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Love in a Time of Cholera

April 15, 2008

Depending on who you ask, we are either headed for a recession or in one already. There seems to be some sort of a political angle to the whole question of recession, so who knows what the truth is in an election year? What everyone seems to agree on is that we’re certainly not in boom times.

Branding in a recession is something of an arcane art. How, exactly, do you continue to invest in something whose ROI you probably can’t prove at a time when your sales are looking dicey at best? Why would you do it?

Barry Silverstein has some thoughts on branding in a recession that people in real estate might want to check out and think about:

In a recent brandchannel debate, some readers weighed in with observations that generally align with experienced brand marketing practitioners. One reader said: “There is an opportunity here for all branding strategists, advocates of positioning and marketers to lead and guide by example. … branding carries those companies and products through even in the bad times…” Another wrote: “I agree with Alessandro Buffoni: a recession will force many companies to communicate about (or to find) their brand soul.”

A third reader summed it up this way: “Beyond quality and sheer market weight, brands must be ever more relevant, trustworthy and flexible. They must constantly be in tune with consumers’ values, evolving needs and lifestyles…”

A brand marketing paradox is that marketing expenditures are often slashed in recessionary times, so brands risk becoming less visible. This is not the best strategy. Harvard Business School professor John Quelch, writing in The Financial Times of London, says: “Instead of cutting the market research budget, you need to know more than ever how consumers are redefining value and responding to the recession.” Quelch also points out: “It is well documented that brands that increase advertising during a recession, when competitors are cutting back, can improve market share and return on investment at lower cost than during good economic times.”

How would this apply to real estate?

This is the industry where the recession started. One might even say that the recession (if there is one) was caused by real estate.  What should real estate companies think about and do in these hard times?

First, there is a real question as to whether the majority of real estate brands had a “brand soul” to begin with prior to the recession. Seems to me that for years now, the major real estate brands were completely focused on the property or the transaction from a branding standpoint.

Yes, Coldwell Banker had the “Your Perfect Partner” campaign for years, and Century 21 ran a bunch of ads depicting the human-service element of their agents.  Do the consumers really remember any of that?  Do they look at a Coldwell Banker yard sign and associate it with partnership or any actual emotional values?  I highly doubt it.  For the most part, real estate brands have been about homes, listings, and properties.  They have been branding themselves on things like, “We sell more homes than anybody else”.

Since a brand’s presence and a brand’s values are set not only by national advertising, but by every single touchpoint with the customer base, every single agent who carried a particular brand’s flag on her business card imparted a brand’s impression to the customer for the boom years.

What do we suppose that impression was?

At a minimum, I would challenge anyone to seriously claim that there was even a whit of differentiation between the major brands in real estate in the customer’s mind.  That the customer really saw a difference in the values between a Century 21 agent and a RE/Max agent.  Nevermind what the corporate marketing folks were trying to say — what did the customer really believe?  In my view, during the boom times, there wasn’t any differentiation from a brand perspective between the majors.

I suspect the same is true at the local level as well — although, I’m sure exceptions exist.  One set of agents working for one broker in a certain market was more or less the same as another set; just different colors on their business cards and yard signs.

Second, in the mist of the real estate bubble bursting, the real estate advertising and the brand messaging from everyone from NAR to the local brokerage were reminiscent of certain trio of primates: Hear No Evil, See No Evil, Speak No Evil.

Overall, I’d say (and I’ve been saying) that the brand image, brand value of most real estate companies has been an undifferentiated morass of badness.  That real estate agents rank below politicians in respect is just one piece of the evidence.

So here we are in or near a recession.

As I see it, this is an opportunity.  It’s a major opportunity for brand differentiation and brand correction.

Now is the time for major brands to rediscover their brand souls and recommit themselves to those values.

I agree with the commenter in the passage above: “Beyond quality and sheer market weight, brands must be ever more relevant, trustworthy and flexible. They must constantly be in tune with consumers’ values, evolving needs and lifestyles.…”

Nowhere is this more pertinent than in real estate.

If the undifferentiated mass of image of real estate people in the past has been one of grasping greed, uncaring, disrespectful, and unprofessional yahoos running around trying to make a quick buck, the company that manages to be in tune with consumers’ values, evolving needs and lifestyles will have the opportunity to distance itself from the pack of negativity.

The NY-NJ-CT Mercedes-Benz dealers ran a series of ads a few years back whose tagline was, “We live here too”.  They made fun of the huge cost of living in NYC, and made it clear that while they’re selling luxury cars, they understood the consumer, that they were one of them.

In this recession, real estate brands need to double down on market research, double down on brand spend, and take a careful close look at disciplining every single touchpoint with the consumer.  Yes, this means agents.  Now is the time.

In uncertain times, the brand that can truly establish itself, discover its brand soul, as the champion of the consumer on both buyer and seller side, and can communicate that effectively, will emerge stronger than ever.  The brand that can really live up to the promise that its professionals are dedicated to client success, dedicated to helping their American Dream of homeownership reality (instead of a nightmare), that brand will make enormous strides at the expense of the others.  That’s where the consumer’s at right now — uncertain, worried, scared.  A voice of reason, a voice of advice, a voice of assistance — if genuine and authentic — can transform the brand image and help a company rediscover its brand soul.

Those brands that keep on keeping on with the same old tired messages that didn’t resonate when the market was breaking records will find them not resonating now, and will eventually find that keepin’ on keepin’ on ain’t makin’ no forward progress.  And rightfully so.

-rsh

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