I recently read a great blog post by my good friend Stephanie Pfeffer, who serves as integrated marketing director for a real estate group’s luxury division, about understanding today’s luxury consumer.

In it, she says that what luxury consumers want most is time with their family: "Today’s affluent consumer is more likely to value the customized services of a personal shopper than they are an oversized designer bag. In fact, when asked to define "luxuries," the item that often rates highest is time and being able to spend that time with family."

Editor’s note: Meet Robert Hahn at the upcoming Real Estate Connect conference in San Francisco, which runs from Aug. 5-7, 2009. He will be available to meet with conference attendees from 12:30 p.m. to 1:30 p.m. on Thursday, Aug. 6, in the Palace Hotel’s Ralston Room. Click here to send Robert a message.

I recently read a great blog post by my good friend Stephanie Pfeffer, who serves as integrated marketing director for a real estate group’s luxury division, about understanding today’s luxury consumer.

In it, she says that what luxury consumers want most is time with their family: "Today’s affluent consumer is more likely to value the customized services of a personal shopper than they are an oversized designer bag. In fact, when asked to define "luxuries," the item that often rates highest is time and being able to spend that time with family."

While that finding doesn’t surprise me, it occurs to me that only the wealthy say such things. The schlub working two jobs to make ends meet isn’t thinking much about spending more time with family; he’s thinking about making mortgage payments and keeping food on the table and saving up for junior’s college tuition.

There is, however, a common thread — one that is crucial to understand for people and companies who sell homes for a living: the human aspiration.

A while ago, on my personal blog, I posited that there are two modes of marketing: "thrift" and "aspirational."

I want to expand on the aspirational aspect of marketing because it appears to me that perhaps I drew arbitrary limits on what that means.

Aspirational marketing

The very term "aspirational" implies that the person does not have whatever it is that he wants. He therefore aspires to acquire/achieve that which he is missing.

For the very rich, that aspiration may very well be free time to spend with the family. If you’re the managing partner of a top law firm, routinely spending 50 percent of your time on the road and putting in 14-hour days at the office, the one thing you don’t have and can’t really afford is more time with your family. Your kids are probably learning to make appointments to have dinner with super-lawyer mom.

But it would be a mistake to infer from this that luxury marketing necessarily means focusing on "time with your family." Aspirations are as individual as the person who has them. An up-and-coming 30-something junior partner at the same law firm may have very different aspirations: to become a super-lawyer like the managing partner.

For him, perhaps more wealth and acquisition of status are more important than spending more time with family. His kids are younger; he figures he might have time to hang with them later, once he’s made his millions.

By the same token, even your nonluxury "bargain shopper" buyers have aspirations. Maybe for some, it’s the whole classic American Dream of owning one’s own home, even if it’s a rundown shack that requires a ton of work. For others, it might simply be moving out of a bad neighborhood to one with good schools, so that their kids might have every advantage in life.

Aspirational marketing seeks first to understand the aspirations of the consumer and then tailor the products and services around them, rather than the other way around. …CONTINUED

Aspirations are sacred

The point of aspirational marketing isn’t to understand a family’s aspirations to message to them; the point is to help them fulfill those aspirations. It isn’t about your need to move product; it’s about their aspirations to improve their lives in some way they find meaningful. You don’t have to agree with their aspirations; you might even look down on them. But again, it isn’t about you.

"Well, it sorta fits," is not a good-enough answer if someone takes the step of trusting you with their aspirations. That way lies ineptitude.

Whether the client is a billionaire looking for a $50 million vacation house so he can have his grandkids fly in by private jet for the weekend, or a struggling immigrant family who just wants a piece of land they can’t be evicted from, the real estate agent who has been entrusted with their aspirations needs first to understand those aspirations, and second needs to try his damnedest to make it happen.

For example, a family’s aspiration might be to send their kids to Yale. To achieve that, they want to move into the best school district in the county. Their budget, however, isn’t quite at the price points of the neighborhood. "Well, this other area has a decent school district, and it’s at your price point" is not true aspirational marketing.

Giving that family all the facts you can gather on the various school districts and price points, and then thinking of the ways you can help make their dream come true … that is not only true aspirational marketing, but it’s the essence of being a professional.

Maybe that means recommending to the family that they not buy today, save up for another year, and try again in another year — meanwhile keeping them in mind if some rundown below-market house comes on the market, or for bank-owned (REO) or other foreclosure-related opportunities in the neighborhood they want.

Maybe it means the family decides to settle for a slightly worse school district. Maybe it means the family decides to go into the worst and cheapest district and send their children to private school with the savings. It’s their dream and their aspirations that are important.

Not only the wealthy

Stephanie ends her blog post with the following observation: "So if time and family are the ultimate luxury, this is good news for the real estate industry over the long run. There is no question … that the affluent consumer is still out there; it’s just about understanding the factors that influence their buying decisions and getting a pulse on their hearts and minds."

I agree 100 percent with her, but would like to suggest that it isn’t only the luxury market to which this applies. Every single customer, not just the rich, has aspirations. Understand those factors, get a pulse on their hearts and minds, and help them fulfill their dreams.

For all the hype over social media, at the heart of social media is love — the desire to engage, the desire for fellowship, the desire for humanity. And what can be more human than helping someone achieve their aspirations?

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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