Century 21 Chief Marketing Officer Cara Whitley shares what she loves about marketing, the inspiration behind the brokerage’s 2018 rebrand and what’s next.

September is Marketing and Branding Month at Inman. That means we’re talking to the chief marketing officers at major brokerages about how the pandemic is changing their jobs and what it means for agents. We’re publishing a suite of tactical Inman Handbooks for marketing on digital portals. And we’re looking at what pages of the traditional marketing playbook still work. Join us all month long.

The position of chief marketing officer is one of the most volatile positions in any industry, with the average leader lasting only 3.5 years. However, Century 21 CMO Cara Whitley has managed to beat the odds as she’s approaching her sixth year with one of real estate’s oldest brands.

During her tenure, Whitley helped lead Century 21 into the 21st century with a massive rebrand that hearkens to the brokerage’s commitment to excellent customer service while meeting the needs of today’s consumer and agent.

In one of the first interviews for Inman’s Branding and Marketing month, Whitley shares her passion for marketing, what she loves about Century 21 and where the brokerage is going next. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Inman: You’ve been in marketing for a long time. Where did your passion for the field come from?

Whitley: I had a double major in advertising and graphic design and a minor in marketing. So I guess at that young age of 18, I sort of knew that I had an interest in marketing. But in all reality, it’s really the business side of things that attracted me to it. You have to be involved in all aspects of the business and be able to take that larger view and figure out how to problem-solve from a creative standpoint to help drive growth throughout the organization.

The other piece of the puzzle that I really enjoy is interacting with every part of the organization because if you don’t you’ll never be successful. You really have to ingrain yourself with every single part of the organization in order to really bring the right solution to life.

Before coming to Century 21, you had an illustrious marketing career with some of the world’s biggest hospitality brands. What made you want to work with C21? There’s no shortage of brands looking for marketing whizzes like you. 

It’s a great question. There were many different aspects of Century 21 that I found attractive. First and foremost, it was the people and the culture. I worked for Hilton Hotels Corporation, and some of what I loved [about Hilton] was the culture, and Century 21 seemed to have a lot of that. Hospitality is very similar to what we all do in real estate. You have these people-oriented people, and the culture within our office, throughout our affiliates and franchisees, is just phenomenal.

Then it was also a brand that was at a turning point. We had been around for about 45 years at that point in time, and we were on the verge of needing to make some changes and evolve the brand in terms of relevancy, how we looked and how we felt. That task seemed like a really good one to take on with a world-class brand with a world-class team.

What does the work of repositioning and advancing a brand look like from day to day? There seems to be some outdated views about what a CMO is. 

First of all, I think there’s no “day to day” that looks the same. It’s very varied and I think that’s where some of my passion comes from. [The position] is driven by the fact that we’re in a dynamic world that’s constantly changing and evolving.

The CMO world is so much about leadership and making sure that you’re providing that focus for the entire team while collaborating and interacting with not only our immediate [marketing] team but across the broader organization. Most importantly, [it’s about] keeping a pulse on our customers, both the end customer as well as our agents and brokers.

It’s incredibly important to understand where their pain points are and make sure we’re providing the right solutions and support. It’s really the most important thing that anyone can do in the organization, especially a CMO. If you don’t have your customers front and center, then you’re really missing the mark. That is the most important thing that drives any day within the week. All of my work kind of comes from there.

That makes sense. Could you provide some examples of what you’re responsible for outside of large projects like a rebrand? Which we’ll talk about later. 

Right now, we’re in the planning process for 2021, which happens to be our 50th anniversary. We’re looking at our strategic plans from a media and creative standpoint, how we’re evolving our customers’ experience, and the tools and systems we provide to agents and franchisees.

We’re also looking at our event strategy, which obviously in today’s world, has changed pretty dramatically with everything being virtual right now. So how can we really provide engaging content at a virtual level to help our agents and brokers within their world. It’s been interesting to see how other brokerages are taking on that challenge.

The thing that I’m personally getting a lot of energy out of right now is people’s minds are incredibly open to change. Everyone was forced into a pretty dramatic change overnight. Some people have been doing this for several years and other people were skeptical about moving to a virtual environment, but everyone was pushed into it overnight and found that it worked.

That that has open people’s minds up to endless possibilities of what else will work that maybe I didn’t think would work before. People’s minds are incredibly open to the “what if,” and that’s providing a ton of energy and excitement on how we continue to evolve, how we deliver services to our affiliates and how we connect with consumers.

That [digital pivot] is going into a lot of our planning as we look forward to our 50th, and really showing the world why Century 21 is the right brand for the next 50 years.

You spearheaded C21’s rebrand back in 2018, which is risky because rebrands can go really right or really wrong. How did you pull it off and make sure it resonated with loyal consumers while attracting a new base?

Our rebrand was just one part of an overall repositioning strategy. We spent about six or eight months prior to the rebrand analyzing our rich history. We’ve been here for almost 50 years, we have a lot of firsts in the industry — we were the first brand to franchise. We took that hard, in-depth look at our path, and all of the things make up the most recognized brand in real estate while examining where we needed to improve to make sure that we were relevant for the next 50 years.

For our journey moving forward, the rebrand was the first step in that as part of our mission redefine and deliver extraordinary experiences. We’ve done a lot of additional work since then. We are working on some things that will help our agents be a little bit closer to the consumer throughout their journey of homebuying and selling.

We’re about two years into the journey with a roadmap that takes about five years. The rebrand was the first very visible step and we have gotten tremendous positive feedback from both our existing agents and brokers, as well as prospective agents and brokers.

I’d like to touch on how you said rebranding was only the first step. What does it take to follow through on the promises you’re giving to professionals and consumers? 

For over 25 years, we’ve been a brand that believes in measuring the quality of service, so that’s something that is absolutely in our DNA. Today we see real estate is about the experience versus just a transaction. That’s really where our mindset shift has been — to redefine real estate to be about experiences. I think we’ve earned the place to be able to redefine what that means.

We’re really about the agent who has a relentless mindset, and that’s very much about the mindset that we live and breathe every single day. We launched our “Brilliant Statement” with our standards of service. Our agents and franchisees are about delivering the basics really well every single day because if you are going to deliver an extraordinary experience, that really means that you are intentional where others aren’t.

That’s about being very consistent and going a little bit beyond every single day throughout that entire journey of buying and selling a home. We have also continued to focus on our quality service scores, which goes back to our legacy. We’re always focusing on that; we’re looking at how we increase the focus by providing brilliant service and the holistic homebuying and selling journey.

I was doing research about CMOs and The Wall Street Journal said the average tenure is a short 3.5 years. Yet, you’re heading into your sixth year with C21. What’s the key to your longevity? 

First and foremost, it’s the people that I work with, both within our immediate team and with our franchisees and agents. It’s an incredibly dynamic industry that is made up of some of the hardest working professionals in the world. We’re on a really interesting journey and I want to make sure that I continue to be a part of that journey. We’ve got a lot more to do and it’s an honor to be able to work in an industry that is constantly changing.

Inman is known for our readership filled with talented agents who often also have stellar marketing skills. What advice would you give to someone who wants to transition into the marketing industry?

In today’s world, you have to be incredibly well-grounded. So I would encourage anyone interested in a CMO role to make sure that they have a very strong and solid foundation in technology and digital and operations. I would also encourage mentorship — find someone who you can trust and can learn from because that will make all the difference in your career.

Email Marian McPherson

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