Reflections from REBlogWorld ’09: Branding in the Social Age

Original posted on The Notorious R.O.B by Rob Hahn.

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!

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?

Original posted on The Notorious R.O.B on October 17, 2009 in Marketing and Real Estate.

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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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