Home Brokers & Agents Reflections from REBlogWorld '09: Branding in the Social Age

Reflections from REBlogWorld '09: Branding in the Social Age

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Holy Bloggers, Batman!

Greetings from Las Vegas — I’m not sure what time it is, even though I’ve been fully awake for, oh, a few hours.  But some of the discussions at REBlogWorld 2009 have been so great that I wanted to get something posted now.

One of the more interesting sessions for me personally was the Branding in the Social Age session with luminaries like Jeff Turner (@respres), David Armano (@armano), Todd Carpenter (@tcar), and Ian Lurie (@portentint), moderated by a luminary herself, Nicole Nicolay (@nik_nik).  I thought the insights were interesting, and the brainpower on that panel was impressive.

There was one point, however, which I suppose yours truly raised, that could use some elaboration and explication: multiple brand layers and how they function in social media.  I was genuinely curious what branding experts, especially those from outside our industry, like David and Ian, had to say about the issue — and I don’t know that they understood the issue.  Plus, the inimitable Bill Lublin (@billlublin) had his views on the matter, but I’m uncertain that he understood the context.  So the fault is mine for failing to set the stage adequately and explain precisely what I meant, and why I think this is an issue.

Re-Exploring Multi-Layer Brands

I originally wrote about multi-layer branding back in February.  In that post, I talked about what I think is the branding issue for REALTORS: unlike just about any other industry, each individual REALTOR is encouraged to have a personal brand identity.  And yet, the totality of the brand of a REALTOR is comprised of several levels that all try to create its own branding, its own value proposition, and its own differentiation.

I know this graphic is relatively poor, but it’ll have to serve:

Yay, brand layer cake for everyone!
Yay, brand layer cake for everyone!

My thought back then was that starting from the base of “licensees” (i.e., people who have a real estate license), each “layer” conducts branding exercises whether through advertising, public relations, communications, and whatever else it has at its disposal.  And because each layer is larger than the elements beneath it, the effect of that branding is transferred in part to the layers underneath.

So for example, NAR, the National Association of REALTORS, brands the term “REALTOR” as a licensee with superior ethics and knowledge.  Then underneath that, the national franchise like RE/MAX would brand its agents as the most qualified, the best educated, most knowledgeable, and so on, including specific statements like: “RE/MAX agents average more sales than other real estate agents. They are better qualified to set the right price for the homes they list, better equipped to market those homes, and likely to find clients engaged in the homebuying process in a shorter period of time.”  And on on down the line, until we get to the individual REALTOR who might boast about her track record, certifications, and so on.  At each level, the entities are trying to brand themselves as distinct from and superior to competitors.

I posited that this wasn’t a major problem with traditional marketing, when wider “reach” (or perhaps wider “focus”) necessarily meant greater generalization, such that the individual agent can build on top of the brand(s) above her, which in turn can build on the brand(s) above them.  But, I hypothesized, that this matrix of brand value disintegrates in social media context where the connection and the branding is far more proximate between the lower layers and the ultimate consumer.  Someone reading an agent’s local real estate blog is experiencing that agent’s personal brand, in the social age.  The brand ‘above’ her might actually conflict with what she’s writing about day in and day out.

What’s more interesting is that because social media could set up direct relationships between the consumer and an organization, the over-brands could end up becoming the primary brand in the mind of the consumer.  A large brokerage company with a superlative blog, Twitter outreach, and so on could set itself up in the consumer’s mind as the go-to company for real estate in a wide area, thereby frustrating the personal branding efforts of the individuals in the ‘underbrand’.

Overbrands and Underbrands

Again, because I didn’t explain the issue/question well enough, let me offer mea culpas all around.  The non-realestistas on the panel missed the point.  Ian’s thought was, “Screw the big brands; work the personal brand.”  David’s thought was something like, “If you work for a company, then be a good corporate citizen; if you’re on our own, then work your own brand.”  Bill Lublin’s objection to my question I think was something like, “NAR’s advertising is member-driven, so it’s okay.”

All very good points — but since my question was about the interaction between ‘overbrands’ and ‘underbrands’ (which, like I said, I didn’t explain well enough), none of them were precisely on point.

But several of their other points are very much on point.

First, Ian Lurie’s story about Alaska Airlines and how they had to fight the “industry brand” of the airlines hit home for me.  His point was that despite having truly superior customer service and social media outreach, Alaska Airlines constantly has to fight the consumer expectation that ‘traditional’ airlines are going to suck.

Second, all of the panelists spoke about how “brand” isn’t just message and advertising, but delivery of value, customer service, and meeting expectations.  Jeff Turner in particularly spoke about understanding, articulating, and then living the organization’s values.

That there is some good stuff! Now, let’s apply it to real estate, and see what falls out.

The first thing that strikes me is that across the board, the panel agreed (or seemed to agree) that actions speak far louder than words when it comes to branding in the social age.  The smallest infraction of the brand promise gets amplified by the social web, as networked and interconnected consumers spread the word.  In the social age, it isn’t enough to have pretty words on the corporate HQ’s lobby walls: you gotta walk the walk, not just talk the talk.

The second thing that strikes me is that like Alaska Airlines, many REALTORS are fighting the existing negative brand of the industry.  The top-level brand, that of REALTOR, suggests that members of NAR are ethical and knowledgeable… unlike those other guys who are unqualified crooks.  And at each level, the unspoken assumption seems to me to be that our people are great in a bunch of ways, unlike those other guys.

But as the panel said, it’s about action — about values, and living those values.  So how does all that work for the overbrands and the underbrands?  That’s my real question: the interaction between the overbrands and the underbrands in the social age, when action speak louder than words….

If Only Personal Brand Matters

Now, it may be that as Ian Lurie suggested, the overbrands don’t matter one bit in real estate.  The conventional wisdom is that consumers hire an agent, a person they know and trust, rather than a company or a brand.  That might be true; the data to say one way or the other is somewhat lacking.

Here’s the thing: if it is true that only the personal brand matters, and that individual REALTORS are therefore the primary locus of the brand values even in the consumer’s mind, then that position has consequences.  For one thing, the overbrands then have no incentive whatsoever to care about raising the bar.  If I’m RE/MAX, I don’t have to live my values of higher quality agents; that brand doesn’t mean anything anyway.  So I might as well maximize my revenues by signing up anyone with a pulse, as long as there’s marginal profits to be had with each such agent.  Because only the personal brand matters.  Ultimately, then, none of the brands, none of the brokerages, none of anything matters except for the individual personal brand.

That isn’t an outcome the industry wants or needs.

And it isn’t an outcome I consider likely because I think the overbrands do mean something.  It isn’t clear to me what each layer means, how much of its brand promise/value proposition gets passed down, how the underbrands affect overbrands, and how all of this works inside the chaos that is social media.  But they all influence each other, and they all do mean something.  The question is… how?

-rsh

20 COMMENTS

  1. Let’s not forget that the overlords – ooops, strike that – I mean overbrands are slow moving corporate conglomerates as compared to “the Agent” at the bottom of your inverted pyramid. This, combined with the fact that for the most part they are so late to the party, allows “the agent” to market their particular niche with relative ease. Or so it seems ….

  2. Let’s not forget that the overlords – ooops, strike that – I mean overbrands are slow moving corporate conglomerates as compared to “the Agent” at the bottom of your inverted pyramid. This, combined with the fact that for the most part they are so late to the party, allows “the agent” to market their particular niche with relative ease. Or so it seems ….

  3. Good stuff Biggy.

    Overbrands will likely soon see the value of Agent Created Content and the Underbrands that spew it.

    Whoever’s first to organize, reward, and leverage ACC will win this race methinks. Among the current overdogs, I think KW’s uniquely equipped (structurally) to pull something like this off….??

  4. Good stuff Biggy.

    Overbrands will likely soon see the value of Agent Created Content and the Underbrands that spew it.

    Whoever’s first to organize, reward, and leverage ACC will win this race methinks. Among the current overdogs, I think KW’s uniquely equipped (structurally) to pull something like this off….??

  5. Rob,

    So of ALL the conversations we had you chose to write about this one…

    Here’s what my 2 cents are about this without trying to write an altogether other post in true ROB fashion 🙂

    1. The agent has little or no say in the NAR brand – (i.e. google “fence sitters video NAR” and tell me if you as an agent identify with it.) Yes Bill – i understand they can “technically” not be part of NAR but let’s be real…

    2. The agent (often times) will choose a company with values that support their own but more importantly a company that will supply them with the best support, tools, technology, split, etc.

    2.5 The company has “branded” themselves (traditionally – not all) by googling customer buzz words and come up with “values” or “brand statements” that they think will compel the consumer – not necessarily reflect their “brand or values”

    3. The agent (typically again – i know their are exceptions) doesn’t know how to actually “brand” themselves and therefore enter the quagmire in 2.5 of “branding” themselves to attract clients – not necessarily who they are.

    Those are some pretty glaring problems. So as an engineer, I would take the path of least resistance… teach the agents to brand themselves correctly. Because if the company hasn’t branded themselves in the marketplace, it’s going to make a quicker difference if the agent focuses on themselves instead of trying to influence the company.

    If – however – through soul searching and value digging the company HAS uncovered their “brand values” AND has incorporated them into their overall strategy (internal and external) then it makes it easy for an agent to 1)identify 2) Relate 3) Resonate the company brand. Sure, i would encourage an agent to develop their personal characteristics as well, but I think it’s a helluvalot easier to align yourself with something if they’ve actually done some work on it and developed an authentic, honest, and value-driven brand.

    More to come as i crossed the line and commented a post on your post – sorry bro.

    Matt

  6. Rob,

    So of ALL the conversations we had you chose to write about this one…

    Here’s what my 2 cents are about this without trying to write an altogether other post in true ROB fashion 🙂

    1. The agent has little or no say in the NAR brand – (i.e. google “fence sitters video NAR” and tell me if you as an agent identify with it.) Yes Bill – i understand they can “technically” not be part of NAR but let’s be real…

    2. The agent (often times) will choose a company with values that support their own but more importantly a company that will supply them with the best support, tools, technology, split, etc.

    2.5 The company has “branded” themselves (traditionally – not all) by googling customer buzz words and come up with “values” or “brand statements” that they think will compel the consumer – not necessarily reflect their “brand or values”

    3. The agent (typically again – i know their are exceptions) doesn’t know how to actually “brand” themselves and therefore enter the quagmire in 2.5 of “branding” themselves to attract clients – not necessarily who they are.

    Those are some pretty glaring problems. So as an engineer, I would take the path of least resistance… teach the agents to brand themselves correctly. Because if the company hasn’t branded themselves in the marketplace, it’s going to make a quicker difference if the agent focuses on themselves instead of trying to influence the company.

    If – however – through soul searching and value digging the company HAS uncovered their “brand values” AND has incorporated them into their overall strategy (internal and external) then it makes it easy for an agent to 1)identify 2) Relate 3) Resonate the company brand. Sure, i would encourage an agent to develop their personal characteristics as well, but I think it’s a helluvalot easier to align yourself with something if they’ve actually done some work on it and developed an authentic, honest, and value-driven brand.

    More to come as i crossed the line and commented a post on your post – sorry bro.

    Matt

  7. @Matt – Good post! Hehe. 🙂

    I wrote about this one because the other convos required a bit more time to digest… coming next, Hyperlocal… Marketing In General… Drinking the Kool-Aid…

    -rsh

  8. @Matt – Good post! Hehe. 🙂

    I wrote about this one because the other convos required a bit more time to digest… coming next, Hyperlocal… Marketing In General… Drinking the Kool-Aid…

    -rsh

  9. One thing that has become clear to me over the years is that (aside from Keller Williams) the overbrand(s) matters so very little to the individual agent that that irrelevance is often working to the individual agent’s disadvantage.

    Another reason that overbrands are irrelevant is because there is zero quality control. Ford (ostensibly) can control the quality of their product, whereas Century 21 neither can nor does offer similar quality control. The product is the agent; when there are 1.2 million +/- Realtors with no consistency of training, education or consequences (Realtors are more ethical than real estate agents argument doesn’t hold water) how can an overbrand mean much?

    I’d argue that local real estate agent/bloggers are spending their time developing their own brands because they don’t buy into their respective overbrands … they want to maintain flexibility to move to another firm – any firm – and take their personal brand with them.

    The agent is the product and is the brand.

  10. One thing that has become clear to me over the years is that (aside from Keller Williams) the overbrand(s) matters so very little to the individual agent that that irrelevance is often working to the individual agent’s disadvantage.

    Another reason that overbrands are irrelevant is because there is zero quality control. Ford (ostensibly) can control the quality of their product, whereas Century 21 neither can nor does offer similar quality control. The product is the agent; when there are 1.2 million +/- Realtors with no consistency of training, education or consequences (Realtors are more ethical than real estate agents argument doesn’t hold water) how can an overbrand mean much?

    I’d argue that local real estate agent/bloggers are spending their time developing their own brands because they don’t buy into their respective overbrands … they want to maintain flexibility to move to another firm – any firm – and take their personal brand with them.

    The agent is the product and is the brand.

  11. I think Jim hit on one of the critical issues. “Another reason that overbrands are irrelevant is because there is zero quality control.” Often the corporate brand intent is so diluted by the time it reaches the local level, and certainly at the agent level, that it is rendered nearly meaningless.

    The reality of the brand promise on a national level can be very hard to keep consistently on the local level, and in my experience, is often not. After years of working in large brands – I realized that none of my listing or buyer presentations EVER referenced the brokerage. With so little perceived importance from that of the consumer, and so much dissatisfaction on my part (failure to deliver on the big broker promise) the value was gone.

    As for NAR’s desperate attempt to create a brand promise, I think they are failing to meet with any success for the very reason we’ve discussed. The reality is so out of line with the promise the ads are essentially ignored by the consumer.

  12. I think Jim hit on one of the critical issues. “Another reason that overbrands are irrelevant is because there is zero quality control.” Often the corporate brand intent is so diluted by the time it reaches the local level, and certainly at the agent level, that it is rendered nearly meaningless.

    The reality of the brand promise on a national level can be very hard to keep consistently on the local level, and in my experience, is often not. After years of working in large brands – I realized that none of my listing or buyer presentations EVER referenced the brokerage. With so little perceived importance from that of the consumer, and so much dissatisfaction on my part (failure to deliver on the big broker promise) the value was gone.

    As for NAR’s desperate attempt to create a brand promise, I think they are failing to meet with any success for the very reason we’ve discussed. The reality is so out of line with the promise the ads are essentially ignored by the consumer.

  13. There is a difference between sellers and buyers and brand power. Short skirt comment: Generally speaking (there are exceptions), buyers are influenced more by agent brand, sellers by overbrand. (to get what’s under the short skirt will cost you 🙂

  14. There is a difference between sellers and buyers and brand power. Short skirt comment: Generally speaking (there are exceptions), buyers are influenced more by agent brand, sellers by overbrand. (to get what’s under the short skirt will cost you 🙂

  15. Rob~ It was an interesting session and there have been some very good comments. My take is from the frontlines up – an agents view. It is all about personal branding. When I am in front of a potential client there is one over-riding characteristic they are looking for – someone to trust. If I can convey that I can earn the relationship. My agency or NAR may support my brand and help tell my story, but I do not get the relationship because of them. peace.

  16. Rob~ It was an interesting session and there have been some very good comments. My take is from the frontlines up – an agents view. It is all about personal branding. When I am in front of a potential client there is one over-riding characteristic they are looking for – someone to trust. If I can convey that I can earn the relationship. My agency or NAR may support my brand and help tell my story, but I do not get the relationship because of them. peace.

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