There seems to be a lot of confusion about real estate branding – what it is, what it isn’t and how real estate agents can brand themselves effectively.
I recently sat down with an old friend, Joe Tripodi, to get some insight into the subject.
Joe is considered one of the world’s leading experts on branding, having served as Chief Marketing Officer for some of the worlds’ most iconic brands, including MasterCard, Allstate, Coca-Cola, Seagrams and now Subway.
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Hi. I’m sitting here with Joe Tripodi, a recognized expert on branding. Joe has helped build some of the most recognizable brands in America and the world, having worked at Seagrams, MasterCard, Allstate, Coca-Cola and now chief marketing officer of Subway. Joe, thank you very much for taking time out of your busy schedule to talk to us about how real estate agents can build an effective brand and what branding means for their business.
It’s great to be here today, Greg. Thank you for having me.
Sure. Joe, why don’t we start out by talking about … I think a lot of people are confused about what a brand really is. A lot of people think of a brand just as being a logo. Could you explain to us in your words, what is a brand and what is not a brand?
Sure. Well first of all, I would say a brand fundamentally is a promise. A great brand is a promise that is consistently delivered to your customer over and over again.
Is a logo a part of a brand? Absolutely.
At the end of the day, you can have all the logo you want, but if you’re not delivering on a promise to your customer, then you’re not going to be successful.
Fundamentally then what we have to feel is that you are delivering something, whether it’s a product, a physical product, or an experience to a customer or a consumer repeatedly with a level of consistency and excellence that your people say, “Wow, that’s a brand that I want to continue to do business with.” Fundamentally, a wonderful promise that’s delivered over and over.
Okay, because for example if we looked at the FedEx logo, if we didn’t know that FedEx meant reliable overnight delivery, the logo in and of itself would be meaningless.
When we see that logo, that logo has been reinforced every time we use FedEx to send something to somebody that absolutely positively has to be there overnight.
It does. They deliver on that promise.
Yeah. I think, Greg, the interesting thing is if all the FedEx trucks and planes and infrastructure were destroyed today, they were all gone, they could rebuild that company because the brand promise stood for something.
If all the restaurants of Starbucks or McDonald’s or Subway or whomever went away, those companies could rebuild very quickly because the promise of what those brands stood for remained in the consumer’s mind.
It wasn’t just about the physical plant itself. It was about the promise that has been burned into the mind of the consumer or the customer over many, many years and consistently delivered to people over many years.
Right. Then why is branding important to a real estate agent’s business?
Well it’s critical to real estate agents because I think at the end of the day with so many competitors and the competitive set being so active and so much competition, you’ve got to … Branding is critical because you’ve got to find a way to stand out within this sea of sameness out there.
You’ve got to find a way to distinguish yourself, to make yourself unique amongst all the other agents and distinct from the other firms.
It’s critical to find your own, I would say unique niche, within that world of real estate companies and agents.
You have to do things that you find a way to be able to communicate what you stand for in a very pithy, unique way.
I would say that when I think about how people do that, I always emphasize to them if we were in an elevator … The elevator speech. What would be the one or two sentences that you would want to … If you wanted to sell me on what you stood for as an individual, that you could say to me within 30 seconds about what you stood for and why I would want to do business with you, because that’s so critical.
Particularly in your business and in the business of real estate brokers.
Why do I want to do business with that individual? Tell me that really fast. I need to know that.
What is your unique selling proposition or point of difference?
Well it really boils down to as I mentioned before we started the interview is it answers the question, “Why should I hire you?”
Correct. You know, where some of that goes, Greg, is I think people need to understand that everybody has been on a journey in their life and they have their own story. A lot of where brands are going now more and more is unique storytelling, narrative storytelling. Every individual has a story.
What I would emphasize to the agents out there who are listening to this is find their own unique story.
Find the story, parts of the story in their life that might be very interesting and compelling.
That can be the things that you highlight when you talk about your little elevator speech because there are certainly things that are compelling and interesting in everyone’s background that you want to draw out from.
Then having that very clear, very succinct brand statement about what you stand for. When someone comes up to you and says, “Why should I do business with you? What makes you different? What makes you different, special, better? What makes your agency or what makes you as an individual different, special, better than the next agency or the next individual?” Having that top of mind and burned into your head is so critical, so that you have that ready to go and consistently delivering that.
I would also say it’s got to be unique and it reflects you. It reflects your personality and what you are. I think that so much that we see in the world is a sea of sameness. What you really want to say is, “What can I stand for that’s unique and different?”
Right. In a way that matters to your target audience.
One of the best TED Talks, one of my favorite TED Talks is a guy named Simon Sinek. He talks about what he calls the golden circle. In the middle of it is the why. He says people don’t buy what you do. They buy why you do.
I think that’s analogous to the whole thing of everybody has got a story.
It’s easier to convince people to want to work with you if they understand the why behind what it is that you do.
Yes. I think there are many ways, Greg, to tell your story. I would encourage people to use unique images to tell your story. Put yourself in different settings that stand out, not just a standard headshot. As people say, a picture is worth a thousand words.
That can differentiate and make you stand out in the marketplace. I think pictures, visuals can enhance your story significantly. All these things and really help define your personality. What you want people to think of when they see you in a certain setting or image.
That’s a great idea because, for example, if you deal with first time home buyers, maybe a photo that you use on your website of you in front of or inside of a typical first time home buyer home helps tell that story.
If you deal with luxury homes, a photo of you in a much higher end environment helps communicate to people just by looking at that picture what it is that you do.
Correct. I would also say sometimes, “Do you want to be seen as the ultimate professional agent?
Do you want to be seen as an agent maybe that deals with the artistic community or one that deals with celebrities?
One that is a little more funny or preppy or southern gentleman or southern gentlewoman kind of approach.”
There are many different ways that you can define your personality.
I think when we think of brand, you’ve got certain basic … When we think about a brand, we always think, “Well there’s certain functional characteristics and attributes of a brand. Then there are certain emotional characteristics of a brand.” Then we always think about, “Well if the brand … If Coca-Cola was a person, what would be the personality traits of Coca-Cola?”
We always used to say someone that was happy, optimistic, positive.
That would be the personality of that individual if Coke was a person. That’s how we have to … I think when you think about the brand and how you want to define yourself, you can use visual imagery to enhance that quite a bit.
Don’t be afraid of that.
Right. It reflects your personality as well.
Yes. I would tell you, Greg, just as an example, people want to know your background and your resume.
One of the most powerful resumes I ever saw when I was looking at resumes of individuals was an individual who gave me a pictogram on places that they had worked in their career. The resume showed the products that that individual … It was pictures. It was basically three to four pages. It was pictures of all the brands. Well-known brands that this person had worked with, things that he’d worked on.
He’d worked on one, Slimfast. He had pictures of supermodels they had used at the time. It was one of the most engaging resumes I had ever seen because usually you’ve got a resume. It’s two to three pages of just words. This was, “Wow …” It really drew me in to that individual and it stood out in a unique way. I’ve always remembered that from that individual.
The power of pictures is really … That really resonated with me.
Well I think people’s attention spans also are getting down to the point that I think they say we have an attention span of a. . .
Less than a goldfish, certainly. Absolutely.
If you’re driving traffic to your website and you’ve got a really lengthy bio and a small font that nobody is going to take time to read. . .You’re probably better off putting pictures that represent the types of clients you’ve helped or the types of homes that you’ve sold. That will do more to communicate your story than paragraph upon paragraph or small fonts.
People don’t want to read that. I think to close the loop on this, I think when people come up with their own personal statement, that elevator speech, I think the essence of it is what value will you bring to any relationship with the customer?
Authenticity is really the trend that you see more and more in all aspects of live. I think to the degree that your personal statement reflects your authenticity, I think that’s powerful.
Right. Makes sense. Okay. Let’s talk for a moment about how does a real estate agent determine what their brand will be and how they will build that brand? In other words, what’s the process of brand discovery? What steps does an agent need to go through to identify what their brand promise should be?
Yeah, that’s a great question.
It’s usually in my experience, first of all you’ve got to look at your competitive set.
You have to understand very clearly what your strengths are. It’s again tied to your own personal strengths and your personal statement. I think there’s some of this that has to do with really deciding, do you see yourself what I would call owning a niche in the marketplace?
I know you’re a big proponent of this, Greg.
Finding and identifying a niche. Brand yourself.
Do you want to be the data-driven real estate agent who delivers lots of data to your customers?
Do you want to be the real estate agent to celebrities?
Do you want to be the mid-market specialist, the lower end specialist, the high end specialist?
Do you want to be the specialist around condos or penthouses or whatever?
Do you want to be the waterfront specialist?
Do you want to be the specialist of a certain part of the city where you know better than anyone else?
Obviously you’re going to be general market, but then I think that finding then within the general market that niche area that you would then dial up and say, “Well I own that,” or, “I’m the specialist in that. No one knows that better than I do or no one knows that consumer segment better than I do.” Then really start ramping up networking, using all the tools that you have.
When I think of the continuum of first you have no awareness as an agent or an agency.
Then you have awareness.
Then you have people considering you.
Then you have people preferring you.
Then you have people loyal to you. I used to think that loyalty was at the top of the pyramid. Then I started working and the ultimate for me was when I went to work as the head of marketing for Allstate. It suddenly dawned on me that most of the people got their insurance agent by somebody advocating for someone else.
I’m sure that this is also true for real estate agents.
They’re saying, “Oh, yeah. Go see John Doe. He’s a great agent or she’s a great agent.”
It’s advocacy. It really sits at the top. I’m a great advocate for DIRECTV or I’m a great advocate for that product. The iPhone.
When you get people advocating for you and then using the web or the digital platforms to get that multiplier, I think small agencies or individual agents can use the power of digital to multiply that advocacy.
They can be competitive with the larger players without huge amounts of money.
That’s what my experience is. It’s important to get that niche established on the front end. To do your homework, decide what you want to stand for as an individual or as an agency, be ruthlessly focused on that and then amplify that through these different methods.
Well I think that it also points to the issue that a lot of agents have about, “How do I get my friends and past clients to refer business to me?” I think one of the challenges that agents have is that when their friends cannot articulate what it is that makes that agent unique, they have a hard time explaining to their friends why they should use this person.
Otherwise it becomes, “They’re just a nice person.”
We all know nice people.
They don’t understand what makes that agent unique. Therefore, they can’t communicate it to their friends.
Yes. I think that one, I think that you’ve been a great champion of using tools in the digital realm to build your personal brand and your agency in the past.
I think that when I look at all the tools available to agents now as individuals or their own agency, they’re very low cost. If you’re not on Twitter … If you don’t have your own WWW handle, if you’re not on Twitter, if you’re not on Facebook, if you’re not on LinkedIn, if you’re not on Instagram, if you don’t occasionally have a YouTube video that maybe highlights something or says something of interest to your customers. Those are all platforms that are available to agents and agencies that have virtually no cost involved.
Yeah. It doesn’t cost anything to have a Facebook page.
It doesn’t cost anything to have a Twitter account or post a YouTube video.
One of the things also is that once an agent has identified that niche market that they want to pursue and they have assessed the competition, they’ve talked to homeowners that live in that area and they find out what’s really important, what do those homeowners want and value, and then they build a value or a proposition around that.
Wouldn’t you agree that to build and ultimately reinforce that brand promise, that what they need to do … For example, I had one. My brand promise was better results. I figured out that what people in my market wanted, they had heard lots and lots of promises from agents about, “We’ll do this. We’ll do that.” Very few of those came true.
What these folks really wanted was they wanted the results. They didn’t want the promises.
I had to figure out what was, for example, the average days on market to sell a house in my niche market. What were people asking in terms of their asking price versus what did they ultimately sell for? An agent can get all the listings they want by going and telling people whatever they want to hear.
It’s what you ultimately deliver that matters. Wouldn’t you agree that to … In a situation like when I was saying that my brand promise was better results, that the best way to build that brand is to consistently deliver better results?
Get the testimonials from clients that reinforce, “Yes, our homes sold in X number of days and we got a much higher price than we had expected.” Whatever it is. Those are things that an agent … Whatever promise they’re making, they can use their track record and those testimonials to reinforce that brand.
Then it’s not just them speaking. It’s numbers and the public.
I agree 1,000%.
In fact, I think it’s back to the original point of what’s a brand?
That brand promise of delivering consistent results over a period of time builds credibility in your brand, whether it’s an individual or a product and people will keep coming back and back. I think that over that long period of time, reinforces the brand, strengthens the brand and then ultimately it creates the giant loop where then people refer more people to you.
Then it’s the advocacy machine. It’s the advocacy multiplier. That’s the ultimate wonderful business prop … How you can really build a business is when you’ve got that advocacy machine working.
I would say I would agree entirely with that premise. Yes.
Okay, great. Another question that I’ve heard from agents is that they work for a company. They’re affiliated with a brokerage company that has its own brand.
They’re wondering, “How do I build a personal brand for my business that doesn’t conflict with the company brand, but enables me to still stand out?”
Sure. Look at every NASCAR. Every NASCAR has a car and they have a driver.
Every one of those drivers has their own personal brand. Every NFL team has the team, but all those players have their own personal brands. Right?
Right. Tom Brady.
Exactly. Brady or Matt Ryan or whomever.
It’s very doable.
Each of those individuals within the context of an umbrella organization has their own personality, their own characteristics.
They either deliver or they don’t deliver on their performance.
Fundamentally, I think that you can’t feel that you’re going to be overwhelmed by the corporate umbrella brand, that you have every opportunity with … I think most corporations are very comfortable with people, as long as you’re not doing anything illegal or devious, they’re very comfortable with you going and establishing your own identity that will help their business.
As long as it’s ethical and as long as it’s within … Not something that is immoral, but fundamentally, companies are very accepting of people having and wanting their own personality as long as it’s not at odds with the fundamental morays and principles and values of the company.
I think that it’s very easy for that to have coexistence of a strong corporate brand, but individuals having their own personal brand and identity that allows them to sell more and make the company more successful.
The other thing that I hear agents ask about, because a lot of folks do perceive brands to be their logo …
Let’s talk a moment about how an agent’s materials or marketing materials can be used to reinforce their brand.
We’ve got postcards. We’ve got their website. We’ve got their Facebook page. We’ve got their listing presentation that they give.
How all of those can be used to reinforce that brand promise.
Yeah, that’s a great question, Greg. I think that people … Some people are under the view that the logo is the brand. Logo is one part of the whole brand promise, of which there are many, many different consumer touch points.
I would encourage everybody to think about what are all the touch points that my personal brand has with the consumer, the customer. It’s my business card. Your business card can make a statement about you.
Your Facebook site, your Twitter, your LinkedIn, your collateral material, your literature.
Everything says something about you.
What’s really important though is that it speaks in a consistent manner about you.
I can tell you in almost all my jobs, I’ve gone into jobs where I would pull material from all over the company and I’d put it up and I’d call it the wall of shame because I’d say, “Look at this wall.” I’d say, “There’s almost nothing here that looks like it’s got the same corporate voice, that it’s coming from 15 different companies.”
I said, “We need to fix this.” We wanted to speak with a common voice about our company, whether it was MasterCard or Seagram or wherever I was.
We wanted to have a common singular voice in the marketplace. That didn’t mean you didn’t have certain freedom, but it was freedom within a framework.
What I would encourage everyone to look at is take some time, take a piece of paper. Say, “What are all my touch points with the customer?”
It’s even my car, when I get a customer in my car and drive them.
What do I want my car to say about me?
What do I want my business card to say about me?
Everything communicates at the end of the day.
Regardless of where that is and now we’re so much in the digital realm … Everything in the digital realm communicates.
The physical and digital, which I call “phygital” can say a lot about you.
You’ve got to make sure that it consistently reflects that brand statement that you want to say about yourself and what you stand for that we talked about earlier, about reflecting your personality and about why they should do business with you.
It always gets back to why they should do business with you.
That is the fundamental grounding. If you’re not thinking about that and if that’s not top of mind and if all your materials and all your touch points don’t reflect that, then it’s not going to be a successful agent.
Well I think you’re absolutely right. I remember one brokerage firm I worked for had their standard company listing presentation. It was 45 pages of in essence, “Look at us. Look at how great we are.” There was nothing in that presentation that really addressed, “This is what we’re going to do for you as our client to help you become successful.”
Sure. Exactly. It was all about them.
I look at that same company’s Facebook pages and all the posts seem to be directed toward their agents. I’m sitting there wondering, “Is this a private Facebook group just for your agents? If so, why don’t you make it private?
If you’re trying to engender yourself to the public, you’re not going to do it by posting lots and lots of posts about how great a company you are.
“Look at us. Look at us.” You’re going to provide something that’s valuable to your customer.
Exactly. What can you do for them? What can you do for your customer? That’s the key. Why should they do business with you? That’s the key question you have to keep going back to all the time.
Okay. Let’s suppose you decided to become a real estate agent.
How would you go about identifying your niche market and then building a brand that would resonate with homeowners in that niche so that over time, it helps people understand why they should hire you and helps separate you from the competition?
Sure. Well I think the first thing would be just like I would treat any business if I was going into a new target geography anywhere, I would look at where can I possibly extract the most profit value?
Where is the market opportunity?
Whether you’re going into China or Vietnam or the Chicago area or wherever, you say, “Okay. Where’s the market opportunity?”
Then within the context of that market opportunity, say, “Okay. Where can I extract the most value out of that? Is there a niche within that market, assuming that you can’t do everything in China or everything in Vietnam or everything in Chicago?
Is there a niche there that’s uncovered? Is there one that’s being underrepresented that maybe I could go in and survey need that’s currently underserved?”
Finding that niche and then I would say on the front end, building some expertise.
I don’t think you just get and automatically earn that right. You’ve got to build some expertise there.
A lot of it is the networking, the process, the education.
A lot of this is on the front end work, building the knowledge base so that you can deliver some value.
Knowledge is power and that information on the front end will really … It’s better to take a little time on the front end to learn a little bit more before you rush in and ready, fire, aim approach.
It’s much better to be a little more thoughtful and disciplined and strategically look at the opportunity and then hone in and focus. You can always go much broader. I would say on the front end, start and focus in on that niche. Then use all the tools at your disposal to build and start building awareness of yourself and what you can deliver.
Then get your personal statement sorted out.
Get what you want to stand for and then use lots of tools to tell your personal story as we talked about. Visual tools, communication tools, all the things digitally. Direct mail I think is also very important. Email marketing is important.
All of those that I think can lend itself well to trying to establish and building that niche approach in a new market where you’re entering and then get after it. I think the key for everyone is there’s no silver bullet or panacea.
No, there isn’t.
It’s doing 50 little things better than the competition. That’s the only way you’re going to win. If you think, “I’m going to do one thing and that’s going to lead to glory and victory,” you’re sadly mistaken.
That’s true in every business because it’s like, “What’s quality?” Well quality isn’t one thing. It’s doing 100 little things better. That’s what quality is.
Sure. Look at Marriott or look at St. Regis or Four Seasons.
They do lots of little things really well.
Exactly. It’s the mint on the pillow.
That’s how I would think about it if I was to go into the business.
A lot of research and thought process on the front end. Then building my personal statement, building my imagery and then using techniques that maybe others were not using and then targeting the niche that I saw the greatest opportunity in.
Right. Makes sense. I think that a lot of agents struggle with this. What I want them to understand is big companies, the companies that you’ve worked for … Coca-Cola, MasterCard, Seagrams, they struggle with it as well.
Sure. Absolutely. I’d also say this, Greg.
My experience also is in many of those companies, they were brands … Smaller brands that did not have huge marketing budgets. I always used to talk about use PR. I would call PR poor man’s advertising. PR gets you a multiplier in the market. If you can have a small PR event, whether aligned with a charity or some event or something, that can get you a lot of publicity in the community that will make up for sometimes a major shortfall that you have in marketing, traditional marketing and advertising dollars.
There are many ways to fill the gap, as long as you’re clever about these things
Right. Okay. Joe, thank you very much for your time. We really appreciate your insights.