Run-up to Argentum 2018: The Power of Purpose in Senior Living


A business phenomenon has emerged that senior-living communities can’t afford to ignore — purpose-driven marketing.

In a nutshell, the practice entails publicly committing your business to a broader social mission. And Jonathan Mildenhall, former Chief Marketing Officer at both Coca-Cola and AirBnB, believes that it’s essential for success – especially for senior-living communities.

Mildenhall will be speaking on the topic at this year’s Argentum conference for senior living. This post won’t be able to capture his vibrant style of presentation. But it will teach you what purpose-driven marketing is; how senior-living organizations can make purpose-driven marketing work in their communities; and why it’s important for them to pursue it.

What Is Purpose-Driven Marketing?

Mildenhall describes it as “a compelling business or brand purpose that transcends the business model, and reaches into culture.” It means taking a stance on an important social issue of the day, and following through with a sincere commitment.

Mildenhall’s own work is a master-class.

Take AirBnB. Their powerful ad, aired during this year’s Superbowl, took an unambiguous stance on recent immigration debates. The slogan, “We Accept,” promoted a message of inclusivity that resonated with many viewers.

No matter how you feel about the statement’s politics, that slogan indisputably fits AirBnB’s brand. The company strives to make travel more accessible by opening up a range of hospitality to their customers. They can’t afford to discriminate. Inclusion is an essential part of the deal.

That’s one of the secrets to AirBnB’s success. Mildenhall and his team found a message that suited the company’s mission. Its authenticity makes it work. The same applies to Tom’s Shoes and Warby Parker, or Patagonia and REI.

Each of these brands found a genuine, resonant, socially-conscious message to promote. That’s what purpose-driven marketing is all about.

Purpose in Senior Living

So how does this apply to the senior living industry?

Mildenhall believes that the principles of purpose are especially important for senior living centers. The entire industry depends on forming powerful bonds of trust with residents and their family members.

And, unlike world-straddling companies like AirBnB and Coca-Cola, senior living communities are innately local. They’re accountable to their communities. So they need to find a purpose that connects with those around them.

Here are three ways that senior living organizations can bring purpose to their local communities:


For many senior living residents, feeling dependent can be a major emotional strain. They may struggle to accept that their most productive days are behind them. Any opportunity to feel useful can be a big boon to their wellbeing.

This is why many senior living communities set up volunteer programs in their organizations. Packing gift-boxes for charity sales, giving guest-talks at nearby schools, or crocheting stuffed toys for children’s hospitals are all ways that residents can be of service.  They derive enormous satisfaction from giving back; and the community benefits from a tighter knit connection with their communities.

If your organization doesn’t yet have a resident volunteer program, this is an excellent place to start.

Finding Partnerships

Every community hosts a number of organizations trying to do good. Senior living organizations should make sure they’re counted among them.

One effective way to do that is to build partnerships with high-impact charities in your area. This is especially effective for non-profits that share many of the same stakeholders, like the Alzheimer’s Association, or the United Way.

By sponsoring their charity events, or by starting a fundraising team, or by enlisting staff to help, you can generate powerful goodwill in your community. Associating your community with reputable charities is a great way to demonstrate your organization’s purpose.

Being Visible

This may be the most important strategy of all.

Many people don’t understand what happens in a Senior Living Community. They don’t see the work behind the care, and sometimes they can make ungenerous assumptions about the lives of residents.

That’s a disservice. It’s not only harmful to you and your staff, but to the entire community. After all, chances are good that many community members will become senior living residents someday — they should not be made to dread the experience!

It’s incumbent on senior living communities to show how they help their residents. They need to connect with family members, engage with their communities, and use transparency to demonstrate their commitment to care.

Why Bother?

If “demonstrating commitment” and “being visible” sound a little nebulous to you, that’s understandable. The hard-numbers business benefits of purpose-driven marketing may not be immediately obvious. But Mildenhall assures us — they’re very real.

“It’s no mere intellectual exercise,” he says. “It’s a competitive necessity. Fundamentally, purpose drives performance.”

Purpose-driven marketing is as much about defining a company’s culture as it is about branding. That culture, in turn, spurs companies to success, in two important ways:

Motivating the Workforce

Clarity in purpose simplifies decisions at every level of an organization. If a guiding principle is well-defined and well-communicated, employees will take their cues from it when they’re faced with a difficult dilemma.

One classic example is Disneyland. Their first principle is “No Sad Kids.” That means employees in the park feel empowered to, say, replace dropped scoops of ice-cream, or exchange damaged souvenirs, without fear of reprimand from their supervisors. Anything it takes to keep kids happy.

The “No Sad Kids” rule is strong enough and simple enough to motivate good decisions from every staff member. What if CNAs stuck to a simple mantra – “No Unhappy Residents”? Might that make your community a little stronger?

Defining Direction

Finally, purpose helps to orient staff as they navigate the challenges that face their business.

“Purpose-driven companies don’t only use their purpose in times of good, they also use their purpose when the company is facing real challenges and headwinds,” Mildenhall says.

When AirBnB had a problem with home-owners committing racial discrimination, the company’s purpose-driven culture prompted them to act quickly and decisively. They developed a non-discrimination pledge for home-owners, and adopted a zero-tolerance policy for those that broke it. These steps, in time, largely resolved the problem.

Without that clear purpose guiding them, AirBnB’s response would have been much less brisk — and it would have taken that much longer for them to win back the trust of their customers.

Although they may not be as serious as racist brand-jacking, every senior living community faces headwinds from time-to-time. State inspections, resident complaints, and fretting family members can scramble a community’s priorities, and even interfere with care.

A sense of purpose, however, can point the way through a crisis, and keep management and clinical staff focused on their commitment to residents. At the end of the day, Mildenhall argues, that’s what keeps businesses fiscally and operationally healthy. In senior living, it’s what elevates care to the level that residents deserve.

Who could dispute the value of that?


Amy Johnson