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Business Week

November 6, 2003


Firing Up a Hotter Brand

When the need is to make your business stand out from the pack, the best way is the most obvious: Stressing what makes you different

Q: Being a Realtor in today's hot market is tough. There are agents who just go for the discount and the client doesn't realize many times that you get what you pay for. I would like to know how to set myself apart. I guess I am talking about branding. I am honed in on customer service, but then many say that. I really care about the client and really care that all is well. Thanks for any help you can offer. -- S.H., Alta Loma, Calif.

A: You're ahead of the game in one key area -- recognizing that there's a lot of noise and clutter out there. To stand out in a crowded field, experts say, you do need to determine your special qualities of mind, character, and spirit, and how they make you both different and better than the masses of competitors. You mention customer service and really caring about your clients' wellbeing. That's a good start.

Now, think more about what makes your service distinct -- perhaps by asking a few colleagues and clients for their feedback on the question. It might also be helpful to go about the task backwards -- start by asking yourself what kinds of customers you want, then think about their values and needs, what they are they looking for in a Realtor, and how you fit the bill.

CRYSTAL CLEAR. "Are there palpable synergies between your personality, values, and skill set and those with whom you wish a close business relationship?" asks Eric Swartz, a marketing and branding consultant with The Byline Group. Come up with several more qualities and rank them objectively, he says. Then make a list of those most likely to appeal to potential customers and differentiate your business from those of competitors.

Once you have compiled that list, you'll need to articulate them clearly and present or package them in a consistent and compelling manner in order to "brand" your service, says Swartz. "For branding purposes, you may want to focus on the one thing that really sets you apart from the pack and distinguishes you in some way," Swartz says. "Perhaps develop a tagline that expresses the nature of that positioning advantage."

Next, thoroughly survey all of the names, slogans, and messages your competitors are using, with an eye toward standing apart from the pack. "Most independent agents -- and even many that are attached to firms -- brand themselves and rely on name recognition and word of mouth to build a network of clients and referrals. You can probably see their portraits on bus-bench ads around your community," says Jay Jurisich, creative director at Igor, a naming-and-branding consultancy.

LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION. Another Realtors' strategy is to use a geographic name tied to their towns or regions, Jurisich says, cautioning that such a focus sometimes can be counterproductive. "We spoke with a Realtor recently whose company began 40 years ago as the only agency in the small resort community that it was named after," explains Jurisich. "Now, the community has grown considerably, and this agency has three dozen competitors who use all or part of the town name or other local place names. The resulting confusion is taking business away."

If you aspire to build a large real estate outfit, you will want to find an evocative name and message that sends your customers an emotional connection. Jurisich gives the example of mortgage broker Fannie Mae. "Not only does the name demonstrate warmth and friendliness and differentiate it from cold 'First National' type competitors, but their tagline, 'We're in the American Dream business,' really taps into the emotional aspects of home buying," he says.

His partner at Igor, Steve Manning, offers another example: Curves, the successful new fitness franchise. "Everybody says that they are different -- the key is not having to say it," he explains. "Curves has positioned itself, in a consistent voice, as a clear alternative to a traditional fitness center -- and by breaking free of every known norm in their business.

Notably absent from Curves' ads are the word 'fitness,' 'health,' or 'gym.'" All other health clubs use models with perfect bodies in their advertising. Curves uses headshots of normal-looking people, never showing their bodies, notes Manning. Curves doesn't talk about working out, but of self-respect. "They talk about helping women make intelligent choices based on clear priorities and straight talk," says Manning. "By doing so, and by invoking self respect, they aren't just creating separation from their competitors, they're creating a brand that is perceived as bigger than the goods and services that they provide."

WEB SAVVY. Along with creating the right brand image, you also need to find a new way into the hearts and minds of your customers by actually doing things for them, rather than merely talking about what you do. Says Jurisich: "Actions will speak volumes, and a happy customer in a local real estate market is your best way to get a number of new referrals."

Using the Internet intelligently to provide information about houses for sale for prospective buyers, using e-mail to keep clients informed and answer their questions, sending small thank-you gifts to clients who refer others, and being open and helpful to people without using hard-sell tactics are just a few examples of marketing actions that can help you stand out from the crowd. Sometimes, giving value-added information and ideas not even related to the sale or purchase of a home can be very influential. "I had a Realtor once who was very good at fixing cars. I came to depend on him for a number of things," Swartz says. Get to know your clients, take stock of how you can be valuable and, in short, take note of what your run-of-the-mill competitors are doing. Then do the opposite.


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