This piece on aged care marketing written by Rhod Ellis-Jones was published in the March/April 2014 edition of Australian Ageing Agenda.
Every now and then you come across a product that appears to be absolutely without purpose. Like the fitness products on late-night TV. The Free Flexor – 10 minute upper body shock! Who came up with this expensive knot of plastic and steel and, more to the point, who is buying it? Between these extreme examples of ‘un-innovation’ and those we can’t do without (like my iPhone 5) there are many grades of usefulness in products and services. Here is where competition lurks, often fierce.
The ultimate purpose of an organisation is to produce and deliver a service or product that is more useful and desirable than the alternatives. When there are no alternatives, you are on a winner – for a while. When there are many, the task becomes differentiation through brand and consumer experience, quality, responsiveness, consistency and other factors.
Most aged care providers offer a similar service to the competitor down the road. Those services and the consumer journey have been largely controlled by a government system. With the transition to consumer directed care (CDC), that is going to change. At the same time, baby boomers are beginning to need care – and they have gold-plated expectations.
The path to purchase
When the money is in your hands, the decision looms large. The urge to get the best value from your investment rises. Under a CDC framework, consumers and carers have direct control over their allocated funds for aged care and home and community services. This means that instead of being given a package deal, they can go shopping.
Let’s consider the path to purchase. A local drive, a search online, a visit to MyAgedCare, a call to a friend, a post to a social media network (‘anyone know a good aged care service in Dandenong?’), a referral from a local GP, a tip from a friend who is an aged care nurse, information in the discharge pack at the hospital. There are more. Every aged care provider needs to be visible at the interfaces it has with potential consumers but also the people they will ask for advice. We listen to the doctor but we trust our friends.
Employees are very important in this new era of CDC. Employees want to work locally. They sometimes work for more than one provider. What will they say about your company at the footy match or the shopping centre? Can employees be a point of differentiation, particularly when they work for more than one company? Aged care is a service sector in which a very intimate service is between people. Employees are therefore the supreme embodiment of your brand and consumer experience. Let’s call it ‘P2P Branding’. To create a unique and compelling experience you must start with selection and training while creating a great culture.
Recruitment will also become more competitive. Carers, nurses and other job seekers have more reason to shop around for employers who are successfully marketing services and responding directly to the needs of consumers: the companies with energy and a bright future.
What’s on offer?
The scope for product and service differentiation is being blown wide open with CDC. Core services will be differentiated by expertise, empathy, technology and responsiveness. Then there is the great range of extended services and products that can improve the consumer experience: from nutritious meals delivered to the door with a fresh newspaper to guided social opportunities and new kinds of mobility enhancing exercises.
Expect innovation from the private sector right along the value chain from hospital discharge or consultation to high care. The advantage existing providers have is trust. However, this won’t be enough to compete effectively against new market entrants, many of which will offer specialised services to niche consumer segments. How then, to make sure that the services you produce are quickly and eagerly taken up by consumers?
Research as engagement
Every bit of cultural research our agency has conducted for hospitals, aged care providers and equipment suppliers emphasises the importance of reflecting community context in care. Place is very important to personal identity: the relationships, the physical space, the quality of services and entertainment. People want to be proud of the care they receive and they want it to be relevant culturally. This represents opportunity for the aged care provider seeking to differentiate.
At the facility level, providers need to understand consumers, in order to plan services that have high appeal, generate a constant revenue stream, are worthy of investment and reduce business risk. The consumer knows best. They know what they want, where and when they want it, and how much they are willing to pay. Consumers willingly share information and actively assist in co-creating products and services when they can see the shared purpose. For that reason, in aged care, market research must be practiced as engagement. Forget the 15-question surveys and the benchmarked ‘satisfaction’ research; providers must get out into the community and connect with people.
The goal of every provider is to develop services that are immediately purchased by consumers. To do so, the opinions of a cross section of consumers, referrers and influencers must be input into processes for product and service development, marketing and company branding. It starts with a defined need and succeeds with a rewarding experience. Good businesses get this right and thrive.
The method of Research as Engagement means that, while research is being conducted and the services are enhanced, the provider is establishing channels and relationships directly with consumers. This is not marketing in its one-way directional sense; it’s about building healthier, happier communities by working together.
The value proposition
When the marketing team sits down to produce content for the website or a brochure suite for frontline staff, they need to be thinking value. How do this company and its services create value for consumers as distinct from the guys up the road? A value proposition is a promise of value to be delivered. It’s the primary reason a consumer should buy from you. It should explain:
- how your product solves consumers’ problems or improves their current situation;
- what functional and emotional benefits the consumer will experience via your product or service (or employment); and
- how your product or service is different from others in the market.