Bug Realty’s marketing plan is all about buzz — and not the sound that bees make.
The company seeks to stir up consumer interest from its branded Volkswagen Beetles painted like ladybugs, its line of promotional clothing with the word "bug" on the chest, and its customized Apple iPhones in a ladybug motif: red with black spots.
Kevin Seney, Bug Realty founder and a real estate finance industry veteran who served as president and CEO for The Home Loan Store Inc. before selling that business in 2000, uses the word "cool" a lot when talking about his new venture.
His idea was to create a memorable and approachable business brand and franchise model that embraces technology and virtual offices.
On visits to real estate brokerage offices during his years in the mortgage business, Seney said it was common to see real estate brokerage offices with mostly empty cubicles, as many agents don’t spend much time in the office.
The business model seeks to cut overhead costs by eliminating the need for huge office space, and the colorful cars that its agents drive cut ad costs by serving as mobile billboards. While the company’s car may not be as luxurious as a Lexus, it fits in with Seney’s vision for the brand.
"We’ve created a brand that’s lovable. In … creating this whole image thing, we overcame the challenges that all Realtors have — and that is creating trust. We’ve created this warm, funny, friendly brand," he said.
He acknowledged that bugs may have a negative connotation for some consumers — particularly if you’re talking about cockroaches or termite infestations at a home. And that’s why Bug Realty went with the ladybug theme, he said. "It stands alone in the world of bugs as the only bug you don’t squish." Likewise, Seney said he’s hoping that image will convey more of a warm and fuzzy feeling for his real estate company.
The company’s cars and branded clothing that its agents and brokers wear are great icebreakers and marketing tools, Seney said.
"People standing in line at Starbucks or Costco always come up to you and say, ‘What’s Bug?’ As an agent, you’re always wanting to engage in conversation with somebody who could be a client," he said.
Bug Realty launched three years ago and began franchising last year. There are now four franchises, including three in California and one in Colorado. The original company is based in the San Diego, Calif., area.
While Bug’s frugal approach to office space and use of technology is designed to help the company cut costs and run more efficiently, Seney does not characterize Bug as a discount real estate company.
In some ways, the company is very traditional, he said. Bug has a philosophy to be engaged with the community, and Seney said he has donated free company-branded clothing at youth sporting events to spread the word about Bug.
"Our whole deal is let’s take real estate back to the neighborhood in a friendly way. It’s right back out there in the neighborhood the way real estate used to be done," he said.
Patti Barrett, broker-owner for Bug Realty Grand Junction in Colorado, said she fell in love with the company’s brand image, and opened a franchise in January.
Barrett and her colleague bought two of the Bug-banded Beetles even before setting up shop — the company requires franchisees to purchase or lease the cars. "The biggest comment I get is, ‘I see your cars everywhere.’ People … see us as a really friendly operations model. They stop and talk to us wherever we are," she said.
She related anecdotes about a woman leaning out the window at the local Wendy’s fast-food restaurant or the small child who complimented her car.
Sometimes, she’s taken a drive with her office colleague — using both cars to draw more attention. "I’ll call her and I’ll say, ‘Let’s two-bug it,’" said Barrett, who has worked in real estate since 1986.
Barrett, who had been an independent broker, checked out a number of other franchise models before the Bug image grabbed her. She had earlier worked under the Century 21 brand, and she checked out some of the franchise models for companies that offer low-cost services.
With Bug, she said, "I’m not losing any independence at all." She offers three different levels of pricing based on the level of service that her clients choose.
Barrett, a rugby enthusiast, said she plans to drive her Bug car out to a rugby match in her area this weekend. She pondered, "Maybe I’ll see if those guys will pick my car up."
She’s also planning to park the car at a local home and garden show. Just making an appearance in the car is "like a warm call, not a cold call," she said. It is a brand, she said, that "breaks the ice with so many people."
And that’s what she was looking for in joining a franchise, she said. "I didn’t go for a stuffy image."
Barrett said she is seeking to train more agents to join her company, and she is getting her Bug-branded iPhone in a couple of weeks.
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