Piali Dasgupta - Our Brand Purpose Of “Positive Aging” Is Our Key Differentiator (Senior Vice President Marketing, Columbia Pacific Communities)

Our brand purpose of “positive aging” is our key differentiator. We are committed to helping seniors live healthier, better, and happier lives for longer through the power of positive and active aging.

1. Could you provide more insight into your journey?

After my master’s in Mass Communication, I started my career as a journalist with The Times of India, writing primarily on fashion and lifestyle, over 17 years ago. The role helped me hone my content skills and gave me access to industry leaders and people of eminence from a cross-section of fields. It also helped me understand the role of PR in building brand narratives, thought leadership, and above all, advocacy.

After five and a half years of print journalism, I switched over to the brand side and went into the digital space with Myntra, where I was heading Content Marketing. I understood the crucial role effective and compelling content played in the customer lifecycle and learned to use it as a persuasion tool. I set up multiple video content IPs such as the Myntra Makeovers and curated conversations with celebrity fashion influencers, much before “influencers” had become trendy. Post that, I moved to Amazon to set up social media for Amazon Fashion in India. I was also a part of the core team that worked on the Amazon India Fashion Week.

By then I had realized that I had not been exposed to the agency world, having always been on the client side. I wanted to understand how the agency business functions and joined Sapient Razorfish as Creative Director and Branch Head for their Bangalore branch. The social/digital mandate of Aditya Birla Fashion Brands was being managed by us. By then I had spent 12 years in fashion – across media, e-commerce, and retail, and was looking for a change of category to challenge myself. I joined Columbia Pacific Communities as Vice President of marketing and the past five and a half years have been spent here.

2. How has purpose-driven marketing played a pivotal role in fostering the success and growth of Columbia Pacific Communities?

Our brand purpose of “positive aging” is our key differentiator. We are committed to helping seniors live healthier, better, and happier lives for longer through the power of positive and active aging. Our communities are designed to encourage social engagement and interaction which prevent loneliness, one of the biggest killers for this generation.

Our purpose is to help seniors live their best lives and shine the spotlight on them. Senior citizens are one of the most neglected, forgotten demographics in a world that is obsessed with Gen-Z. And through the brand credo of positive aging, we aim to fight ageism, and age-related stereotypes that exist in society, and help seniors gain more visibility as a generation. Positive aging underlines the fact that age is just a number and you are as old as you feel. We look at age as an enabler rather than a deterrent.

The brand’s purpose has been central to each of our multi-awarded brand campaigns. Through the narrative of positive aging, we have been able to position ourselves very differently from our competitors, gaining consumer love and connection in a very short period. Our brand health scores are the highest amongst our competitors, and we have consistently ranked high in awareness, affinity, brand salience, and purchase intent.

3. Could you offer perspectives on how storytelling contributes to brand positioning, customer segmentation, and its efficacy in establishing connections with the target audience?

I have always maintained that human beings are hard-wired to connect with stories. People buy brands. They don’t buy products. And brands are built on beautiful stories. Stories that have meaning, touch lives, inspire and push people to take action. We, at Columbia Pacific Communities, are ardent believers in great storytelling. Right from our first campaign #Relearn, about our most recent campaign #SustainableSantaProject, in which senior residents across our 10 communities built five life-size sustainable Santa Clauses using scrap material and waste products, to champion the cause of sustainability.

There are many such examples and several such stories we have told in the past five years. Each such endeavor has brought us closer and closer to our consumers, gaining us brand evangelists and fans, uplifting our brand scores, increasing WOM (word of mouth), and positioning us as a senior care brand that is always innovating, thinking differently to make the lives of seniors meaningful.

4. What are the primary marketing challenges and opportunities within the senior living industry, and how is Columbia Pacific Communities proactively addressing them?

This category is mired in deep-rooted stigma. For decades, senior living communities have been seen as “old age homes,” which paint a dreary, dismal picture in people’s minds. The category has not been looked at as a lifestyle enhancement option for seniors. It has always been perceived as an option for those who don’t have a choice. Columbia Pacific Communities builds fully-serviced, senior living communities with a range of world-class amenities and facilities that are as far from “old age homes” as one can possibly get. We offer holistic living for seniors who like to live well, lead an active life, have seen and done it all, and wish to spend the rest of their lives in comfort and care.

Changing the perception of senior living communities from “something for those that don’t have a choice” to “something that people actively choose for a better life” has been a huge challenge. The other challenge has been to create awareness around a category that Indians don’t know much about. It’s still a very new category in India and comes with its own set of apprehensions and barriers to sell.

There are a host of policy-related challenges as well. For example, it’s very difficult for senior citizens to acquire a home loan, and that makes a purchase decision often harder. Over the last half a decade, we have been able to move the needle on consumer perception of the category significantly through advocacy, awareness building, effective storytelling, our commitment to exceptional service and product delivery, and most importantly, ensuring that the promise of positive aging is met at every stage. PR and advocacy, in particular, have played a crucial role in bringing in a behavior change and bridging the journey from customers being unsure of senior living as an option for customers actively looking for this solution.

5. Could you delve into the significance of digital and performance marketing in reaching and engaging the target audience, as outlined in your article on 2023 real estate marketing trends?

From launch events of projects to webinars, site visits, consultations, and bookings – literally every step in the customer lifecycle has been digitized in the real estate post-pandemic. Real estate brands are now accepting bookings online and using VR and 3D walkthroughs to enable customers to make a purchase decision. We did the same as well during the pandemic and even post that. At Columbia Pacific Communities, we have always had a digital-first approach to marketing, as we find it the most effective and ROI-positive for both brand and product marketing. As much as 70% of our Marketing budgets are spent on digital channels, and it enables us to geo-target our audience, which, currently, is primarily across the south of India.

Performance marketing helps us achieve our bottom-funnel goals such as leads, site visits, and finally sales.

Our first project, The Virtuoso, is nearly sold out, and the second project, Serene Amara by Columbia Pacific is more than 50% sold. A majority of the sales have been achieved through performance marketing across Google and Meta platforms.

Having said that, we are not believers in needless spending even within the digital space. You wouldn’t really see us spending crores on a YouTube bumper ad, for instance. Performance marketing, for us, has been about testing out platforms that work for us and help us reach our desirable audience, constantly optimizing our campaigns for the best ROI, testing out our creatives to optimize results, and ensuring freshness in our communication to prevent audience fatigue.

6. In the context of the evolving concept of senior living communities in India, how has Columbia Pacific reimagined this concept to surpass stakeholder expectations?

Columbia Pacific Management, our parent company, entered the Indian market in 2017, with a vision to reimagine the category of senior living in the country. With over 40 years of rich experience across healthcare (through Columbia Asia Hospitals) and senior living across the US, Canada, China, Malaysia, and North Africa, the company wanted to introduce international best practices in senior living in the Indian market.

Hence, it was about creating new benchmarks in design, construction, delivery, service, and customer experience through the consumer lifecycle.

So, for us, while it has been a complete clean slate to build this business ground up in India, the international expertise has certainly helped the brand and the perceptions around it. The brand health and consumer research studies we do routinely show us that people trust and prefer us more compared to other players in the category because they see us as a more mature player with international expertise. We have been rated the “most preferred” senior living community operators in the country year after year, although we were the latest entrant in the category in which some players have existed for over 20 years.

Whether it is our ADA (The Americans With Disabilities Act) aligned design, our on-time delivery, transparency, and honesty in customer interaction, creating compelling brand stories to engage customers for a lifetime and turn them into brand advocates, or positioning ourselves differently by letting the ethos of positive aging be our guiding light, we have done a lot of things differently.

We can charge a premium from our customers because of the international levels of service and care that we offer to our residents, which is unparalleled in the country today.

There is, overall, a lot of interest and positive sentiment around the category today than there was six years ago. That is our biggest win as a brand.

7. Can you share noteworthy marketing strategies and campaigns implemented during your tenure as the Senior Vice President of Marketing at Columbia Pacific Communities?

A few of the marketing strategies implemented in the past five and a half years were to be digital-first, lead with content and storytelling to organically build a brand with high equity in a short period thereby allowing performance marketing to function better, lean on earned media and advocacy to raise awareness of an emerging brand in a nascent category, and be extremely nimble in operations.

As for the campaigns, almost all our campaigns, are done on extremely modest budgets and have gone on to win many awards at prestigious forums. Our campaigns have always centered around the two key brand pillars of positive aging and community living, and have won hearts because of their honesty of intent, exceptional storytelling, and bringing senior citizens under the spotlight.

In 2020, through our campaign #CommunityBeatsUncertainty, we told the story of how a community stands together in the face of the most adverse situations – even a global pandemic. This helped us draw attention to our biggest selling point – the joy of living in a community where no man is an island and help is always a phone call away.

Later that year, our Christmas campaign #SignsOfLove brought together six of our senior residents who learned sign language to perform a Christmas song for the speech and hearing-impaired community of our country. The campaign, titled #SignsOfLove, garnered rave reviews and positioned the brand as one that creates experiences and memories for seniors that are truly unique and priceless.

Our World Senior Citizens Day campaigns, released on August 21 every year, have featured luminaries such as Anupam Kher, Boman Irani, Shabana Azmi, and most recently, Poonam Dhillon. They have pivoted around a range of issues senior citizens are plagued by – whether it is loneliness and neglect from younger people (#ReplyDontReject featuring Boman Irani), corporates unwilling to hire people above 60 (#ChiefExperienceOfficer featuring Shabana Azmi), or cyber fraud (#FraudFighters featuring Poonam Dhillon) and have gained audience admiration and critics’ praise in equal measure.

8. On a personal note, do you have a favorite book that has significantly influenced your professional or personal development?

Many come to mind because I read voraciously and managed to read 74 books last year. But since I am asked to pick a favorite, I would say, “The Courage to Be Disliked” by Japanese authors Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga greatly resonated with me.

In a world where we are constantly told to please people, follow the norm, play by the rulebook, and listen to our heads over our hearts, this book tells you that to be truly liberated and happy, you need to have the courage to be disliked. Life isn’t always about winning the popularity game. Sometimes it’s about growing a spine, standing up for your values, and being confrontational if that means you will get a peaceful night’s sleep.

I read the book in 2022. The book was published back in 2013, and I wish more people had taken note of it then. We would have probably molded a different kind of generation that wasn’t living on social media validation attention and popularity.

Interviewed and Edited By - Pragya Lamba