Jay Thompson is a former brokerage owner who spent the past six years working for Zillow Group. He retired in August 2018 but can’t seem to leave the real estate industry behind. His weekly Inman column publishes every Wednesday.
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“Brand yourself, not your brokerage!” Now there is a mantra that is often shared among real estate agents.
Before this column goes one more word, let’s note something upfront and get this out of the way because it’s really important: Follow the rules, your license could depend on it.
There are a multitude of things that can impact your branding and marketing. There are local, state and national rules, regulations and practices. Then there are your broker’s policies.
Yes, you are most likely an independent contractor, but that doesn’t mean that your broker can’t impose certain rules and restrictions on how you brand and market yourself. Brokers can — and many do — require you to use their branding guidelines.
Know the rules, know your broker’s take, and heed them.
Now with that out of the way, let’s talk about branding, and some ways that the newer agent (as well as the grizzled veteran) can build brand awareness.
What is branding?
It might be helpful to start out with defining, “branding.” Many people confuse marketing and branding, thinking they are one and the same. There are myriad definitions of both terms out there, and probably no definition exists that would be universally accepted.
In a nutshell, your brand is the set of perceptions people have about your company. Done right, your brand is a thoughtful, researched, emotional expression of your value — a value that lives in people’s hearts and minds.
Marketing, on the other hand, is about finding, developing and growing a market for the brand that leads to business, in our case real estate sales.
Here’s another way to look at branding and marketing, and how they interact: Branding is making, communicating and delivering a promise. Marketing is finding, developing and connecting with the audience that benefits from your branding promise.
How does one develop a brand?
There are agencies out there that do nothing but work with businesses on developing a brand, branding strategy and all of the assorted accoutrements that come with branding — logos, color schemes, website design, graphic design, letterheads, messaging, PR, etc.
They can get very pricey, very quickly. Personally, I happen to believe that a great branding agency is worth every dime.
This article, however, is geared toward the newer agent, and let’s face it, very few newer agents have the financial reserves to hire a hot-shot agency. (If you do go this route, be very careful, and check references — as you should do with any major expense.)
So for the purpose of this particular article, let’s take hiring an agency off the table. What are some things a newer agent can do to begin building brand awareness?
4 steps for building brand awareness
1. Begin with questions to define your brand identity
I think too many agents believe all there is to branding is getting a logo. So they go off to sites like Fiverr, and drop $5 – $20 on logo.
And there is a reasonable chance said logo will look just like tens of thousands of real estate logos out there.
Yes, a logo is part of branding, but before you can go down the path, you need to develop answers to some questions that will help you define your brand and messaging.
- What are your base principles and values?
- What is your mission statement?
- What inspired you to build your business?
- Why do you want to offer your products or services to your target audience?
- What makes you unique?
- What is your internal company culture?
- What is your professional sense of style?
- What are your communication characteristics?
- What do you want to come to mind when someone hears your business name?
- How do you want people to feel when they think of your business?
- How do you want customers to describe you as a company?
If you can sit down and answer these questions in 10 minutes, then you are doing it wrong. You need to really think about these questions. That hot-shot agency is going to go through a similar exercise with you.
Trust me, these folks don’t just crank out a logo and a color palette on a whim, there is serious thought behind everything they do. The good ones dive deep into a business to get to the heart of it, to define differentiators, and to understand what can set this business apart from the masses.
There aren’t any right or wrong answers to these questions. The answers simply help define who you and your business are and what promise you want to make — and keep and cultivate — with your target audiences.
Another good exercise is to ask those same questions to a former client, or a work partner — someone who has experienced your brand — even if said brand has not been well-defined or marketed up to this point.
Your answers to these questions help define where you want your business to be. A client’s answers help show where the business really is and if there are disconnects between your vision and reality.
2. Get visual
For those of us who are lacking in the graphic design area, creating branding visuals and collateral could be the most difficult aspect of a branding exercise.
While I will implore anyone to spend more than $5 – $20 on a logo, there are some web-based services out there that can produce some very good logos, but you really need to do the legwork upfront in defining your brand.
The aforementioned Fiverr shouldn’t be ruled out. You don’t want one of the $5 designers. The site offers more than $5 designers though. Do your due diligence, check references, look closely at the designers’ portfolio. You can find great graphic artists on Fiverr, you just have to dig a little.
Another popular logo design site is 99Designs.com. Sites like this tend to run “logo contests” where you will get logos from multiple designers. How many and at what level depends on which tier of service you buy.
Other visuals you will probably need that should all tie in together with your logo and color palette, include business cards, a website, for-sale signs, open house signs, sign riders, listing flyers and direct mail pieces.
3. Become a subject matter expert
If all people ever see is your logo and a pretty website, memorable as they might be, it will be very difficult to make a lasting impression on them.
Think about it. Have you ever had the conversation below?
You: “Hey, I heard you were looking for a good (insert anything here — agent, doctor, mechanic, restaurant), is that right?”
Client: “Yeah, need ‘em bad, know anyone?”
You: “You bet I do! You should use Joe over on Third Street. Dude has got a kick-ass logo!”
Yeah, I didn’t think so. No one refers to someone because they have a pretty logo or nice business cards or cool signage.
Referrals happen because businesses provide value, because they treat their customers well, because they provide great service.
As a newer agent, and as a small business owner, demonstrating your expertise through content marketing makes sense. It doesn’t require a large cash outlay (though it does take time). Take the opportunity to show off your industry knowledge and establish trust by sharing content your audience will find valuable. You can become a go-to source for the information today’s consumer is clamoring for.
Solid content marketing strengthens your brand and your reputation among both consumers and your professional peers.
The key to success with using content as a marketing strategy is to create the right content. Do your research to figure out what kinds of questions your customers are asking — and then create content that answers those questions.
Probably the best place to look for consumer questions is in your email inbox and in the notes from your conversations with clients and prospects.
4. Remember, it all goes back to customer service
You can have the fanciest logo ever created, throw in gorgeous branding collateral, a genius tagline, memorable written copy, and you can back that up with reams of content displaying your mastery of all things real estate — and it will all be for nothing unless you provide an unforgettable customer experience.
People might recall your logo. They might think, “Oh, what a pretty website.” Or sign, or flyer or whatever.
But the thing that they will remember the most will be how they are treated when they work with you. Your reputation is everything in this business, and that reputation is solidified through consistently providing superior service (and product).
Your branding is about more than your logo, your marketing strategies or how you grab customers’ attention — it’s about what you do once you’ve connected with those customers. The reputation you gain — and what customers say behind your back — is the most important part of your branding, and it will ultimately be what makes or breaks you in this business.
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Jay Thompson is a real estate veteran and retiree in Seattle, as well as the mastermind behind Now Pondering. Follow him on Facebook or Instagram. He holds an active Arizona broker’s license with eXp Realty.