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What Makes You Different/Users/adamp/Desktop/Stuff for FAR/Magazine Assets/DEC08PACKAGED/images/makesDifference

Who doesn’t claim to deliver the best service? You need something to set yourself apart from the rest. We’ve got solutions. 

McDonald’s does it with its Golden Arches, Wal-Mart with its “falling prices” and the Campbell Soup Co. with its highly recognizable red-and-white can labels. Defined as a collection of images and ideas that represent a company, product and/or service, branding sets corporate behemoths, smaller firms and even individual entrepreneurs apart in a competitive business environment.

As companies across all industries have already realized, the stronger the brand the more likely a customer will select it repeatedly. This translates especially well in the real estate industry, where gaining repeat business and referrals is often the lifeblood of your business. By getting customers to recognize, trust and select your brand over that of your competitors, you can effectively position yourself as the sales associate of choice in a particular geographical area or niche.

Branding goes beyond riding on the coattails of a brokerage brand (regardless of how large or popular the franchise is), with individual sales associates creating their own identities based on expertise, interests, competitive advantages and experience, among other factors. “It’s about differentiating yourself,” says Jack Trout, president of Trout and Partners Inc. in Old Greenwich, Conn. “Advertising is a blur for consumers—it’s just a bunch of houses. Agents have to come up with a reason to make consumers pick them over another real estate professional.”

To get there, Trout says, professionals should take a careful look at their own history and “what they’re good at,” to figure out what type of hook they can use to set themselves apart. Christina Pitchford Perez, a sales associate with RE/MAX Alliance in Sarasota, does it by putting herself out there as “Your Hometown Consultant” for buyers and sellers in the region.

Heritage Counts
In real estate since 2005, Perez plays up her status as a sixth-generation Floridian on her Web site, which includes an MLS search tool, news updates, useful real estate links and links to the Sarasota/Manatee area, incentives and discounts, new listings and price reductions, and links to her family and personal Web sites. At least 90 percent of her business comes from referrals and repeat business, according to Perez, who says she’s frequently greeted like the character Norm was in “Cheers” (except that for her they say “Hey, It’s Your Hometown Consultant!”) at parties, socials and events.

John Kent, broker-associate with Prudential Star Real Estate in Cocoa Beach, is getting some attention of his own these days, thanks to his branding effort. In real estate for 25 years, Kent was looking for a way to keep sales up and found the answer in the “Space Coast Top 10,” a list of the top 10 best property values in the MLS for the week.

Kent, who set up a Web site to promote the brand, sends out the list via e-mail to his contact database. He selects the 10 best listings in the Space Coast region (with other brokers’ permission), based on location, comparable sales and other criteria, and then aggregates them into a user-friendly format for customers to reference. Kent also includes personal remarks and recommendations for each listing, as well as additional photos (above and beyond those included in the MLS listings). 

The new branding strategy is working well for Kent, who sold eight of the listings in two months—all to new buyers with whom he hadn’t worked previously. Looking around his area, Kent says, no other real estate professional is using his approach. “I’ve seen it work well in other parts of the state,” he says, “so I decided to give it a shot.”

Big to Little
As the head of a large, traditional real estate company, Jessica Titus didn’t have to worry too much about a branding strategy, since the name and brand were both recognizable and driven by a large advertising budget at its home base. But when this broker/owner sold the company five years ago and established Fort Myers Beach Realty Inc., she knew she needed a hook to make her company stand out from the crowd.

To create a brand, Titus first put herself in the customer’s shoes. “I believe having choices in selling my property is what I would want; just as having a choice in other aspects of life is important,” says Titus, who, in sticking with that theme, developed Choices, a combination of limited services, a menu of services and full-service traditional real estate.

One portion of the three-part program is “FSBU” (For Sale by You), her name for limited services. “We tell sellers that want this program that they need to be somewhat experienced, have some marketing skills and be available to handle showings and appointments,” says Titus. “I give sellers a list of what they need to be prepared to do, and what they would expect their full-service [real estate professional] to do. It’s a real eye-opener for them.”

For buyers, she offers two choices—to buy or not to buy and, if they buy, at what price. The Choices program kicks in to create savings for sellers, which in turn affect what a buyer is able to purchase, says Titus, who adds that the branding strategy is working well so far. “Our goal is to be known as the company that’s enthusiastic, and that has trusted professionals who are willing to be flexible and work with their clients,” says Titus. “At the end of the day, that’s the foundation of lasting relationships.”

To establish a lasting, memorable brand, Trout advises real estate professionals to find their unique attributes, abilities, specializations and/or heritage, and then capitalize on them in a way that makes the sales associate or company stand out from the pack. Following in the footsteps of successful brands like Mercedes-Benz and Microsoft, he says, develop a logo, Web site, business cards and marketing materials that integrate with the brand itself, making it that much more recognizable to the prospect who wants to buy or sell a home today or sometime next year.

 “The key is to think about how you can separate yourself, and stand out from the pack,” says Trout. “You have to figure out what you’re good at, and stick with it.”

Bridget McCrea is a Clearwater-based freelance writer.