When Century 21 Real Estate announced two years ago that it would stop running national television ads in order to boost its online ad spend, the venerable franchisor said it already had all the name recognition a company could ever want.

Now, Century 21 is getting back into TV in the splashiest way imaginable, announcing that it will run a spot during Super Bowl XLVI, on Feb. 5, 2012.

Next week, TV ads promoting the skills of Century 21 agents will begin airing on Discovery Communications’ cable channel, TLC, which will also feature the 40-year-old franchise in an upcoming episode of "Cake Boss."

It’s highly unlikely that anyone has forgotten that Century 21 exists in the two years that the franchise has been absent from the airwaves. So why come back?

Century 21 says it has devoted considerable resources to educating and training its agents, and it wants the world to know.

"We think the market knows exactly who Century 21 is, but we’re not sure they know who our agent is, and what their capabilities are," said Bev Thorne, Century 21’s chief marketing officer. The brand’s "Smarter, Bolder, Faster" campaign, in addition to TV and radio ads, will also feature online and print components.

The ad campaign is part of a wave of new marketing initiatives from the franchisor, including a new website and mobile apps for all smartphone and feature phones.

Thorne said Century 21 has entered into partnerships with five listings portals — Realtor.com, Zillow, Trulia, Homes.com and Homefinder.

The partnerships are an expansion of Century 21’s existing "Gold Standard Partnership" with Realtor.com operator Move Inc., she said, in which the franchisor helps franchise owners pay for enhanced listings.

"We are subsidizing the placement and appearance of listings, helping enhance the position and representation of listings on the sites," Thorne said. Although there’s some duplication in the sites’ audiences, she said together they reach an aggregate audience of 350 million to 400 million visitors.

When Century 21 pulled the plug on TV advertising in 2009, then-president and CEO Tom Kunz said the company wanted to shift the money into online marketing efforts including display ads, search-engine marketing, and partnerships with real estate listing sites.

Kunz said at the time that while dollars once spent on TV would be shifted into online marketing, the overall marketing budget had shrunk as a result of the downturn (Kunz resigned in February 2010 and was replaced by Rick Davidson).

AdAge.com, citing estimates by Kantar Media, reported that Century 21’s total media spending dropped 43 percent in 2009, to $18.9 million, and by another 36 percent last year, to $12 million. Kantar estimated that Century 21 spent $9.6 million on TV ads in 2008, about two-thirds on cable networks.

But Thorne said those numbers are "completely false. They are not even close to the facts that I know."

Although Thorne declined to provide specifics on Century 21’s spending on marketing, she said spending on both online and offline advertising will increase this year.

Century 21 has been embroiled for nearly a decade in a lawsuit by franchisees claiming that the company misappropriated fees paid by franchisees into a national advertising fund, among other claims. Century 21 has said the claims in the 2002 lawsuit are without merit, though lawyers representing five Century 21 franchisees won class-action certification in August to represent other similarly situated brokerages.

Thorne said Century 21 saw a 248 percent increase in leads generated by its online marketing last year.The company’s online and offline marketing efforts are integrated, with print ads featuring "QR" codes and website links.

"Clearly, we’re looking to aggregate the impact of this ad spend, not isolate it," she said.

As to whether Century 21 has returned for good to the ranks of national TV advertisers, that depends on the results.

"We will track closely the (return on investment) from all our spend, and put together a plan in 2012 that maximizes return," Thorne said. "Everything is in the mix. Our intention is not that this is one or the other."

According to Williamsburg, Va.-based research and consulting firm Borrell Associates, companies in the real estate industry spent an estimated $20.1 billion on advertising in 2010. Of that, 44 percent was spent online — the highest percentage of any industry, said CEO Gordon Borrell.

Borrell estimates that real estate agents and brokers spent $8.6 billion on advertising, followed by mortgage providers ($8.2 billion), real estate developers ($1.6 billion) and rental property managers ($1.7 billion).

Within the real estate category, agents and brokers spent the highest percentage of their ad budgets online — nearly 63 percent. Newspapers were a distant second, capturing 21 percent of agent and broker ad spending, while broadcast and cable TV captured only 3.3 percent — less than direct mail (7 percent).

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