Erica Christoffer is a multimedia journalist and contributing editor with REALTOR® Magazine. Connect with her via email: email@example.com.
Branding: Find Your Voice
At the core of successful branding is a compelling story about who you are and what value you provide to your customers.
June 1, 2010
There’s no doubt about it: Real estate is all about relationships. Buyers and sellers want to work with professionals they like and trust. But how do you show prospects—especially those you’ve never met—that you’re worthy of their relationship?
A strong brand that captures your character and business is an excellent start.
"Your brand should be about the person inside. It should be about what you’re made of that makes you unique," says Anthony Fisher, a Yucaipa, Calif.–based personal branding coach and graphic designer. "Your business image tells the world who you are."
But executing an effective brand requires much more than a new marketing tagline or a fresh wardrobe. While logos and personal appearance do factor into the equation, your brand won’t be meaningful unless you first have a clear understanding of yourself and your customers, Fisher says.
Only with that knowledge can you begin to craft a consistent and authentic message that translates not only into a memorable logo and brand name, but also into your online and in-person communications.
Do Some Digging
The first step to creating a brand, Fisher says, is to identify your strengths, values, passions, and purpose. Then ask yourself how you want to inspire and serve your customers.
During this exploratory stage, listen to what people in your market are saying, says Chris Brogan, president of New Marketing Labs, a new media marketing agency. "Grow bigger ears," he says. Besides literally listening to consumers, perhaps through conversations or informal surveys of past clients or prospects, you can use the Web to find out what your target audience is talking about.
Browse Twitter. Search Google for key real estate terms relevant to your customers. Not only will you find new leads, Brogan says, but you’ll also uncover common complaints with the real estate process—problems you can try to solve.
Armed with intelligence about what drives your customers, you’ll be in a position to formulate a brand that speaks to them, he says.
Case Study: Exuding the Color of Miami
Ines Hegedus-Garcia and her husband Enrique, practitioners with the Miami real estate company Majestic Properties, developed their personal brand four years ago after brainstorming ways to communicate what they love most about their city: its vibrant and colorful way of life.
"We wanted to take a more client-centric approach," Hegedus-Garcia says. "I thought about positioning our brand as ‘ism’ or philosophy." They chose "Miamism."
"We knew Miamism was perfect because it’s about the clients and promoting all that makes Miami original," Hegedus-Garcia says.
The couple uses social media heavily to promote their brand. On their "Miamism" blog, where they provide a property search tool and detailed information for 10 Miami-area neighborhoods, the couple also has a "Mojito 411" section where they share recipes, reviews, and photos of mojitos.
They also have a "Mojitos" Facebook page with close to 2,000 members (as of late April) that solicits mojito reviews, which are then posted on their blog.
Another way to get people talking about their brand: photos. They started "Miamism Fridays" on their blog, featuring fun or interesting photos from throughout the city. Originally, all the images were shot by Hegedus-Garcia and her husband. But when she asked readers to submit their own photos, the response was tremendous. "Our readers and clients are helping us build our brand organically," Hegedus-Garcia says. This grew into a Miamism Flickr group.
Today, their brand has become so well known that when they meet someone new in Miami, it’s pretty likely that the person has already heard about Miamism or visited the blog, Hegedus-Garcia says. She once started talking to a man in an elevator, and after they exchanged business cards the man exclaimed, "You’re Miamism?!"
Bring Your Brand to Life
Your brand should be seen and felt in any marketing medium you use, from newspaper ads to open-house signs. But on the Web, where many real estate practitioners are focusing their marketing efforts, you have the opportunity to really make your brand buzz.
"The more you communicate your message, your thoughts, your experiences, and exhibit thought leadership, your personal brand will grow," Fisher says.
Within the first two seconds of viewing your Web site, blog, or social networking profile, prospects should be able to find out what you look like, what your specialty is, and how they can learn more about you (for example, through a link to a bio page), Brogan says.
"Your Web site needs to be visually appealing and have content that’s relevant to your audience," Fisher says. "It’s typically your first line of exposure, and visitors will immediately make assumptions about you."
Unfortunately, says marketing expert David Meerman Scott, too many real estate Web sites are blah—telling nothing of the practitioner’s personality or specialty. "Typically, most of the Web sites I see are focused on showing a catalog of properties for sale," says Meerman Scott, bestselling author of The New Rules of Marketing and PR (Wiley, 2007).
He suggests following the tenets of "brand journalism," which is similar to traditional journalism, but geared more toward a specific niche of consumers. Use video, photos, charts, blog posts, and your professional analysis to tell a story relevant to your audience.
The story doesn’t have to be about you or about real estate, Scott says. Maybe interview the mayor of your town or take a 10-minute ride on a garbage truck.
Go to the park and record a video of people answering one question: "What’s so great about this community?" Then upload the videos to YouTube.
"This can be really fun to do," says Meerman Scott. "It makes the idea of marketing and promotion enjoyable."
From there, build your presence on social networking channels such as Twitter and Facebook.
"Communicate with people long before you talk to them about a home," Brogan says.
Case Study: Crazy About Loudoun County
When Heather Elias, of Century 21 Redwood Realty in Ashburn, Va., got into the real estate business in 2004, she drew from her degree in journalism and public relations to craft a memorable brand that would resonate with people in her market.
"I wanted to be known as an ambassador for Loudoun County, not just as a REALTOR®," Elias says.
She created a fun and easily-identifiable term for Loudoun County—LoCo—and adopted it as her personal brand. The name is also central to her blog, "LoCo Musings"; to her Twitter handle, @LoCoHeather; and it’s even in the headline of the market report she provides to prospects and customers, "LoCo Market Stats."
"LoCo Musings has been the name of my blog for over two years now, and that was really the jumping-off point," Elias says. "The community information that I provide is what helped me stand out. I was always trying to think about my audience first."
Elias spends less than $1,000 annually on her branding and marketing. "A shoestring budget wasn’t my intention, but most online marketing technology is free," says Elias, who set up her blog on WordPress.org without any outside help. She just made a few customizations to an existing template.
"You don’t have to be fancy with it," she says.
She now uses her blog as her official Web site and the centerpiece of her brand—it’s where she delivers her market knowledge "in a non-corporate sort of way" to people in her market. She’s learned that clients often read the blog for four to six months before contacting her.
In one instance, a couple learned about Elias through her blog and contacted her because they were in the process of selecting a listing agent. Even though the sellers decided to hire a different practitioner, Elias wrote a blog post that mentioned their property in a flattering way.
"The home they wanted to sell was so beautifully prepared for market. I wrote about how these folks had done everything right and how I thought it would sell in a hurry during a quieter period of the market," Elias says.
After the sellers read the blog post (which didn’t include names or addresses) they withdrew their listing from the other agent and gave it to her. "It ended up selling in a month and I helped them purchase an absolutely gorgeous estate home."
Today, Elias estimates that more than 75 percent of her business comes from her blog and other online efforts. She also uses her LoCo logo on business cards and in all print advertising.
"My print ads and brochures have the same visual cues as my blog," she says.
Bridge Your Brand
Consider how your brand is portrayed across all of your online and print platforms, Brogan says. Are they connected to form a cohesive image of your business? Or are they fragmented and sending mixed messages?
National and international brands that do the best are the ones that insert local personality, Brogan says. Whole Foods, for example, has guidelines for how all stores should look and feel.
But individual stores are encouraged to incorporate local flair and cater to the community’s buying preferences. It’s a lesson that’s as relevant for grocery stores as it is to real estate practitioners who are part of a major franchise.
"Consistency is more a matter of staying close to the ‘soul’ of the brand," Brogan says.
Consistency is also about making sure your marketing image carries through to your in-person meetings with prospects. If your brand sets an expectation that you are the go-to person for luxury homes, your appearance and knowledge must reflect that.
"People want to know that what you say and what you do mirror one another," Fisher says. "Service providers are a dime a dozen. To stand out, you need to have a personal brand image that exudes confidence, knowledge, experience, and effective past results."
Case Study: Giving Customers a Peak Experience
When Chris Nichols of Prudential Utah Real Estate in Orem, Utah, pulls up to an open house or a lunch meeting, it’s hard to miss his Ford F-150 wrapped with his personal brand, the Pinnacle Group.
"People in the community know I’m the guy with the Pinnacle Group truck," says Nichols, president-elect of the Utah County Association of REALTORS®.
Nichols says his brand name, Pinnacle, signifies the peak or summit of service in real estate. But it also represents the Rock of Gibraltar, which is a symbol of the Prudential brand.
"It also ties in nicely to our amazing mountains here in Utah, which is why I took one of my marketing pictures with my truck in front of Mount Timpanogos," Nichols says. "A lot of thought was put into the name and its multiple meanings."
Nichols also developed a tag line—"Success Is a History, Not a Promise"—which he incorporates into his Web site, business cards, stationery, listing presentations, and more.
"Often times, buyers or sellers will just use a friend or acquaintance to handle their real estate needs. I want potential clients to dig deeper. The surest indicator of future success is to look at someone’s history," says Nichols. "I hope that they judge me on that."
Nichols extends his brand on Facebook and Twitter, where he interweaves his personal passions, such as dirt-bike riding and being a father of five, with his business. Sharing his personal side has created a de facto niche for him. "Social media allows you to meet people with similar interests," says Nichols, who doesn’t spend on print marketing. "People want to do business with people they like."
Nichols’ next step is redesigning his Web site to better reflect his brand and finding new ways to connect his various social media efforts. He recently started speaking about his social media branding success to real estate groups and at his local chamber of commerce.
"Everyone wants to know if social networking pays off. It does," he says.
The Brand You Never Knew You Had
Even if you don’t have a formalized brand, you may already be recognized in your market for your business specialty, your personality, or maybe even your attire.
It may not have been their original marketing goal, but Kevin Kauffman and Fred Weaver of Keller Williams Arizona Realty in Tempe, Ariz., are now commonly known as "the flip-flop guys."
Kauffman and Weaver partnered in 2008 to form Group 46:10, a name derived from Old Testament scripture Isaiah 46:10. Their mission is to "produce extraordinary results, influence people, and impact lives."
But their brand has evolved to be as much about their stress-free approach to life as it is about their values. The short-sale specialists can usually be found wearing T-shirts and flip-flops, whether they’re at a barbeque or at the office.
Their laid-back attire got them noticed when they began teaching short-sale classes to other agents. And when they were asked to speak to a crowd of 3,000 at Keller Williams’ Mega Agent Camp last year, they decided to keep their dress shoes at home and take the stage in their flip-flops.
Kauffman and Weaver recently found a way to make the flip-flops an official part of their brand without having to change their team name. Using an online service called LogoTournament.com, they paid $250 to launch a logo contest.
They filled out an online logo questionnaire and then picked their favorite logo from more than 100 ideas submitted by designers. The end result incorporates flip-flops and their team name.
"We had a brand going into the design process, but the logo has really helped solidify that brand for us. Now we’re even more committed to it," says Kauffman.
Make Your First Impression Count
Carry your brand over to your personal image and one-on-one interactions. Tips from REALTOR® Magazine’s Facebook fans:
- Smile with your eyes, not just with your lips. (A smile does wonders for phone calls, too!)
- Make sure your hands and nails are clean.
- Be relaxed. If you can’t help but be a little stressed about the encounter, try to at least maintain a relaxed posture and tone of voice.
- Give a firm, confident handshake.
- Make eye contact.
- Dress to impress, but make sure your wardrobe also reflects who you are.
- Learn about the person you’ve just met by spending the first few minutes of the conversation asking questions rather than talking about yourself.
Market Yourself With a Splash
On the Web or in print, your business’s visual identity plays an important role in your success. From business cards to e-newsletters, your "look" is a tangible reminder of you and your services. Unfortunately, many real estate practitioners don’t have the time, money, or expertise to embark on a branding exercise.
That’s why REALTOR® Magazine teamed up with REALTOR Benefits® partner HP for a six-week Marketing Makeover Challenge. The contest took a cue from reality television, pitting five REALTORS® against one another in six separate challenges. The five finalists, selected from more than 300 entries, created logos, newsletters, postcards, and more.
Challenge winner Hans Ziegenbein of @properties in Chicago says the contest put him on a new path. "I started thinking about why I didn’t have my own logo already," he says. "I realized that I never knew where to start and I didn’t really want to spend the money to have someone design it for me."
Today, with a computer and a Google search bar, you can scout out endless options for design and branding services. Some specialize in specific elements, such as logos; others cover the gamut. Marketsplash by HP enables customers to select from hundreds of templates to create and print customized logos, brochures, and letterhead.
Ziegenbein settled—appropriately enough—on a logo featuring the letter Z (see below, right). "I’m selling my knowledge, my skills, and my time, so why should my logo be anything other than something that represents me?"
The contestants were equipped with HP Officejet Pro 8500 All-in-One printers, ink, and paper—and enough Marketsplash credits to carry out the challenges at no cost. As the winner, Ziegenbein takes home additional prizes, including a $1,000 Marketsplash credit and free registration for NAR’s e-PRO certification. But for all the contestants, the biggest benefit of the contest was the opportunity to focus on a sometimes-neglected aspect of the business.
"This contest has opened my eyes to the effectiveness of devoting small blocks of time each week to producing marketing materials," says contestant Bronwyn Merritt, broker-owner of Community Realty in Carrboro, N.C. "I’ve had two clients ask for documents on letterhead this week, and I was so proud of the new letterhead and logo that I had all ready to use."
How the winner was selected: Hans Ziegenbein of Chicago won the REALTOR® Magazine/HP Marketing Makeover Challenge through a combination of online voting and judges’ scores. Learn more at marketingmakeoverchallenge.com.