Real Estate Branding – Walking the Talk

Posted on in BrandBlab

We all talk about brands.We wear them, drive them, eat them, admire them. Everything we do and experience today is a ‘brand experience’ it seems.Sectors and activities have embraced the concept of branding at different rates.FMCG led the way when brands were typically products on the shelf differentiated by packaging.Retailers then realised they were brands not just names and labels and branding then became an experience – involving people, processes, environments and products.This was the fundamental transition of branding from packaging to become an operational culture and management approach.Banks belatedly discovered they had customers to please and are still struggling to understanding how they can be first choice brands.Sadly the real estate sector still generally do not see ‘branding’ as an integral management principle.

Shopping centres are destination brands.They are an umbrella brand for the diverse retailer and service brands they represent and ‘manage’.You would think real estate professionals should then understand the importance of developing the brand equity of their portfolios and projects.This is not the case.They appear to live in a world of tangible measurement and valuations based on yields, rentals, income from commercialisation, etc.They avoid understanding the value of the potentially more intangible activities involving brand building initiatives.

As an architect and brand consultant I have never viewed branding as simply a ‘packaging’ / marketing activity.The architecture and design of a place brand whether a city, district, street, shopping centre or business centre, residential or office is the most expensive but ultimately most influential factor in the sellable brand equity of the development.But still we are typically called in to ‘brand’ a centre already in design or existing by investors who still think branding is simply a ‘badging’, corporate identity exercise supported by marketing activities.

Branding is reputation management.Reputation today is less about the traditional marketing of promises and all about the reality of the experience and what people say about you.Social media is about riding the tiger …. great but tough when it bites you.A business or shopping centre is a business brand and a consumer brand.As a business brand you are measured by the tenants, staff and partners you want to attract and already have.As a consumer brand for business centres, the audiences/stakeholders are the management and employees of the tenant companies.For shopping venues, the audiences are shoppers and visitors, the local community and interest groups.Each audience needs their vested interests satisfied.Matching the needs of pension fund managers and aspirational shoppers is always going to be a balancing act.There is now a blurring between B to B and B to C communications as CSR and sustainability become issues for public debate.

A clear brand proposition and ethos should be the basis for all decisions and action.Everyone wants best value but a long term reputation development can be ruined by a short term tactical initiative to drive footfall or sales.The marketing of centres is still catching up retailer marketing skills.Driving footfall but not helping retailer sales is a typical issue and in the end the capital value of any development is based on sales in the shops.Obvious stuff but investors and developers still don’t apparently see the direct link between brand reputation development and prefer to concentrate efforts on their comfort areas of direct income.Putting in another kiosk rather than some seating is a classic test of a trading or operational mindset.Do you potentially make a shopper stay longer and return another day, or prioritise ‘measurable’ income from a rental space.While belatedly centre manager have talked about being partners of their tenants the mindset can still be as a landlord / facility manager.

We use the term intelligent asset management to drive home the idea that branding must be seen as a fundamental component of real estate development activities from project inception to long term management.An organisation’s internal brand culture is now recognised as a key differentiator influencing the behaviour, efficiency and success of their activities.The complexity of the different parties involved in design and managing real estate demands an alignment and agreement of interests.As in all sectors those that get it will be winners.

Interestingly our work in a BRIC economy like Russia has allowed us to bypass these traditional mentalities and ways of dong things.One advantage is a single owner of a development who can make the decisions necessary.Asking us to provide a brand vision for the development as a brief for the architects whether local or international means the image, themes and positioning become an integral driving idea for the site and building and interior planning and design.We can then provide a distinctive marketing platform to build the centre brand pre-launch and achieve long term sustainable advantage.

In Europe, branding is still often relegated to a brand identity, signage, some graphics and marketing brochure provided by a marketing agency.Moscow has many shopping centres, many built without a clear strategy or mindful of tenant requirements but the growing need for effective differentiation means standards are changing fast and our broad approach to branding is increasingly understood.

Traditionally looking to the west for best practice was typical, perhaps the west could start learning from the East soon!