Senior living in India: Interview with Piali Dasgupta of Columbia Pacific Communities

About Columbia Pacific Communities: Columbia Pacific Communities is India’s largest and the most experienced senior living community operators with over 1600 residential units under management in 5 cities and 9 locations across South India. As the pioneers in this category, they are committed to reimagining the concept of senior living in India and creating world-class practices that exceed these expectations of its stakeholders. It is part of the Seattle-based Columbia Pacific Group, one of the foremost developers of senior living communities in the United States and China. Founded by entrepreneur and senior living pioneer Dan Baty, Columbia Pacific has more than 40 years of experience and expertise in designing, building and managing senior housing communities around the world. The team, with the expertise of its principals in the United States of America and its partners in India, brings together rich experience in senior housing design, development and management. Columbia Pacific Communities is committed to redefining the space of senior living and senior care in the subcontinent and is the recipient of several awards.

Today, we are speaking with Piali Dasgupta, Senior VP – Marketing, Columbia Pacific Communities on how digital has changed marketing for senior living community operators. 

Question 1: You are one of the pioneers in the unique offering for senior living, how does marketing change when you don’t have enough competitors or prior data to refer to?

Answer: This is a great question. Yes, we are, in many ways, redefining and reimagining senior living and senior care in India. It’s not only a brand building exercise, but also a category building exercise. So, while there are about 8 to 10 players in the space, there isn’t enough data and customer insights available, unlike more established sectors. 

This is a good and a bad thing. Good because, you have a clean slate and make rules more than follow them, thereby not restricting yourself to industry norms and practices. And bad because even the most astute marketers need to rely on reference points and data points as they give you direction when you are lost. 

At Columbia Pacific Communities, our key differentiation has always been our brand purpose and core brand ethos of positive ageing. Positive ageing, or the idea of looking at age as just a number and living healthier, happier and better in your advanced years, is central to our existence. So, everything we do as an organisation and as a brand emanates from there. Hence, the objective of marketing is not merely to sell a product, it is to live a purpose.  

Question 2: For senior living, the decision-makers are different. Many of them are senior citizens. How is their acceptance of digital marketing and digital experience during sales and post-sales?

Answer: As a brand, we have adopted a digital first approach for both our brand and performance marketing efforts as the cost of acquisition of customers is low and the desired frequency achievable. Moreover, we have seen a very high adoption to digital channels by seniors during the entire customer cycle, and hence we rely heavily on digital as a medium to communicate with them through different phases of the customer journey. 

With seniors, one must understand that they are late adopters of technology. Having adopted it quite late, most of them appreciate the many boons of it. However, they are not necessarily available on all digital channels such as Instagram or Pinterest. Our focus, therefore, has been on Facebook as the primary channel of communication in the social media sphere along with emailers and WhatsApp, followed by YouTube when the communication is targeted to seniors. WhatsApp, especially is a channel that seniors use frequently and it is a great platform to connect with them. Our content landscape on social media covers everything that today’s seniors are interested in – from long forgotten hobbies to reading lists and Netflix watch lists to quizzes and more. 

Question 3: What is the next big marketing prediction for the new normal or the hybrid new normal (the old habits plus the new habits coming together)?


a) Content will become even more important in the post-COVID world. In fact, one would go to the extent of saying that content is marketing and will play an increasingly crucial role in the customer lifecycle in the post-COVID era. Content will become purposeful, business driven and not be a mere vanity asset for brands. 

b) Emotional quotient (EQ) would be a key factor in communication. Brands have realised that appealing to a consumer’s EQ is more important than hard selling a product.

c) Even as the economy slowly starts to revive, marketers would continue to focus on ROI-driven marketing, maximising returns on minimum investments. 

d) Digital as a medium will continue to see double digit growth, while some of the traditional media such as Print and TV will revive gradually. With increased focus on digital and the digital transformation finally taking place in the country and the world over, brands would leverage the power of VR to create compelling consumer experiences that are as good as real. High value categories such as fine jewellery and real estate have already started using VR to create virtual experiences that propel purchase decisions remotely. The trend would become pervasive in certain other consumer goods categories as well. 

There will also be focus on AI (Artificial Intelligence) and ML (Machine Learning) which will make some real innovations in creating a seamless experience for customers digitally. 

e) With a general loss of trust in Bollywood celebrities owing to the ongoing drug scandal and other controversies, for the time being, brands would shift focus away from film personalities and focus on micro and nano-influencers who have greater relevance to their audience. Brands would realise that celebrity endorsements are a double-edged sword. It helps grab eyeballs and create buzz, but may also result in negative sentiment if the celebrity is not chosen carefully. 

Question 4: Before working with the senior living category, you have worked on various other categories of businesses. Can you tell us a few dos and don’ts that would help the businesses create the highest impact on marketing output.

Answer: Well, yes, I did work in the fashion retail industry for a long time before senior living. And while it was a completely different category, the principles of good marketing remain the same. It is based on a few basic tenets. 

1) Understand STP (segmentation, targeting and positioning) extremely well and create your entire marketing framework around it. You cannot afford to get your STP strategy wrong, because that impacts everything you will do in marketing. 

2) Have a long-term vision of where you want to take the brand and the business. Brand building is a long-term activity. Do not expect immediate results, particularly if you are a new brand in the market. Invest in creating a compelling narrative around your brand that the audience would be able to instantly connect with and relate to. And that narrative should almost always be universal. This really is a key differentiator. 

3) A full-funnel marketing approach is the only way to see desirable results in the long term. If you have short-term, myopic goals and only look at the bottom funnel while ignoring the top and the mid funnel, you will never be able to build a credible brand and your brand metrics will suffer, which, in turn, will affect your business goals. 

5) Be obsessively data driven, but sometimes let instincts and gut feeling drive a few decisions as well. Mining customer insight data, marketing channel attribution data, data from market research and brand health metrics data and having a holistic view on the market, on your consumers and the brand help you take critical decisions in marketing. 

6) Be ROI driven. With budget cuts taking place across the board and the economy having slowed down, there is an increased need for marketers to evaluate returns for every bit of investment being made. Replace the “good-to-haves” with the “must haves” in your list and ensure that every channel you are investing in is a hardworking one. 

7) And finally, a lot of marketing is about great ideas. So…ideate, ideate, ideate. 

Question 5: Since, we also run, what advice do you have for new blood who are entering marketing or digital marketing? When you hire for these roles, what are the things you especially look at?

Answer: My advice to young digital marketers would be to be both data driven and analytical as well as creatively superior and a thinker. Digital marketing is as much about metrics as it is about content and communication. If you do not have a sound understanding of either of the two, you would not do justice to this area of work.  
Digital marketing is a rapidly changing discipline. Algorithms of platforms such as Facebook change every few months and the rules of the games change quite swiftly. There are new platforms emerging periodically where your target audience could be spending a lot of time. So, a digital marketer’s job is to stay ahead of the curve, be hyper aware of the  latest trends and practices in digital marketing and adapt continuously. 

When we hire for a digital marketer or for any other role within marketing, we look at three things:

  • The candidate’s ability to work in a high-pressure, ambiguous environment and find a method in the madness.
  • The candidate’s ability to deliver high-quality output within strict timelines and limitations in resources.
  • And for digital marketing, specifically, we look at the candidate’s domain knowledge and his/her familiarity with search, social media, adwords, emerging digital platforms and the ability to tell a story in less than a minute.