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.
Effective marketing and branding to a single target audience is tough enough, but imagine if you had to create campaigns and content that resonated with an international audience in more than 70 countries with different languages and cultural cues.
That’s the task Sotheby’s International Realty Chief Marketing Officer Brad Nelson executes day in and day out with his four marketing teams across the globe who make sure luxury buyers and sellers — no matter where they are — can connect with the brand’s 23,000 sales associates.
In the latest interview for Marketing and Branding Month, Nelson sat down with Inman to provide a behind-the-scenes look at Sotheby’s International Realty’s marketing process, explain how COVID has impacted his interactions with agents, and why he’s proud of Sotheby’s International Realty’s longstanding investment in video.
Inman: As I was preparing for our chat, I immediately thought about Sotheby’s International Realty’s reach, and I honestly couldn’t think of another US-based luxury brand that has such a large international reach. So as you’re doing branding and marketing, how do you make sure it resonates with your consumers, regardless of their culture or where they live?
Nelson: It’s complicated. The Sotheby’s International Realty brand operates in more than 70 countries around the world, and so our marketing process truly has to take a look at things from so many different perspectives. I think one advantage that Sotheby’s International Realty has is that our brand marketing team has representatives in all of our major regions. We clearly have our team based in New York City for the U.S., we have a European marketing leader based in Lisbon, who manages Europe and the Middle East, India and Africa. We have a marketing leader based in Hong Kong who manages our Asia Pacific business, and we also have a marketing leader based in Miami who manages our Caribbean and Latin and South American businesses.
As a result of that, my colleagues, our heads of regional marketing, are really the lens that we look through each campaign to understand if it is going to translate in a different part of the world. And that collective feedback is how we refine ideas. I’ve had a long term philosophy that if you’re not speaking your customers’ language, you’re wasting your breath. So we also go out of our way to ensure that our marketing is easy to interact with and easy to understand.
For example, our website is available natively in 15 different languages, and we provide real-time currency conversion into almost 60 currencies at this point. We are constantly [asking], ‘Does the idea, does the marketing concept, make sense?’ It’s very critical to me that we, institutionally, have bridged that language barrier so a prospective buyer in Japan searching for a property in Hawaii has the ability to navigate our site in Japanese, and understand how much the property costs in Yen, based on its current conversion to the U.S. dollar. We’re really trying to go that extra step to help someone understand in ways that are easiest for them.
As you said, you have all these marketing teams around the world that help you connect with a wide range of consumers. Can you give more insight on how your teams collaborate? What’s the process of refining an idea?
The first thing that I would say is that we rotate at what time we hold our meetings because they will always be inconvenient for someone. So when you’re trying to schedule a call and having New York, Hong Kong and Lisbon all on the line at once, it is certainly going to be very late or very early for someone and so we try to ensure that we all balance that appropriately and respectfully.
On the technology side, it really is a matter of understanding what characteristics are important to a buyer in a particular market. So for example in New York City, you might say that a property is ‘a classic six.’ It’s a very, very common term in New York. Or you might describe that apartment as being pre-war. Obviously, the pre-war description would not make sense in other parts of the world. So it’s a matter of how can you localize the search criteria and the property amenities that are important in any relevant market to ensure that you’re addressing the features and the amenities of a home that are valuable in that location.
I think we have a collaborative atmosphere on our team and I don’t believe that we have a monopoly on good ideas. And as a result of that, we really attempt to get a lot of input and perspectives from all of our various different team members.
From time to time, you know, an idea will percolate up out of one region that we then identified through collaboration can provide significant benefit to other parts of the brand. And one example of that is my colleague, Daniela Frewa, who runs marketing for our CALA region, pursued a partnership for launching an international search portal in Mexico. She believed that there is an opportunity to enhance the consumer search experience in Mexico, and what we found out through further research was that Mexico is one of the largest sources of foreigners purchasing in the United States. When we dug even deeper, we identified that there were certain markets such as California, Colorado, Florida, etc. where affluent Mexican consumers were an important part of the buyer population. So that was an idea, a marketing campaign that was really birthed to provide more support to our companies in Mexico and the CALA market.
By focusing on feeder markets, and by analyzing our data, of where we are seeing referral activity within our network, we’re able to implement additional executions of that marketing campaign in important feeder markets in a powerful way.
I remember when you made the announcement about the search portal in Mexico and it’s nice to get the backstory on that. So, my next question is about having a high cultural IQ. How has your understanding of various cultures grown during your time at Sotheby’s International Realty?
I have been very fortunate to join such an established international team. I was preparing for a meeting with an international market recently, and I just had the opportunity to ask my colleagues, other senior leaders of the brand who have worked with and in those cultures for many years, if not decades, at this point, to enlighten me. I mean, we certainly can do research on various different cultures and backgrounds.
I’ve personally found that drawing upon the experience of my peers within the brand has been incredibly helpful for me to understand what drives relationships and how to strengthen them in various different geographies.
For example, historically, when interacting with one of our international markets, it would have been, from my perspective, required as a sign of respect to physically travel in person for that meeting. And so you would get on an airplane and fly to Hong Kong to Tokyo or New Zealand. In COVID, since that has not been possible, I have had an opportunity to interact with more members of our network in such diverse and far-reaching locations around the globe. That has been really powerful because it has, in many ways, allowed me to grow my cultural IQ faster through interaction than if I was limited to in-person engagements.
Certainly, nothing can replace being in-person to build and strengthen relationships, but it has exposed me to more faster.
Beyond meetings and traveling, what does your day-to-day schedule look like? How has COVID impacted what that schedule looks like?
First and foremost, my schedule looks nothing like it did six months ago. I used to live on an airplane, and now I spend my entire day on Microsoft Teams and Zoom. I think the most important tasks that I focus on personally each day haven’t changed.
The first is prioritization. So there are, as you can imagine, with a business in 70 countries, we could choose to go in a million different directions every day as a brand, and I try to facilitate healthy debates. I try to look at data so that our team collectively makes decisions about what our highest priorities are, and I really try to ensure that we remain focused on those priorities.
The second thing that I spend a great deal of time on personally, is presentation. We have 23,000 extraordinary, best-in-class, real estate advisors around the globe. I want to ensure the work we’re doing to help them market the properties that they represent is clearly understood, and they can articulate the value that Sotheby’s International Realty offers their clients. So I spend a great deal of time speaking directly with our agents to ensure they understand and are taking full advantage of Sotheby’s International Realty’s value proposition.
The third element I spend a great deal of time on is collecting feedback, and something that most folks might not know that I do is my first and last phone call of every day is to one of our agents. I pick up the phone out of the blue, and call an agent and just check in to see how their business is doing and what challenges they’re facing in the market. And oftentimes, through those conversations, you identify trends of something that you can take advantage of in the marketplace, or something that you can do to improve your own company to better serve your agents.
And the final thing I really spend my time focused on is ensuring that our team, who was geographically diversified before COVID and as our entire brand marketing team works remotely, that I keep the collaboration engaging in a virtual context.
I’d like to touch on your daily calls with agents. What are the most impactful conversations you can recall from this year?
The most impactful conversations that I can remember during COVID really focused on enhancing virtual confidence. So, agents at Sotheby’s International Realty are known for being best in class in their market and they’re known for representing some of the most significant properties.
Unlike another company outside of the real estate industry, like Mercedes Benz, they get to choose how many cars they manufacture, and how many cars they choose to manufacture ultimately impacts what they have to sell. In the real estate industry, our agents have to go out and secure listings, one by one, to have available inventory to sell. So, I think focusing on how agents could be most successful at communicating with clients virtually regarding securing new listings was a major element that I noticed.
What they were saying to me was, ‘Brad, I’ve been on 1,000 listing appointments, but I have never done a listing appointment on Zoom.’ What I recognized was that agents needed some tactical best tips to help them ensure their confidence in that particular virtual category. As a result of that, I identified that trend developing and we ended up producing a panel conversation for the entire network to be able to join. We just facilitated this very transparent dialogue of several agents who had presented virtually, and they were sharing ‘this is what worked well,’ they were explaining ‘this is what didn’t work well,’ or ‘avoid this misstep that I made.’ They just were really committed to helping one another, and I thought that was a really beautiful and fast action that we were able to take during COVID.
I think another element that really blew me away during COVID as something that so impactful is that as a brand for years now, we have been really advocating for agents to produce high-resolution video tours and virtual reality content for their properties. When we made those commitments as a brand to those two virtual mediums, video and virtual reality, at the time, they were differentiators. Now one could argue that at the time, our virtual reality announcement was even a novelty.
A colleague of mine in Vail, Colorado, by the name of Tye Stockton, sold a home for $24 million sight-unseen to an international buyer during COVID. And the reason that I share these stories as being so impactful is I remember this conversation with Tye, and if he had not invested in the video content, and in the virtual reality content, pre-COVID, that transaction would have been much more difficult to facilitate, if it would have even happened at all.
As a result of that the investments that our brand and the agents in our network made before COVID to be on the cutting edge, started to pay off for their bottom line over the last six months in a really impactful way, and that was just deeply rewarding.
As we’ve been talking, I noticed you mention listening and collaborating quite a bit. How can fellow CMOs or any real estate professional become a better listener?
I would say two things. First is if you’re going into a meeting, if you’re going into a conversation, you need to prepare and sometimes preparation is brainstorming a list of questions that you don’t have the answers to. I think we oftentimes think of preparation for meetings as one in which, you know, we’re presenting. But I think the preparation of [identifying] what you want to learn from the conversation, the interaction, the meeting can be just as valuable.
I think the second element that has served me well is asking clarifying questions. So if you want to be a good listener, and you ask someone a question, they provide you an answer. Make sure that nothing has been lost in translation. Repeating back what you’ve heard or what you’re interpreting, I believe, is a helpful skillset to ensure that, again, nothing is lost in translation and that you’re really on the same page.
Another element that I would say is oftentimes when you listen, you hear pain points. So imagine someone’s giving you constructive feedback. And what you’re hearing is someone voice, ‘I’m frustrated with X, Y or Z.’ But the pain that they’re experiencing is different than the root cause of the problem that causes the pain.
A simple analogy is okay, you’re sneezing. We don’t need to solve the sneeze, we need to solve the allergy. I think it is really having a mindset of trying to understand the root cause of the problem that you’re trying to solve because you want to solve the problem, not the symptoms. So continuing to lean into that line of questioning is helpful.
So, my last question is about how agents can tap into their “inner CMO.” Although plenty of agents have support from huge brands like Sotheby’s International Realty, they still make a lot of day-to-day decisions about how they’ll brand and market themselves.
Sure, so three things that come to mind. The first is consistency is crucial. Your first day of marketing class in college, they share some statistic, which is that you have to see something seven times before you even remember it because we’re exposed to so many different advertisements or marketing messages in a day. So I really encourage agents to be incredibly consistent with just one thing in their marketing before they attempt a more ambitious marketing plan with different elements or verticals. So consistency is crucial [and] more is not always better.
The second thing I would recommend is really what we talked a lot about in my role, which is soliciting feedback. Real estate agents have remarkably diverse relationships with their past clients, with their social friends and professional relationships etc. As they are exploring different marketing concepts in their own business, I encourage agents to form, let’s call it, a personal board of directors. So perhaps you have a handful of past clients or personal friends with marketing expertise or a particular business acumen. Show them your marketing and ask for feedback on whether it resonates with them. That’s your target audience and you can really learn a lot through informal feedback sessions.
The final element that I’ll say is, and certainly, Inman knows this better than anyone, but content is king. For every single listing they take, I really challenge agents to produce as much interactive content as possible. And from our perspective, high-resolution photographs and floor plans are things that agents have done for decades. And so I really encourage agents to film a video tour for each property, to film a virtual reality tour for each property, and to conduct a live stream tour for each property.
I think that COVID is reprogramming buyers. They are doing more of the property exploration phase of their home search online and the agents that provide the most content on their listings to potential buyers stand to enjoy outsized returns on those investments.