mahoney: That makes sense.
Okay, so walk us through that then, the situation and the steps within the
context of senior housing and looking at the state of the market and how brands
would position themselves or just understanding from the outset what that
market looks like.
[00:07:10] Arvind Bala: Yes. The senior housing
market, and again, I’m speaking in context to what I’ve seen, there’s a sea of
sameness. What I mean by this is it is lacking differentiation. Most of the
operators have a similar product, and similar value proposition. Most of them
identified their target market to be similar. The more that happens and the
more at scale that happens, there’s commoditization which starts to brew. That really
gives a lot of power and opportunity for any operator who can identify
themselves to be unique and different from that sea of sameness. It’s that famous
analogy. Going back many years, the blue ocean theory, which I know you are a
strong proponent as well. It’s really moving away from the red ocean to the
[00:08:22] Michael Mahoney: Yes, I’ll put a link
of the book in the show notes when we’re done. But yes, it’s the blue ocean strategy
and it’s the idea of not competing or not entering crowded waters where you’re
competing against so many others, but instead finding your own niche, your own
unique area where you really have wide open ocean and clear sailing and open
waters. The way you do that is by finding your niche which then really begins
with, like you said, going back to the founders, the leadership. What are your
core values, what is your mission, what’s your one true purpose, then
identifying around that.
[00:09:08] Arvind Bala: Yes, and it’s easier said
than done. That’s what makes it complex, and that’s why you see sea of sameness
in most categories. It’s getting increasingly harder, but having said, it has
to be curated.
[00:09:25] Michael Mahoney: Well, it’s essential,
especially in this market. I mean, North America, it’s just fiercely competitive
and getting more competitive by the day in terms of the competition out there
with so many providers. Then you’ve got shifting demographics with your target audience
and wants and needs. It’s extremely important to build or to carve out your own
identity. It also impacts employee retention because we’re seeing that as well
in the labor market. Understanding your niche and your culture, defining your
culture clearly, impacts your ability to recruit and retain employees as well.
[00:10:08] Arvind Bala: You’re absolutely right.
There’s so much of a roadmap and opportunity and value to be unlocked. Marketing
is really just an easy shortcut. There are two ways to position market, either
you position in the market as your product is ready, here’s the product, go
take the product, market it, and bring it, and sell the widgets. That’s one way
to look at marketing. But the way I think about marketing is marketing is the
business. Even before the product is created, insert marketing so that as you
start to develop your product and services, you are conscious about who is the
target audience, who’s the customer, what are the pain points and problems that
you’re solving so that when you create the product right at the outset, you can
design the product in such a way that it resolves for those customers. That’s all
about orientation, that’s all about research that you initially do at the
[00:11:08] Michael Mahoney: What are you seeing in
the market in terms of what customers want, and what they need. What’s changing?
[00:11:18] Arvind Bala: I think the only constant
is change, Michael. It’s no different for senior living, quite frankly. We know
that the seniors who are coming in or who will be coming in to our sector will
be moving into retirement homes and senior housing over the next 20 years are
not going to be the same as those who moved in in the past 20 years. Internet
is a wonderful technology that has allowed us various diverse groups of people
to have similar wants, needs, and desires, and behave very similarly because we
all have access to this great technology and information. The seniors of today
and tomorrow are wanting to do more. Senior housing is not a place where you go
away and quietly wait. It’s now a place you go and you want to belong. You want
to actively contribute to the community, be a part of the community and continue
to educate yourself, grow, and do exciting things. That’s what is really
changing. It’s no different from how you and I are evolving. I think aging is
really being redefined. I think that’s the reason senior housing should also be
redefined. That’s really the mission many of us who are associated with the
sector are trying to do.
[00:12:38] Michael Mahoney: I think that’s one of
the hottest categories, this concept of active senior living and appealing to
seniors’ desire to get out and, and do more, and be more physically active, and
[00:12:52] Arvind Bala: Yes, and you said it
Michael, you said it just there. It’s what our customers want. Going back to
customer centricity and the orientation. If you don’t give what the customers
want and if you don’t evolve your product to what your customers want, then
it’s going to get hard in marketing, because your product is not resonating
with the customer problem. Your product is not a solution to the customer
problem. It’s really important to really build or design your product with the
customer in mind.
[00:13:25] Michael Mahoney: We’ve talked about the
situation, the concept of figuring out what the founder’s philosophy is, and
what your primary orientation is. The next step is strategy in the framework
that you use. Strategy talk about where you play, how you’ll win, and having
just a handful of objectives. Can you share a little bit more about that?
[00:13:49] Arvind Bala: Yes. There are two things
that need to happen. The first item before we choose where you’ll play and how
you’ll win is really mapping out the market, which is part of situation as well
because you need to really define what is the market landscape. When I say
market landscape, it’s not about the customers you want to attract or target, but
about the general market, the overall market. Really mapping it out and
segmenting it into various consumer behavior. It could be regional or geographical
segmentation, whatever that may be, but a really scientific way of mapping out
the market and understanding what are the various consumer groups there. That
would really inform your strategic element, which is then choosing from this
entire marketplace which has these eight or ten consumers, what is the most
effective target segment you can attract and play in? This is very often missed
out by marketers. This is going back many decades, there was a book which
clearly laid out the segmentation, targeting, and positioning mindset in
marketing. That has really been forgotten by many marketers where they spray
and pray. They try and win the entire marketplace. The way I have been trained
is really know that segment market. You’re not going to reach everyone. You
need to choose who you’re going to attract. The way you choose is directly
connected to the product you have and the problem you solve, because that is going
to resonate really well with a very small segment of which is your target
[00:15:33] Michael Mahoney: Okay. That takes us
then to the last section of your framework which is solutions. Talk about creating
distinctive brands, brand architecture, and then tactical execution.
[00:15:51] Arvind Bala: The tactical execution is
really the four P’s of marketing. I mean if you’re brand building, then it’s
about being distinctive. Assuming you’ve done your work around strategy very
carefully, you curated your strategy very carefully, you’ve got some few
strategic objectives, it’s about bringing to life that strategy into a product
and designing your product. That’s one element of the four P’s. The other P is
making it distinctive. It’s really making that big McDonald’s sign, the big M. When
you’re driving off the highway, you see the big M and you know what you’re going
to get and how much you’re going to spend. It’s creating those distinctive
elements of the brand, but also creating some association of what you stand for
and being crystal clear about that. This is an evolution of your strategy
because it has to be closely connected to who you are in your orientation phase,
what the market needs, and what your product is. I see differentiation as a
strategic element that is to be very clear on what’s unique and different about
you, and distinctiveness as all about the brand identity and the visual, the
tone of voice, and bringing that to life.
[00:17:01] Michael Mahoney: Can you give some
examples of those distinctive brand elements that you’re talking about?
[00:17:05] Arvind Bala: Yes. Distinctive brand
elements are, again, I’m going back to McDonald’s, and for McDonald’s, you know
how they show up. It’s that yellow and red combination. It’s very distinctive.
They almost own the moment you show those two colors in their in their pantone,
you know it’s McDonald’s. The moment you walk into a McDonald’s, you know how
you going to be ordering. You’ll either queue up or you will go to that big
board on the screen, so you know how much you’re definitely going to pay for what
you’re going to get. It’s pretty standardized. They’ve constructed the product
with such clear definition. It doesn’t vary across thousands of thousands of
stores. They’ve created a very strong identity which is their distinctive
elements, and a very strong product, both connected and joined at the hip. The brain
very quickly shortcuts the moment you see a big M at an expressway and you pull
over the next exit, you drive in, and it’s almost a muscle memory. You don’t
even try and evaluate. It happens so often, Michael, at least with me. I’m out
in a restaurant. This is an amazing restaurant. What a great experience. Even though
I’ve enjoyed the experience, and I like the price I paid, and I enjoyed the
food and the menu, I never go back. That’s because it’s not distinctive, so
they’ve got a very differentiated product, but they’re not distinctive enough
to create that mental awareness. That’s why you end up not going there as
frequently, whereas at McDonald’s, it’s presented, it’s mentally available,
it’s physically available, so you end up going there more often.
[00:18:39] Michael Mahoney: As you said, you know
what you’re going to get. It’s consistent. When it comes to brand architecture
and this concept, how important is it, as you are defining it, to be able to
put this in writing, to actually have a written document that encompasses your
philosophy around it and your brand positioning and how you’re creating these
brand assets and how this execution will take place? Is it important to put
this into a document?
[00:19:12] Arvind Bala: The short answer is yes. Absolutely.
You need to create a brand guide or a brand playbook. The reason for that is,
especially if you are an enterprise organization spread across multiple units
across different regions, it gets extremely critical that you articulate the
exact specifications. If you’re a single unit operator, then perhaps it’s not
as necessary though I would argue even then so because you don’t know what your
future holds. Consistency is so critical. I think a brand playbook is really
critical. A brand guide, or brand playbook is really critical because it allows
you to scale. It allows you to convey your differentiation time and again to
not just the customers, but also your team members.
[00:19:56] Michael Mahoney: Okay. That makes
sense. Yes, I think it’s important as you’re adding and as you’re scaling. Most
operators are trying to add locations. They’re trying to grow. It becomes a
challenge as you add locations and employees and you’re dealing with turnover
and going into new communities. It’s all the more important to have a clear
guide, a plan, or a playbook that everyone’s looking at. That makes sense. So,
let’s wind this up by going back to the very beginning with just a question for
our listeners. If someone is going into this and they’re really focused on
defining their brand and they said, “Okay, this makes sense. I want to break
out from this sea of sameness that Arvind was talking about,” what’s the first
step, or the one thing they should do just to get started down that path? If they
go in the office on Monday and they’re going to start, and say, “I’m going to
begin by identifying what’s our unique proposition here? How are we different?
What is our brand promise?” What do they do to get started?
[00:21:09] Arvind Bala: There is no magic bullet
in terms of what is it you do to understand your brand promise. I think of
brand as reputation, and reputation is curated through every single interaction
that happens across hundreds and thousands of interactions that you have,
moments of proof that you have. There is no silver bullet to curate your brand
promise on day one. But the way I would start is to really understand your
organization first, understand your business first. If you’re a new marketer
walking into a new sector or new company, I would spend a fair amount of time
understanding my business first before I try and understand the market, so really
going back to the orientation.
[00:21:50] Michael Mahoney: I think you spoke to
this earlier. You talked about understanding why you’re founded, what your
purpose is, and what’s your unique ability, and maybe what’s missing in the marketplace,
what are consumers asking for, what do people want, and how do all those line
up around what you are able to offer and where your passion is?
[00:22:12] Arvind Bala: That’s a great place to
start, Michael. What you just mentioned. If you have access to the founder in
your company, just spend time with the founder and understand, taking them back
in time to what really brought them to create this business. Really
understanding that is so critical and it’s often lost in the brand promise, the
playbook, and the guides that come in after. It’s an essential ethos of what
created this, what happened in the founder’s mind in that moment in his or her
life that led them to create this business. It’s so critical. Sometimes,
unlocking that is the insight. You then define everything around that. That’s
your orientation, that gives you clarity in your target segment, and everything
else that follows.
[00:22:57] Michael Mahoney: That’s a great place
to wrap right there, to take us back to the start. Arvind, thanks for spending
the time today to talk with us and share your insights. We really appreciate your
[00:23:10] Arvind Bala: Thank you, Michael. Thank
you for time.
[00:23:12] Michael Mahoney: Take care