Brand Stand

A corporate identity has meaning when it reflects core values that align with those of its customers.

July 11, 2013

Tom Kalinski and his son Jay have a long, well-respected place in RE/MAX history. Back in 1977, their Boulder, Colo., franchise became the third RE/MAX office in the United States. RE/MAX of Boulder has grown into one of the most successful real estate businesses in the state, but last year, the Kalinskis decided it was time for a makeover.

“Our brand, and the logo in particular, hadn’t been significantly updated in more than 20 years,” says Jay Kalinski. The office’s management and marketing teams set out to clarify and simplify the company’s image.

When it comes to branding, clarity and simplicity are critical. That’s because branding is a way to define who you are to the public. “A brand is your reputation,” says Bruce Tait, founding partner of Tait Subler, a branding consultancy in Minneapolis. “‘Branding’ is the active, thoughtful, and strategic management of that reputation.”

The No. 1 job of a brand is to communicate your company’s values in a way that differentiates your business from the pack. But it also has to be relevant to the target group and help make what Tait calls “values connections.” The easiest, fastest, and most solid connections are formed on a shared values level, Tait says. “That means you have to act, behave, and communicate those values constantly. If they aren’t truly your values, it’s going to be tough.”

For RE/MAX of Boulder, those values included emphasizing its ties to and belief in the community. “We have always been part of the community, but it was becoming harder for us to differentiate ourselves from the [four other RE/MAX offices],” Kalinski says. “We wanted to maintain that strong RE/MAX brand identity but also express our Boulder personality more clearly.”

To that end, Kalinski and crew created “Featured Friends,” a way to highlight Boulder nonprofit groups. Each month, a different group is profiled on the company’s Web site and in its advertising. Employees are encouraged to volunteer with the various charities, and some serve as board members. “It’s been a really great experience,” Kalinski says. “It promotes the people in Boulder and helps make the community a better place.”

RE/MAX of Boulder started rolling out a new look in November 2012—including a new logo, marketing materials, advertising materials, and Web site. The rollout culminated with the opening of a second office in April. Like the old logo, the new one features Boulder’s signature Flatiron mountain range but without the clutter. The underlying message of the branding strategy: “We love Boulder,” Kalinski says. “We’ve been here a long time because we love being here and we love what we do.”

Rebranding can seem daunting, but it doesn’t have to be, Tait says. To get started, “think about what you stand for,” Tait says. “What do you want your reputation to be? Start with a core idea or strategy, and once you have that, think about the best way to express it with logos, business cards, and advertising.”

Rebounding From Brand Damage

Having a brand means “you start off in a better place than if there’s nothing associated with your name,” Tait says. But it’s no guarantee of success.

“If you don’t live up to that brand, then that reality becomes more relevant to your customers,” Tait says.

Perhaps no business is as tuned in to the importance of maintaining a sacred place in the public eye as college sports. For more than a decade, college football has been roundly criticized for its Bowl Championship Series. Fans, schools, and athletes have panned the series for failing to live up to its promise of having the best teams in the country play each other for the national championship.

In response to overwhelming demand, BCS conference commissioners announced last year that, beginning with the 2014–15 season, they are moving to a playoff system. The challenging task of rebranding the scorned BCS into the (hopefully) soon-to-be-beloved College Football Playoff has fallen to Mike Goff and his team at Premier Sports Management. Whereas 
RE/MAX of Boulder was simply refining and building on a brand that worked, Premier faced the task of reinvention. 

The first step was to determine exactly what the old brand, the BCS, meant to consumers. “It’s easy to live in your ivory tower, but we decided instead to learn everything we could about fan attitudes,” Goff says. “We wanted a thorough understanding of what they thought.”

It wasn’t pretty–critics called the series flawed at best, corrupted at worst—but the research laid the groundwork for creating a new identity that made a clear break with the past. For brokers trying to put past troubles behind them or establish a new brand, there’s a valuable  lesson. “Your brand is a conduit for your relationship with your consumer or buyer,” Goff says. “It’s critical that you focus on that relationship.”

Goff reiterates that it’s not just about pretty graphics. “Branding is about every consumer interaction you have,” he says. “You can have terrific advertising and a great logo, but if your customer service is nonexistent or your consumer has a bad experience, that’s an issue. Every bad interaction they have is a hole your [brand] has to climb out of.”

The Customer Experience

What customers experience and communicate about a brand—in any medium—is precisely how brand perception is created, says Bev Thorne, chief marketing officer for Century 21, one of several major real estate franchise brands owned by Realogy Holdings Corp., headquartered in Madison, N.J. “It’s not just company-originated [communication] that matters,” she says. “It’s word-of-mouth. It’s social media. It’s every type of communication combined with customer experience that equals the emotional strength of your brand.”

Two years ago, during the worst of the housing downturn, another Realogy franchisor, Coldwell Banker, decided to freshen its brand. “We had a conversation as a brokerage,” says Michael Fischer, chief operating officer. At that time, the prevailing thinking was that most people didn’t want to buy houses. “But we decided to start focusing on people who did want to buy houses,” he says. “That gave us the confidence to go out there. We were tired of the gloom and doom.”

Fischer came to real estate from the automotive industry, where branding is in the DNA. “One of the things I had to do was pinpoint the value of a brand in real estate,” he says. In the automotive industry, when manufacturers bring out a new vehicle, they put consumers in a room with three unmarked cars: the new model, an older version of the same car, and a competitor. Consumers go through a checklist of features and do a short test drive and a pricing analysis.

“What we found was that depending on how the cars were badged, people would be willing to pay more,” says Fischer. Call something a Maserati, and people would price the car higher than if it was badged as a Nissan or a Ford, even if both cars had the same features. Fischer wanted to see if branding had a similar impact on real estate. “I absolutely believed it would,” he says, and he was right.

Fischer redesigned the standard auto focus group for real estate. He gathered consumers who said they were looking to buy or sell a house within the next three to four months. He had them pick their preferred agent, male or female; their preferred housing size and type; and their preferred neighborhood. Then he showed them listings of houses that matched what they wanted represented by the agents they picked. The only difference was the brand of real estate company listing the house. “Guess what?” he asks. “One-third of the time, people changed their estimated price. It wasn’t knowledge of the community or anything else. One-third of the people changed the price based solely on who was representing the house.”

Not surprisingly, the value of the corporate brand lessens once a consumer develops a trusted relationship with an agent. “Coldwell Banker is a 106-year-old firm with great branding, and ultimately that means something,” he says, “but the agent plays a huge role.” 

Even the humble yard sign plays an big part in your branding, Fischer says, silently communicating all sorts of information to consumers.

“That yard sign is telling you something about the type of home it is and the type of professional representing that home,” he says. “A yard sign is the greatest advertising ever, because it’s sitting in my neighborhood for everyone to see, and it’s all by itself.” (According to the 2012 National Association of REALTORS® profile of Home Buyers and Sellers, 53 percent of recent buyers said yard signs were an information source they used in their home search.)

Communicating a Solid Identity

It’s not just franchise owners and franchisees who need to rethink branding strategies from time to time. Independent brokerages also need identities and messages that help them stand out. “How you look to the world is one of the most important things,” says Presha Sparling, designated broker and co-owner of Gerrard Beattie & Knapp in Seattle. To that end, she says, “We do not allow any extra stuff on the business cards. No photos, nothing on the back.” The brokerage, founded in 1978, made some adjustments two years ago when it redesigned its Web site and changed its company logo.

Although the logo remains square-shaped, the lettering inside is vastly different. Before, the square struggled to contain all 20 characters of the brokerage name plus the word “ REALTORS®.” The ampersand was so big it seemed to loom over the name. Today, that same square boldly declares a simple “GBK,” with 
“ REALTORS®” tucked tastefully underneath. “It is 100 percent better,” Sparling says.

In part, the change was an acknowledgement of the public’s shorthand for the 38-agent brokerage. “People call us GBK,” Sparling says. But it also was an attempt to clarify what the company does. “Gerrard Beattie & Knapp could be a law firm or an insurance agent,” she says. The four partners also had to concur on the font, type size. and shade of red to use. “Two of us are art majors and we care because each [piece] sends a different message: Is it up-to-date? Old-fashioned? Too fat? Too skinny?” Sparling says. “It took us a crazy amount of time to get it where it looked like us.”

The most important part of the brand message is that GBK is solid and stable, she adds. “We’re not in it for the short term.”

Bowing to a New Generation

There’s value in deliberate branding for solo practitioners, too, says Chuck Poteet of Houston. For 14 years after he went out on his own, Chuck Poteet Properties’ marketing mantra was “a good name in real estate”—but not anymore. “Now we’re ‘a trusted name in real estate,’” Poteet says. The change came over the past few months after Poteet heard a lecture about the interests of Generation Y-—roughly, those consumers under the age of 30. “They want someone they can trust,” he says. “They want a collaborator, someone who will give them honest opinions and advice.” Over the last several weeks, as he has made the transition, Poteet says, he has already started working with more and more buyers in their late 20s and early 30s. “Is that a coincidence?” he asks. “I don’t know.”

Regardless, Poteet is in good company. Even the most venerable franchise names are mindful of the need for periodic transformation. Because customers inevitably change over time, “we are constantly asking ourselves if we are doing the best we can to meet the needs of our customers,” says Century 21’s Thorne. “A lot of perception is driven by [branding], and every brand requires updating and refreshing.”

That’s why the company, over time, has evolved from gold blazers to “smarter, bolder, faster,” a tag line that appeals on all levels to buyers and sellers. “All three [words] have good, positive connotations, no matter what your scenario is,” Thorne says. 

The company works to ensure its message is consistent across all communications platforms. And it stays abreast of changing demographics to ensure continued relevance. For example, its research on first-time home buyers asks, “How are they different today from five years ago, and how will they be different in 24 months?” “We want to understand who our customers are and what’s driving them,” Thorne says.

Agents Need Brand Training

Sales professionals need to be educated—and not just about the transaction. They need to know your brand strategy so that they can represent your brokerage in a way that’s on-message. They also need to be trained on your technology tools so that they can live up to your brand promise.

That’s not to say individual agents can’t augment the brokerage brand with a personal branding strategy. Most successful agents do just that, and it’s not as hard as it may seem. “What differentiates one agent from the other is everything about that agent,” says® product specialist Ernie Graham, whose SocialBios startup led to the creation of the Hypersocial Agent Search at®. “No two agents have the same friends, clients, experience, transactions, or opinions. It’s as simple as that.” (See Make Your Personal Mark for the elements of a successful branding strategy for agents.)

Traditionally, professionals differentiated themselves by becoming experts in a certain location or property type. But social media has provided a context for them to express their individuality. As more and more professionals seek to brand themselves, Graham says it is worth a step back to consider the idea’s origins: “Cowboys used brands to differentiate their cattle.” The tools may have changed, but the underlying reasons for doing so stand the test of time.