A Kinder, Gentler Company Image

The DeWolfe Cos. bets on soft ad campaign

May 1, 1998

To stand out from the "testosterone" ads that pepper the industry, Richard DeWolfe is focusing his new campaign on the joys of homeownership.

In real estate, everyone is No. 1 at something. But The DeWolfe Cos. is bucking conventional rah-rah real estate advertising and, intentionally or not, capitalizing on the trends toward family values and increased homeownership.

In a multimillion-dollar bet that consumers are tired of the one-upmanship that characterizes most real estate marketing, DeWolfe has rolled out a "kinder, gentler" advertising campaign.

Gone are the boasts of "We're No. 1" and "Nobody does it better." In their place are tender images of teddy bears and tree houses, vignettes of blissful memories of home, and puppies saying, "And the salesperson sneaks me treats when she drops by."

"I think of stereotypical real estate marketing as testosterone ads," says Richard DeWolfe, CEO of the Lexington, Mass.-based company. "Everything is about size and stature. It's very aggressive, very tense. We want to tell consumers the process of homeownership doesn't have to be hectic. Our message is, 'Because we have the resources and professionals to handle all your real estate-related needs, relax and focus on the joys of owning a home, not on all the things that have to come together to make it happen.'"

It was DeWolfe's breadth of services, not necessarily a desire to deviate from the norm, that prompted the change. “Our primary goal was to make consumers aware that The DeWolfe Cos. does more than help people buy and sell real estate,” says Barbara Chambers, DeWolfe's vice president of marketing. "We wanted to draw their attention to our mortgage and insurance businesses and our relocation and moving services."

The Birth of an Ad Campaign

Eventually, the shift to soft sell marketing will affect every aspect of the DeWolfe image. The new logo, the homey paintings in muted hues, and the chatty style of the ad copy will find their way into print and television ads, yard signs, brochures, and property catalogs by the end of 1998.

Already the company's 70-odd branch locations have changed their signage and letterhead, and all 1,600 sales associates have received new business cards, paid for by the company.

"It would've been nice to convert every piece of advertising and marketing material we have to the new design all at once," says DeWolfe, "but the logistics of attempting that would have been a nightmare, if even possible. And making the change over time allows us to watch consumer reaction and adjust if necessary." It's been smooth sailing so far, he says.

A Refreshing Change

With the first of the new ads appearing in newspapers in August 1997 and most starting only recently, it's too early to nail down the new campaign's bottom-line results. Business has picked up across DeWolfe's various industry related-companies since August, but if officials know precisely why or by how much, they're not telling. "I can tell you that we hear a lot of words such as ‘refreshing’ and ‘eye-catching,'" Chambers says.

After some initial reservations, salespeople, as well, are giving the campaign a thumbs-up.

"I wondered, 'Will consumers get it?'" says DeWolfe salesperson Elaine Mippe. "Then I had a couple come in absolutely praising the new ads, calling the campaign 'intelligent.' I don’t doubt they came in because of the ads. That made me a believer."

Let's Talk Numbers

The DeWolfe Cos., which sold about $3 billion of real estate in 1997, paid an advertising agency about $350,000 to produce the new designs and handle ad placement.

By August 1998 it'll have spent $2 million of the company's annual $7 million marketing budget on new homeowner-friendly print ads. The other $5 million will go into "more traditional ways" of advertising, such as using photographs of properties.

A bit of backpedaling and fine-tuning is par for the course in any marketing innovation. For example, DeWolfe realized that some of its cozy images needed a stronger link to the business at hand and added a subtle yard sign to the background of an outdoor scene.

Still, DeWolfe believes the new style will keep his company one step ahead of an increasingly marketing-savvy public. "The laid-back approach seems to have struck a chord with consumers,” he says. “Isn't that what marketing is all about?"

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