[Theory] Multi-layer Brand and Social Media

Last week, I had an opportunity to attend an extraordinary meeting with some of the most senior people at NAR, on the topic of social media. I have to thank Jim Duncan for putting the meeting together, and of course, I am grateful to the leadership at NAR for being willing to listen to a bunch of blogger types. I finally got the chance to meet Jim in person, and it was absolutely fantastic to meet and converse about social media, web, real estate, and marketing with some of the best and brightest in our industry.

Quick shout-outs then to: Dale Stinton, Frank Sibley, Mark Lesswing, Pamela Kabati, Hilary Marsh, and Keith Garner from NAR. And to my fellow realestistas Jim Duncan, Ben Martin, Jay Thompson, Joe Ferrara, Eric Bryn, and via telephone, the redoubtable Benn Rosales, a tip of the ole hat.

However, this is not a post about that meeting. It is, rather, about a concept that was brought up that has really intrigued me: multi-layer brand, and how that interacts with social media.

Multi-Layer Branding

The notion is that all working realtors (or REALTORS, more precisely) have what one might call a “multi-layer brand” and that this will have enormous impact on social media (indeed, on all marketing efforts) for real estate services.

Let me illustrate:

Multi-Layer Branding, Badly Illustrated
Multi-Layer Branding, Badly Illustrated

So the idea here is that every single REALTOR has multiple brands.

First, they are a REALTOR, a member of the National Association of REALTORS. Presumably, this distinguishes them from the non-REALTORS, who I understand are referred to as “licensees”. Those non-REALTORS are nonetheless real estate brokers and agents, fully licensed to help people transact business.

Then they are often members of large franchises or networks, such as Coldwell Banker. Again, this distinguishes them from people who are not CB agents and do not carry the CB brand.

Then you have brokerages — in our industry, many/most operate under their own brand name as an extension of the franchise brand. (Those that are not franchised operate under their own brand.) So presumably, being with Coldwell Banker United is different from being with Coldwell Banker Joe-Blow Realty.

Next tier down may be either Teams or Offices. Now this brand is trying to distinguish the realtor from others who are not part of the “Jill Smith Team”. It’s trying to say, “Sure, those people are also CB United REALTORS, but we’re better/different because we are the Jill Smith Team.”

And finally, you have the agent’s personal brand: “That Joan Cartwright is a real expert, and so friendly too!”

As the graphic attempts to illustrate, brand awareness (or breadth of brand) is higher towards the top and drops as you go down the layers. More consumers have heard of REALTOR than have heard of Jill Smith Team. Conversely, and interestingly, brand value (or power) is lower towards the top and higher towards the bottom. For example, you may be referred business because you’re Joan Cartwright, super-agent, but only rarely (if ever) will you have a consumer say, “I’m giving you this listing, because you’re with Coldwell Banker, instead of those Keller Williams people.”

Hey, I got another follower on Twitter!
Hey, I got another follower on Twitter!

Born of Marketing, Growing Up on Social Media?

What I find interesting about this is that the multi-layer brand is the inevitable result of past marketing strategies focused around mass communications media.

It is much easier — and more effective — for national organizations to leverage TV, radio, and national print campaigns to create a national brand than it is for a local agent team to do so. In fact, it probably makes no sense for Jill Smith Team to buy a Superbowl ad, but it may very well make a lot of sense for NAR to do so.

Since traditional marketing had a more-or-less direct correlation to the amount of spend, awareness is inevitably tied to size. At the same time, over the past decade or so, the erosion of brand value not just for real estate brands but for almost all brands has been accelerating as consumers become more and more networked, and more and more skeptical of advertising. As the Wired article says:

A study by retail-industry tracking firm NPD Group found that nearly half of those who described themselves as highly loyal to a brand were no longer loyal a year later. Even seemingly strong names rarely translate into much power at the cash register. Another remarkable study found that just 4 percent of consumers would be willing to stick with a brand if its competitors offered better value for the same price.


The single biggest explanation for fragile brands is the swelling strength of the consumer. We’ve seen a pronounced jump in the amount of information available about goods and services. It’s not just bellwethers like Consumers Union and J.D. Power, established authorities that unquestionably shape people’s buying decisions, but also the crush of magazines, Web sites, and message boards scrutinizing products.

Hinted at in the Wired article is the growing power of “social media”. New-school web-heads might look at “message boards” and laugh at it as being so Web 1.0. But Facebook is really just a message board, which are in turn just a prettier face to the old Usenet newsgroups. Plus ςa change

One of the observations I made about social media at the meeting is that no matter what else social media might do, it definitely does one thing: bypass traditional media. Brands that were born from traditional media, and sustained by traditional media plays (like mass advertising and PR) need to look at social media with some care and even trepidation. Because social media allows other players to bypass traditional media, one of the implications is that the higher-awareness brands (whose value is already weak) start losing awareness to boot. If you’re a consumer getting most of your information from Twitter, blogs, and Facebook, you may never have even heard of Keller Williams as a brand. You’re certainly not going to have any impression or emotional connection to the KW brand.

The Challenge

The conundrum of the higher-awareness brand owners then, such as NAR, is what to do about social media. There are three available strategies:

  • Alienate
  • Ignore
  • Embrace


An organization (such as NAR) can try to alienate social media. It can prohibit its members from blogging, from using Twitter to talk about the organization, and the like. It can leverage its power in traditional media to denigrate these “upstart know-nothing bloggers”. Traditional news organizations have tried taking this tack in the past, with disastrous results.

For real estate, at this stage of the game, I believe that trying to alienate and denigrate social media would just make an organization look out of touch and stuck in the past.

Suffice to say, alienating social media is not recommended as a strategy.


You can try to pretend that social media doesn’t really exist, or if it does, it’s not something to be taken all that seriously. While not prohibiting involvement, you can choose not to promote involvement either. Have a website, even a blog, but don’t expend a lot of effort beyond that.

A variation on the theme is to do social media as a ghettoized niche of marketing. Far too many companies that have “social media” also have “corporate communications” and “public relations” and so on. Only those people who work in “social media” are allowed to be the voice of the organization, and blog posts have to be approved by the Director of Social Media or some such.

The trouble with this is that “social media” is just a channel; that isn’t really important. What is important is the attitude that makes “social media” workthe natural, authentic, human voice. When you have segregated social media into a small corner of the overall marketing effort, then what you are really trying to do is ignore it, hoping it’s a fad that will go away.

Depending on the organization, this very well may be the ideal strategy. If you’re Apple, for instance, I don’t know that it pays for you to let your people blog freely or twitter away. So much of Apple’s brand image, and therefore its power, is a creature of traditional media that is tightly controlled by some very talented marketing people. Why mess with it? Sure, have a blog; but make sure it’s controlled. Have an Apple Facebook page, but make sure that it’s tightly controlled. If traditional methods are working, then why mess with it?


The final strategy is to really embrace social media as an organization. The challenge here is that social media at its heart is not a tactic, but a culture. It means adopting Cluetrain principles of lowering barriers to communication between the people within your walls to consumers, interest groups, and stakeholders outside of those walls.

Social media isn’t just a corner of marketing; it becomes marketing. Corporate communications & PR are subsumed into the social media culture of openness and authenticity. There ain’t nothing to spin, if your culture is about openness and honesty, is there? Everyone from the CEO down to the janitor become voices of the organization, for good and bad. There is no “funnel” of engagement into the organization, anymore than there is a “megaphone” of the Corporate Voice out to the public.

Understandably, this state of affairs would make most marketers and most corporate executives extremely nervous.

Let me see that detialed marketing plan for a second...
Let me see that detailed marketing plan for a second...

Enter Chaos

As if wholesale organizational cultural change were not nerve-wracking enough, now we add multi-layer brand effects to the mix.

If a higher-order (in terms of awareness) organization starts to engage in social media — meaning, relaxing the barriers between its people and the public — what impact does that have on downstream brands?

So for example, say Coldwell Banker really embraces social media. All of a sudden, you have corporate executives from CB national blogging openly and freely about real estate, about brokerage, about what’s going on inside 1 Campus, and so on. They’re providing a lot of direct interaction with consumers, agents, and whatnot. They start going on Twitter and engaging with individual agents of CB, even individual consumers.

While this may be wonderful, there will be a sort of a “flattening effect” that takes place. The national Coldwell Banker brand starts to be defined by the open conversation that takes place directly with consumers and with agents.

So if you are the director of marketing for CB United, what does that do to you and your plans for the CB United brand which you are trying to differentiate from other CB-branded companies?

What if you’re Jill Smith, and you’re trying really hard to enforce a certain way of doing business in an effort to differentiate yourself from the rest of the CB agents out there? What if your strategy was to use social media to convey to your clients that you “get it”, that you’re “authentic”, not like those other CB agents? And here comes CB corporate essentially granting that brand image of authenticity to all CB agents by virtue of their social media efforts.

While this impact of top-level brand on lower-level brand has always been in place for any multi-layer brand, social media exacerbates the problem because of its global reach, combined with direct interaction. Jill Smith Team can overpower traditional media in its local market by focusing the ad spend in local channels, and public relations strategies focusing on local publications. But with social media, it takes the same (low) effort for the local consumer/agent to follow @jillsmithteam on Twitter as it does to follow @coldwellbanker.

And Coldwell Banker’s blog is likely to have far higher SERPS on various search engines, and have huge multiples of readers/subscribers than Jill Smith Team’s blog.

Now what?

Many Questions, No Answers

One of the reasons why I wrote this is that I have no answers. It’s a new area, a new conundrum. The amount of spend — higher but broader at the top, lower but more concentrated at the lower end — has little impact on social media. Conversely, those lower-down on the pyramid can get completely swamped and silenced by those higher up.

I’m sure there’s a way out of this maze, and that we’ll all figure it out together. But right now, there are far more questions than there are answers.

I have a feeling that the solution will involve something like a cascade of value via cascade of content, with a coordinated — rather than a commanded — social media effort from the top-down, bottom-up, and in-between. The solution might involve one or more of the layers simply atrophying away to meaninglessness as openness becomes the norm, rather than the exception.

We’ll be returning to this topic in the future. In the meantime, what are your thoughts?


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Rob Hahn

Managing Partner of 7DS Associates, and the grand poobah of this here blog. Once called "a revolutionary in a really nice suit", people often wonder what I do for a living because I have the temerity to not talk about my clients and my work for clients. Suffice to say that I do strategy work for some of the largest organizations and companies in real estate, as well as some of the smallest startups and agent teams, but usually only on projects that interest me with big implications for reforming this wonderful, crazy, lovable yet frustrating real estate industry of ours.

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2 thoughts on “[Theory] Multi-layer Brand and Social Media”

  1. A little while ago I did some research on visitor performance segmented by search visitors using keywords mapping to the multi-layer brand setup you’ve outlined above. Your suggestions about social media and higher-level brands was reflected in that research as well, even before social media became a particularly hot topic.

  2. A little while ago I did some research on visitor performance segmented by search visitors using keywords mapping to the multi-layer brand setup you’ve outlined above. Your suggestions about social media and higher-level brands was reflected in that research as well, even before social media became a particularly hot topic.

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