The thing to keep in mind about Realtors Property Resource is … what’s that? We’re not talking about RPR yet again? Oh good, I was hoping to let that topic rest for a few days …
Instead, let’s talk about a topic of interest to you — well, to at least one of you: Kathleen Buckley, a broker from Hopkinton, Mass., who incidentally is the only person I’ve ever seen with a Casey Kasem quote on her Web site’s home page, responded to my call for topics with a tweet suggesting "personal branding: to what extent should agents be branding themselves in addition to/rather than their broker?"
Pamela Liebman is the chief executive officer of Corcoran, a top real estate brokerage in New York City, the Hamptons, and South Florida. I’ve never met her, but she’s about as experienced, smart, and savvy as one could get in our industry.
Her response in the video to the question posed by industry consultant Marc Davison points to a need for people in real estate, and particularly broker-owners and managers, to understand branding much better.
Brand equals motivation
Davison’s original question was, "Should a consumer shop for real estate by brokerage brand or agent brand?"
Liebman’s answer, paraphrased, was essentially that consumers should use whoever they want, based on personal affinities or language skills: If you’re a triathlete, then maybe you want to work with an agent who is also a triathlete; if your native language is French, then maybe you want a francophone agent. Then at the end, she says, "There’s no right answer … except, use Corcoran."
That doesn’t make sense to me. Brand is supposed to motivate. If a brand does not influence or drive action, then it is useless. I buy Crest toothpaste because I think it’s better than Aim; I prefer to fly Continental over United; I shop at Nordstrom over Macy’s. All of these decisions are at least influenced by the brand of the product, the airline, or the service.
If the reason why a consumer should choose to work with one broker or another, or one agent or another, is entirely dependent on personal choice, personal affinities and predilections … then there is no brand to speak of. And there we have the modern real estate industry.
A brand is a promise. Not all promises are equal, of course, and not all promises resonate with everyone. But a brand is a promise of something verifiable by the consumer after the purchase: quality of product, service, pleasure, cost savings, whatever.
Even if the verification is entirely subjective, a meaningful brand can be verified by the consumer: Did that BMW really deliver "driving excitement" for me? Do I actually feel more like an upper-class White Anglo-Saxon Protestant wearing this Ralph Lauren polo shirt?
An effective brand is one that can be differentiated, one that makes a promise over and above the baseline promise of safety, minimum quality, etc. General Mills doesn’t brand its cereals as, "Not poisonous!" because that baseline promise is assumed.
For a Realtor to promise customer service, attentiveness, and expertise is to live on the baseline. As consumers, we assume those things; if you ignore clients, suck at service, and have no particular expertise, we think you shouldn’t be in the business of taking money from us for "real estate services." …CONTINUED
A living brand, a meaningful brand, is enforced. Nordstrom’s brand is "unparalleled customer service."
You can bet that Nordstrom spends millions of dollars and thousands upon thousands of man-hours every year training its sales staff, training its call center, training its people, educating them, reinforcing the brand value of customer service, and making the brand promise of "unparalleled customer service" to consumers.
The easiest way to get fired from a Nordstrom — right after criminal activities, I suppose — is to be rude to a customer.
And as a marketer, it is absolutely amazing to me how few real estate companies have a brand promise to begin with, and how even fewer enforce their brands.
With that background, Buckley’s question can be addressed. To what extent should agents be branding themselves in addition to or in lieu of their broker? Frankly, my answer is: Not at all.
In fact, if agents are branding themselves "in addition to" your brokerage brand, your brokerage brand either sucks badly or is not being enforced. Let’s say your brand promise is "Service with a smile." Why would you ever want one of your agents creating a personal brand of "Service with a laugh," or worse, "Service with no smile"?
That agent undermines your brand and points to either a weakness in your brand promise (i.e., maybe you haven’t gone past the baseline table stakes) or a failure to enforce the brand promise through training and management. Obviously, if your agents are branding themselves … then you have not defined a brokerage brand.
From the agent’s perspective, I would ask, "Why are you with a brokerage whose brand is so meaningless and ineffective that you have to brand yourself in addition to or instead of the brokerage brand? Why pay them a cut of your earnings?"
Chances are, the answer has something to do with liability insurance. Brokerages as insurance purchase pools are not, I think, a business model with a particularly bright future.
The standard objection, of course, is, "Rob, you don’t know what you’re talking about — consumers do business with individual agents, not with brokerages." That is true.
It is, however, equally true that if Joe Smith goes from working for ABC Realty, where he delivered real estate services to consumers in a particular way, then goes to XYZ Realty, where he delivers the exact same service in exactly the same way, then neither ABC nor XYZ are meaningful brands.
Say Joe Smith was a salesperson at The Gap, who then went on to work at Saks Fifth Avenue. There would absolutely be a difference in how he dressed, how he approached clients, how he delivered his services, how attentive he might be, and even how he carried himself on the floor.
Even within the same price point and category, there’s a difference between working at The Gap and working at Abercrombie & Fitch and working at Timberland. The core skills of selling, of customer service, of folding clothes, etc., might transfer — but each company would imprint its brand promises and enforce its brand on Joe. …CONTINUED
I believe that the responsibility of the broker is to deliver a living, effective brand to his or her agents. I believe the broker has to create and maintain a brand that motivates consumers in some way in order to justify taking a piece of the agent’s earnings.
I believe that brand should not only drive leads and sales, but that it should result in some verifiable difference for consumers working with agents of that brokerage brand vs. some other brokerage brand.
Can’t please everybody
One key to effective branding is to stop trying to be everything to everybody. Liebman is right in this respect: people are different, and what motivates one person might not motivate another.
Brands that appeal to one segment of consumers rarely appeal to a different one; and yet, brands that try to appeal to all segments can miss the mark. Dell buyers are rather different people from Apple buyers, for example.
Following what Liebman said, it would frankly be more effective to be The Triathlete Real Estate Co. that appeals specifically to triathletes looking for homes than it would be to be some shapeless, meaningless bunch of words that appeals to everybody, and therefore appeals to nobody.
Presumably every agent in the Triathlete Real Estate Co. would be … you guessed it, a triathlete.
Such a brokerage might sponsor races, enter agents in them, start a triathlete real estate blog, join triathlete communities, and have a real, effective, meaningful, and enforced brand.
And such a brokerage would probably send non-triathlete customers elsewhere, where they can find a better fit, and not hire overweight, out-of-shape people who are allergic to exercise (like me, for example) to be agents.
So ask yourself this: When was the last time you turned a customer away because he/she did not quite fit with your brand promise? When was the last time you let go of an agent, not because of ethical issues or performance issues, but because she didn’t quite fit with your brand promise?
If the answer to both of the above is "never," then it’s time to reexamine your brand to make sure it’s still alive.
So Kathleen Buckley of Hopkinton, Mass., since you’re a broker-owner, I say unto thee:
- Create a meaningful brand
- Differentiate your brand promise, and go above the baseline
- Don’t try to be everything to everybody
- Above all, enforce your brand and never, ever let an agent brand himself or herself in addition to or instead of your brand.
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. You can reach him on Twitter at @robhahn.
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