Meg White is the former managing editor of REALTOR® Magazine.
To remain standing through 100 years, a brand needs to be defended, promoted, and occasionally scrutinized to ensure it’s keeping up with the times. The National Association of REALTORS® has been on the forefront of that work since 1915, when the term REALTOR® was coined by a Minnesota practitioner. Research shows the REALTOR® brand enjoys a high level of recognition and trust among consumers. But does that mean buyers, sellers, and investors truly recognize the value of your expertise? Could more be done to connect with a new generation of consumers who favor a do-it-yourself approach to managing their lives? NAR leaders have been pondering these questions for some time and, in February, they announced a new focus for the association’s long-standing advertising campaign, one that powerfully positions the REALTOR® as consumers’ competitive advantage.
“It needed to be done,” says Colorado practitioner Keith Kanemoto, e-PRO, about the decision to shake up a successful ad campaign. “We have a multibillion-dollar brand that we have spent over 100 years perfecting, and we don’t want it to appear old and stodgy in the eyes of the new consumer.” Kanemoto was 2015 chair of the association’s Consumer Communications Committee, which recommended the shift. The new “Get Realtor®” campaign is a departure in that its message is direct and it relies less on traditional media to communicate the vital role you play in the real world of real estate. NAR brought in Boston-based creative agency Arnold Worldwide, known for the “Flo” commercials of Progressive Insurance, to guide a sophisticated strategy that uses content partnerships and social media messaging, as well as traditional advertising, to drive home your indispensability. Content is posted at realtor.org, giving you an easy way to use the messages in your own social communities. Welcome to advertising for the millennial generation.
Charles Chadbourn was rightfully dismayed.
It was December 1915, and as Chadbourn—a founder of the Minnesota state association—made his way down a Minneapolis street on his way to a board meeting, he was accosted by a headline.
“A news urchin on the street thrust a paper under my nose,” he later wrote in the National Real Estate Journal, “bearing the flaming headline, ‘Real Estate Man an Embezzler’ and importuned me to buy and read ‘all about the big scandal in a real estate office.’ ”
Two years earlier, the National Association of Real Estate Exchanges (as NAR was then called) had approved a Code of Ethics, vowing to operate by the Golden Rule. But “buyer beware” still ruled the marketplace.
How, he wondered, might the public understand the difference between a mere real estate agent—with no commitment to professionalism—and an association member? He wanted a concise way to convey the trust and authority that defined the professional practice of real estate. So in the model of “doctor” and “lawyer,” he coined the term “Realtor.” Chadbourn successfully petitioned his local board in Minneapolis to begin using the word, and in 1916, he signed over rights to the term, making the national association its defender.
Learn more about the trademark centennial at 100years.realtor.
From the start, organized real estate has been concerned with promoting the message of trust and value to the public. One of the main topics discussed at the association’s first national meeting in 1908 was methods for publicly highlighting the benefits of working with members on real estate transactions. When he coined the word “Realtor” in 1915, Minnesota practitioner Charles Chadbourn had that goal firmly in mind. Chadbourn not only embraced the ideals of NAR’s founders—that an association would separate the true professionals from the “curbstoners, riffraffs, and sharks” that were out to swindle the public—he felt the members needed a professional title of their own. The National Association of Real Estate Boards, as NAR was known at that time, agreed. The association adopted the term in 1916, paying Chadbourn one dollar for the rights.
Talk about the deal of the century. NAR has been the proud keeper and staunch defender of the “brand truth” ever since. “If you look back at the old Board of Directors minutes, it’s clear that trademark protection has been of utmost importance since the beginning,” says NAR General Counsel Katherine Johnson. “REALTORS® were definitely on the forefront of establishing and protecting membership trademarks, even before the U.S. government was ready to tackle the issue.”
In fact, NAR couldn’t legally apply for federal registration rights to “REALTOR®” for three decades after it officially obtained the name. The trademark was granted in 1949 after passage of the Lanham Act of 1946 allowed collective membership marks to be registered. (The Trademark Act of 1905 had prohibited registration of “symbols of collective groups” until 1938.)
By the mid-1920s, an annual consumer outreach effort known as “REALTOR® Week” was being used as a convenient moment each year for state and local associations to launch initiatives and advertising campaigns. The first national version was held in March 1956, eventually replaced by Private Property Week in 1976, and, in 1986, American Home Week.
In addition to running ads and helping local associations get the word out, NAR had the foresight to make connections with dictionary creators, editors, and publishers to ensure that the term “REALTOR®” was used correctly in print.
NAR and state and local boards have worked hard to enforce the association’s and members’ exclusive rights to the term. Federal and state courts have upheld those rights more than two dozen times. In 2015, NAR was a finalist for World Trademark Review’s Not-for-profit Organisation Team of the Year award.
REALTORS® began advertising nationally in 1998 with the “Real Estate is our Life” campaign. Over the years, the advertising has enjoyed overwhelming member support—and no wonder. For national promotion, the $35 annual assessment that members pay is a bargain. But while the campaign message changed over the years to reflect the times, the medium remained largely traditional television and radio spots.
So in 2015, NAR tapped Arnold Worldwide to formulate a new media strategy. Arnold began by extensively researching the REALTOR® brand, diving into the fundamental elements of trust and dynamism. They found that consumers rated REALTORS® more trustworthy than both other real estate professionals and four real estate portal websites. But in terms of dynamism (as measured by innovation, convenience, technological advancement, accessibility, and other factors), the REALTOR® brand came out somewhere in the middle of that same group. Lisa Unsworth, chief marketing officer at Arnold, says the REALTOR® brand’s strong score on the trust measurement is a rare demonstration of market saturation. “Any other brand would be envious,” she says.
Todd Shipman, AHWD, GRI, an Edina, Minn. agent and current chair of NAR’s Consumer Communications Committee, agrees that the goal of the campaign isn’t to convince more people to use a REALTOR® as much as projecting a sense of vitality. “This isn’t a ‘we need market share’ branding campaign. This is about being relevant to the contemporary consumer and [ensuring] they understand our value proposition.”
Learn more about Get Realtor® at realtor.org/consumer-advertising-campaign.
The result is an effort to engage DIY-minded consumers who are used to resolving issues with a quick search or the click of a button and who may be fearful of reaching out to another human being for help achieving their goals. Arnold Worldwide contends that online real estate aggregators have given these consumers false hope that the homebuying process is simple. The “Get Realtor®” campaign aims to show them a bit of the complexity of the process and the competitive advantage that comes from working with a REALTOR®. The name is both a cheeky take on this wake-up call (as in, “get real”) and a more literal call to action to “get” a REALTOR®.
The campaign approaches outreach and market saturation in a new way. For decades, advertising was devised with TV commercials at the center, bolstered by ancillary radio spots, billboards, and other media. The strategy for “Get Realtor®” recognizes that consumers now have more control of their media intake. “Consumers are at the center, and their networks radiate out from that,” Unsworth says. Content will be present in social media and other digital spaces, where they are already spending their time, as well as traditional ad environments.
While working with 100 years of history can be a challenge, Unsworth says highlighting the legacy of the REALTOR® mark is an exciting task for Arnold Worldwide. “Those are the fun brands to work with,” she says. “Some clients come to us and say, ‘We need you to create a brand’ and we’re like, ‘Uh oh.’ You don’t invent brands. It’s about revealing a brand truth.”
She compares the trademark to a diamond that only needs a little polishing to show its true value in today’s marketplace. “The equities of the REALTOR® brand are incredibly strong. The DNA of the brand is 100 years’ worth of work,” she says. “We’re tasked with honoring that work in a way that is culturally relevant and contemporizing the vehicles we use.”
Despite the many changes to the media landscape since the mark was created a century ago, the spirit of 1916 remains alive and well in the new campaign. “Though we’re using digital video and social media posts now, the overriding goal is the same as ever: to educate the public on the many benefits of working with a REALTOR®,” says Stephanie Singer, NAR’s senior vice president of communications. The campaign excels in its ability to reveal the many surprises real estate consumers may encounter, she says, and it increases their understanding of why they need ethical, professional help.
Charles Chadbourn would certainly agree.