Sometimes, it’s an afterthought. You’ve dedicated so many resources to assembling a portfolio of properties in strategic markets, developing brand-new communities, conducting market research, and streamlining operations that it’s easy to overlook.
A brand, whether portfoliowide, regional, or individual to each community, might seem secondary to operational efficiencies and amenity packages. But make no mistake: One of the most crucial elements of your portfolio is your brand.
“If you plan to build a regional or portfoliowide brand, the first step needs to be that the executive team has to embrace and endorse branding,” says Kellie Hughes, vice president of operations for Mill Creek Residential. “The entire company must be a part of the process of building the brand so it becomes innate to them—all associates have to live and breathe the brand.”
To some, creating and building a brand might seem like a simple process that can be hashed out over coffee one morning. But the effort requires due diligence and a focused plan of attack consisting of multiple phases.
An often-overlooked phase in the branding process is research. While many multifamily companies conduct research, often it’s done with as few resources as possible, to save money. Effective research must be thorough in order to achieve statistical significance, meaning it will often include surveys and focus groups conducted through professional market research firms.
A strong research firm will explore resident and prospective-renter psychographics and behavior in addition to demographics, neighborhoods, markets, area demographics, and lifestyle elements of the resident base.
The marketing budget must be considered in this phase, as it will generally have to cover market research, outreach initiatives, and creative agencies. The marketing budget is often determined by the development team and handed off to the marketers, but, if possible, try to share input and strategy ideas during the first step so you’re not constrained or limited by your budget later.
LMC, which brands its communities individually, will often hire local market research teams well in advance of developing its communities in order to fully understand the prospective renters who might live at the community. That information is then used to help brand the community. It also helps the development team determine unit types, amenities, and apartment features.
For existing communities, another overlooked element of market research is the on-site team, which can often provide a unique perspective on residents, the neighborhood, and how the community and portfolio are perceived. Conducting focus groups and surveying your own on-site teams can often be an effective way to gather information and test your ideas.
After the research is complete, the next step is a messaging strategy, which defines the messages you want residents and prospective renters to know, and repeat, when they hear your brand name. The messages created in this stage will guide the development of all marketing collateral, promotions, and even your pricing.
For example, if one of the key messages is that you provide the best service available in the industry, your marketing collateral and promotions should incorporate service themes and your pricing should reflect the upscale service offering, much like Ritz Carlton does in the hospitality industry.
The most critical part of the messaging strategy is differentiation. The reality is that virtually every market is saturated with competitors and surrounded by new supply. So how do you stand out? This is often where the brand can offer the most value. When developed and executed effectively, your brand sets you apart from your competitors and elevates the lifestyle of your portfolio or individual community.
“I think there are circumstances where you can become too ‘theme-y’ with a building or brand, and that can turn people off,” says Kristen Mete Kingi, marketing director of the West Region for LMC. “But if you’re able to become involved with development in the beginning stages and know who you’re attracting, people will feel that when they walk into the building.
In conjunction with the messaging strategy, it’s important to consider brand identity.
In every industry, brand identity is often confused with logos, colors, and imagery. But it’s much bigger than that. A brand’s identity is how your residents and prospective renters perceive your organization and communities as a whole.
Your logos, colors, and images are important elements of your brand identity, but they must be aligned with your messaging, your market research, your physical product, and even your internal corporate culture. If the alignment is off in any arena, your brand identity will be disjointed and fail to deliver the return on the investment you put into it.
The best brands in the world, including the most recognizable consumer brands, work with numerous creative agencies to develop a visual look and feel that helps create the identity. When developing or acquiring a new community, the creative process to fit the brand has to begin early.
“The earlier we can get involved in the process, the better,” Mete Kingi says. “We’ll consult with the development team in the architectural planning and weave in interior design and branding at the same point. That way, it’s a cohesive strategy and the brand is influencing the interior design and vice versa. We’re able to thread that through the property, and it’s not just sticking a brand on a building after the fact.”
Testing concepts with residents and on signage is also a good idea during this phase.
“You have to think about how your brand is going to render on signage when you build it,” Mill Creek’s Hughes says. “Admittedly, we had some huge misses early on. Sometimes, the color isn’t exactly right, or maybe the horizontal/vertical feel is a little off. Don’t choose your logo before you see how it will look on signage, collateral, and your website.”
As part of this step, it’s also important to evaluate your company culture, training standards, and personnel. The brand you define must be reflected in the actions of your on-site associates, including customer service, maintenance standards, and dress code. If your company culture doesn’t reflect the brand, the identity will fall through.
The final step in building a brand consists of creating a strategy to promote the brand and properly reach the prospective renter and current residents. And the right implementation strategy can’t begin without a budget.
It’s vital that the marketing team work with the acquisitions, operations, and development teams to allocate a realistic budget for promotion. Often, communities are competing with a large number of comps in the area. With every community competing for rent growth and leasing velocity, an aggressive marketing budget dedicated to brand implementation is vital to the success of the community.
The implementation strategy should include lead generation, the community website, social media, ratings and reviews, public relations, printed collateral, signage, outreach, event marketing, and local business partnerships.
The most important thing to remember in this step is that the tactics used must promote the primary brand message. For instance, when promoting a LEED-certified community with composting stations and community gardens, it wouldn’t make sense to place a print ad in a Range Rover catalog. Nor would it be smart to serve coffee or water in Styrofoam cups in the leasing office.
Make sure to consider only media that strengthen your brand and appeal to your core demographic. Retargeting, display, and sponsored content on social media can all have a place, depending on the brand and demographic.
Finally, be sure your team has a firm understanding of why the brand is in place.
“You go through an entire process of helping people understand what a brand is, what the elements of a brand are, and the purpose of a brand,” says Hughes, whose company has launched two national brands in Modera and Alister. “The ‘why’ of it, in our case, is very much geared toward efficiencies and cost savings. We created a scalable national brand that allows us to highlight the unique features of each community while still achieving significant soft- and hard-cost savings.”
Developing a unified brand isn’t easy. Neither is creating one for a particular community. Companywide consensus can be difficult to attain, with differing opinions offered by those passionately invested. But when built properly, a brand can reduce stress for development teams, help attract prospective residents, and create internal pride within a company.