Yesterday, there was this guy in the grocery store. He was in the frozen foods aisle (near the fish sticks, to be exact). He was wearing a kilt.

If my brain was wired to code, I wouldn’t be sitting here 24 hours later thinking about the oddly dressed man. "He was wearing a kilt!" I announced. "So?" said my daughter. Moving on to what I thought might be a more receptive audience, I shared this bit of intelligence with my husband. "A kilt. That’s what it was!" I announced, to which he replied in his best "placate Kris" voice, "He has huevos."

A kilt, and nary a wind instrument in sight. He wasn’t even visibly Scottish. Maybe he was on his way to a gig, and the bagpipes were in the car. Maybe he was hot. Or, maybe he just likes plaids. My family didn’t seem to find this the least bit odd. I guess it’s just me. Sometimes I tend to overthink the problem.

I notice things when they are out of context. So do our clients. Now, if my fellow hunter and gatherer had been visibly trying to be different for the sake of being different, my reaction might not have been one of amusement and curiosity. Rather, I might have been coming home to share with the clan my most recent dork-sighting. The fact that this man was quite comfortable in his skirt amidst the sea of expected blue jeans was what got my attention and ultimately my respect. My family didn’t care, but then they weren’t shopping at that particular moment. I was, and he was a standout.

Marketing. In trying to make a distinction, we are all becoming the same. Now, I’m not saying we should all run to the store tomorrow wearing togas or kimonos. But, on second thought, why not? Someone’s shopping and, if you wear it well, they might notice you.

New agents are given this little book of rules. They are all given the same book, complete with how-tos on advertising and working the sphere, with lead generation and open house protocol. The book comes with a free canned Web site, scripts for courting buyers and sellers, and a mile-high pile of standardized presentation slicks. It outlines, in black and white, the pathway to success. Nowhere in this book is a plaid skirt.

We are all too busy trying to be the same that we forget to make a distinction. And, we are all working so hard to make a distinction that we are becoming the same.

Take my business photo (please). I call it the Barbie photo. I hate it. This photo (the one grinning at you at the top of this epic) was a reasonable likeness of me three years ago when it was taken. Now, having reached my half-life (and Science Guys will appreciate that half-life is an exponential thing), I might as well have Photoshopped Heather Locklear onto my collateral material. My hair color and length, as well as the number of chins I sport, change with each neap tide. Faced with the realization that it is time to update my image (literally), I find myself asking, "Why?"

Why exactly do I feel compelled to put my mug on all of my business stuff? Well, for one, everyone else does it. Then there is the branding argument, but if we all have our pictures on everything, aren’t we all the same brand? Does it really matter to my clients what I looked like in the summer of ’96?

But, everyone is doing it! And that is the problem.

In my former life, I was an engineer — a traffic engineer, to be precise. Have you ever thought about why all of those stop signs are red and octagonal? It’s so you don’t have to think. You get where you are going without distraction. You see the signs but you don’t really notice them.

If your goal is to have everyone breeze by in an orderly fashion, red is the way to go. But if you really want to stop traffic, maybe you should consider purple with polka dots.

We can’t be conformists and at the same time be standouts. Sure, there are the wardrobe basics that we must all have. The Web site is now as necessary as the little black dress. The first guy who had one of those was a novelty. Now, we are all mired in sameness, a bunch of little black dresses with "For Buyers" and "For Sellers" buttons and the requisite page on the "Dangers of Overpricing." Basics are good, but they only become a fashion statement once they are accessorized.

I still see brokers promoting sameness, and I think this is an enormous disservice to the agents. One argument is that uniformity strengthens the broker brand and, therefore, the agent’s. If the result is an online and offline presence that is a homogeneous snoozer, how can it accomplish either? Then there is the argument that it is incumbent on the broker to provide the closet of basics to all agents in order for them to compete and succeed, recognizing that the more progressive and aggressive agents will build on this foundation. The problem here is that in giving the agents these basics, the same Web page, the same yard sign, the same postcard, and the same "@company" e-mail address, you are all but guaranteeing their anonymity. For too many, the basics will be enough. But they aren’t. I think it might be time for the broker to rethink this role.

I clearly don’t have the answers. If I did, I would be living, if not in Warren Buffett’s house, then at least in his guestroom. But, I do think that brokers are overthinking the problem. And I do know that if I had 1,000 agents under my wing, I wouldn’t try to dress them. Instead, I would take on the role of personal shopper. I would lay out all of their choices and then I would tell them to pick the outfits that suit them. I would encourage them to boldly accessorize. And then I would point them to the checkout stand. We all have different tastes and budgets, and one size does not fit all, so I wouldn’t make everyone wear the same uniform. If, as an agent, I can’t put my own wardrobe together, I don’t deserve to be dressing the part.

Kris Berg is a real estate broker associate for Prudential California Realty in San Diego. She also writes a consumer-focused real estate blog, The San Diego Home Blog.

Berg will speak at Real Estate Connect in San Francisco, July 23-25, 2008. Register today.


What’s your opinion? Leave your comments below or send a letter to the editor. To contact the writer, click the byline at the top of the story.

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