We start today’s column with a visualization exercise. So sit back, relax, close your eyes (well, in just a moment, as this requires that you stop reading), and think about a single word. Ready?

OK. What one word describes your brand?

You may now close your eyes and begin the reflection. Come on back when you’re done.

Done already?

We start today’s column with a visualization exercise. So sit back, relax, close your eyes (well, in just a moment, as this requires that you stop reading), and think about a single word. Ready?

OK. What one word describes your brand?

You may now close your eyes and begin the reflection. Come on back when you’re done.

Done already?

If you belong to one of the major brands, like RE/MAX, Century 21, or Keller Williams, I hope (and the various executives at those brands hope) that you answered with your brand’s tagline.

For example, if you’re a RE/MAX agent, hopefully the one word was "Outstanding." If you’re with Century 21 … um … I don’t know since there’s no tagline on any marketing material I could find. If you’re with Keller Williams, I guess it must be "Different"?

If you’re with an independent shop, you have your own message, right? For example, if you’re Jay Thompson, renowned Internet Realtor, then your word is probably "Technology."

But for the vast majority of the independent brokerages and individual Realtors, the one word might be "Indistinguishable." The vast majority of Web sites, marketing materials, and "brand identities" of Realtors and brokerages simply look alike and sound alike.

Some random copy from random Web searches follows: "With our unparalleled customer service and intimate knowledge of the Central Florida area, you can be confident that you will be working with Realtors who provides (sic) a stress-free buying or selling experience."

I doubt I will be very confident, considering you can’t proofread your own Web site, but boy, that sounds a whole lot like: "You deserve a partner that can help you organize all the details of your next real estate transaction. Whether you are buying or selling a San Antonio home, I’ll put my talents to work for you to ensure a smooth process. As a Realtor, I have the experience and the energy to focus on your needs and make your real estate dreams a reality."

Which, in turn, sounds a lot like: "We will be happy to provide all the information you need to buy or sell real estate in Las Vegas, Henderson, North Las Vegas, and surrounding areas. As the premier real estate agent in Las Vegas, we look forward to serving you and will be happy to help at any time."

If you find yourself stifling yawns, you are definitely not alone. Before we get into why this disease of sameness has infected the real estate industry, let us pause to take some advice from some branding professionals from outside of real estate.

Claim everything, end up with nothing

I advise you to spend some time on this post at Brand Strategy Insiders blog:

"Does ‘cheap’ appeal to everybody? No, that’s why you know ‘cheap’ is a good word to own. Any combination of words that appeals to everybody will never work in marketing. Value, loyalty and quality? Who could ask for anything more? That’s why those words will never work.

"Look at Hilton sibling, Hilton Garden Inn. What’s a Hilton Garden Inn? According to the chain’s advertising slogan, it’s ‘Everything. Right where you need it.’ …CONTINUED

"When you claim ‘everything,’ you end up with nothing."

And that, my friends, is the problem with real estate brands. They try to be everything wonderful to just about everyone, and as a result, end up being nothing to no one in particular.

Some thoughts

First, if your brand stands for expertise and quality service, it stands for nothing. That’s like a hotel chain claiming it has clean beds. Consumers rightly expect that anyone daring to offer their services to the public is an expert and will provide quality service. Go beyond, or go home.

Second, understand that branding is not the same as the service itself — although clearly, the service affects the brand and vice versa. For example, BMW’s brand is "luxury sports car" — but its cars are quite safe as well — and when you get down to it, priced competitively with other luxury automobiles.

The product itself has to address most of a consumer’s needs and desires, but the brand has to own a word or phrase in the consumer’s mind.

As a Realtor, you may be able to help buyers and sellers equally well, be a real local expert, be attentive to your client needs, and so on and so forth. Whether the client is a high-end luxury seller or a first-time homebuyer, the client is likely to receive fantastic service from you. Fine. But that doesn’t mean you should brand yourself that way.

Third, most Realtors and brokerages can benefit from promising less. For example, I spent a sunny afternoon in Orange County, Calif., a few months ago, talking with Christine Donovan, a Realtor friend, about her brand.

If you look at her Web site, you get the standard "Find Homes," "For Buyers," "For Sellers," and so on and so forth that you find on virtually every real estate Web site. And in pink letters, she’s talking about "Cash Rewards" and "Guarantees" to sell a home in 39 days. Her main copy is:

"Real estate services and information for Orange County, California. Specializing in Newport Beach real estate and Costa Mesa real estate, where you will find some of the most desirable homes in the world. Call us today or check out our Web site for specific Newport Beach and Costa Mesa homes for sale and for a comprehensive area overview."

In short, everything to everyone who could possibly have any interest in Newport Beach and Costa Mesa. Which means: nothing to no one who could possibly have any interest in Newport Beach and Costa Mesa. Worst of all, Christine is potentially branding herself as the "Cash Reward" lady in a market where the average home price is $750,000.

Meanwhile, her Twitter bio proclaims, "Real estate broker/attorney in Orange County, Calif., helping those who owe more on their home than it’s worth."

Whoa! Suddenly, my interest in piqued. Something specific, different, unique! If you read her ActiveRain profile, you learn that she has a very strong background in mortgage.

So here’s a thought: Maybe Christine should try to own something like "owners in crisis" for the Newport Beach market? Whether that brand would be effective or not is secondary for our purposes. That brand would at least make her stand out from the undifferentiated masses of me-too Realtors.

Imagine redesigning the site to convey one simple message: "If you owe more on your home than it’s worth, I can help." No pictures of gulls and sailboats. How about a sober non-smiling-Realtor picture of Christine herself, in a setting that implies authority, financial knowledge, and legal acumen? …CONTINUED

Push the "For Buyers" and "For Sellers" and such to secondary navigation and skip the boilerplate about how she will strive to provide clients with a unique and enjoyable experience. Hammer home the point: "You are underwater; I can help you." Maybe she’ll get fewer visitors; but the ones who she does get will be homed in on her brand message: "I can help you if you’re upside down on your house."

Effective brand doesn’t necessarily mean ‘businesslike’

An effective brand doesn’t have to be businesslike. Take Amanda Wernick, another friend of mine from the same area. Her Twitter handle is FunomenalRealtr; at the REBarCamp Orange County event where I conducted a session on branding, I asked her what her brand promise was, and she replied, "Fun!"

Look at her ActiveRain blog — it’s got stories about Blackberry addiction, and her tone is just … well, fun. Here’s part of her profile copy: "Here is where I’m supposed to write about how great I am and how I’m an expert in everything and how your real estate transaction will have no stress what-so-ever! Riiiight!"

Now, you may like her brand, her approach, or think she’s silly, would never use her, whatever. At the very least, her brand is crystal clear: Fun.

Just on that basis, Amanda is way ahead of the vast majority of real estate agents and brokerages out there. She may never get sober judges and homeowners in trouble to work with her; they might find her light-hearted approach annoying.

So what? If her brand works, it’ll be because some people will think she’s funny. The point is not to be everything to every possible consumer, but to be the top thing for some consumers.

In closing …

I focused on individual agents because branding is much easier for an individual. For the larger brands with thousands of individual agents and large footprints, branding becomes a far more challenging task. But the basic principle is the same.

Don’t try to be everything to everyone; that way lies blandness. Blandness leads to boredom; boredom leads to irrelevance; and irrelevance leads to the "Dark Side of the Force." If people in your market can’t think of a word or a phrase to describe you, start removing things until they can.

Once they can, work like hell to make sure you deliver on that brand promise. More on that later.

Robert Hahn is managing partner of 7DS Associates, a marketing, technology and strategy consultancy focusing on the real estate industry. He is also founder of The Notorious R.O.B. blog.

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