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Divergent Brand Building Strategies: How Do They Match Up?

June 1, 2011

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By Kirk L. Wakefield, PhD

In competitive selling environments, brand identity is an important differentiator for both the sales professional and the consumer. For service industries such as real estate, brand building is vital as agents work to facilitate sales transactions, create loyalty, and generate referrals. Within the context of developing brand image, professional salespeople, including real estate agents, are presented with significant challenges and opportunities.

From a marketing management standpoint, a traditional promotion mix consists of advertising, sales promotions, publicity, and personal selling. Services are intangible; therefore, the importance of creating a distinct brand image through advertising is frequently seen as a critical component of the promotion mix. As such, a majority of the major firms in the service-based real estate category choose to cultivate brand identity through conventional marketing strategies, placing a strong emphasis on television and online advertising to reinforce their brand and soften the market for local agents. In contrast, firms who choose not to engage in national advertising campaigns often invest more into resources for agent training and development. These less-conventional firms focus on empowering agents to shape their individual brand at the local level.

Individual agents have an important choice to make when deciding to affiliate with a national agency. Convictions, perceptions, and preferences play a large role in the affiliation decision - both for new agents looking to springboard into their career, and also for seasoned agents looking to take their career to the next level. The level of brand building conducted on behalf of the local agency can make a significant difference in the affiliation decision for the individual agent. Our study looks at the local level impact of divergent brand building strategies in the Dallas/Ft. Worth market, focusing on three of the major players in the real estate industry: Century 21, Re/Max, and Keller Williams Realty International (KWRI).

The Numbers - What Is The Cost Of Advertising?

Spending on advertising by the real estate industry exceeded $11 billion annually early in the past decade, with increasingly larger amounts devoted to online advertising. While ad spending for the real estate category dropped 20% to just under $20 billion in 2009, Borrell Associates estimates total ad spending in the industry to soon exceed $35 billion (by 2013), with approximately one-third spent in online advertising and a little over one-fifth (22.2%) spent on broadcast and cable television. Borrell estimates 60% of all online ad dollars currently come from real estate agents and brokers, although the rise in online spending by the industry hit its peak and started to slightly decline in 2009 (-4%) and 2010 (-1%). Two of the biggest spenders in the real estate category, Century 21 and Re/Max, have been consistent drivers in the real estate advertising landscape.

Prior to 2009, Century 21 spent 50% of its annual advertising budget on television. In 2009, though, the real estate giant made a shift to a predominantly digital advertising campaign, foregoing any national television advertising. Century 21 plans to maintain an aggressive digital presence. However, their 2012 strategy includes an agent-focused ad campaign, capped off with a 30-second ad run in the third quarter of Super Bowl XLVI.

Similarly, Re/Max has chosen to spend a large amount of its budget on advertising initiatives. Over the past decade, Re/Max spent $44-$57 million annually on national TV campaigns to build its brand, maintaining the dominant share of real estate advertising impressions, according to Nielsen. A Re/Max website reports that total ad spending by Re/Max and its associates approaches $1 billion annually.

By contrast, KWRI does not leverage a strong national advertising campaign to build brand image - rather, they believe that local brand identity, driven and defined by the individual agent, has greater value than national or even international brand identity. Budget is instead allocated heavily towards resources to educate and support the agent at the local level. Using this less-conventional strategy, which emphasizes the agent-buyer relationship, KWRI has now become the second-largest franchise operation in the real estate industry.

The Study - Impact of National Brand Building at the Market Level

Based on proximity and size (5th largest US market), we selected the Dallas/Ft. Worth area to conduct a broad study on brand equity across three highly competitive service categories (retail electric providers, banks, and realtors). Incorporating multiple brands and categories within a broader study affords the advantage of disguising the focus and reducing possible bias by respondents. Engaging a California-based research firm, Socratic Technologies, we conducted an independent online survey of 1200 adults representative of the DFW market demographics in December 2009 and another (different) sample of 1200 again in June 2010.

In addition to gathering demographics, respondents reported whether they had bought or sold through each of the three realtors in the past ten years. We asked four questions regarding nine brands (randomly presented), including Century 21, Re/Max, and KWRI. Through the data collected, we explored recommendation patterns, purchase intention patterns, and loyalty among the nine brands' existing customers.

For ease of comparison, the average responses on the scores have been converted so that a score of 100 would be the maximum possible and 10 the minimum. The tables and analyses below report the average scores for those in the market who bought or sold a property through one of the three realty agencies, as well as the impact and any additional patterns of results that emerge from the data collected.

Impact on Brand Recommendation

Table 1.1

1) How likely would you be to recommend each of the following to a friend or family member in the future?

Client of:

20092010
Variable Cent. 21 KWRI Re/Max Cent. 21 KWRI Re/Max
Cent. 21 62 51 51 66 55 57
KWRI 50 65 48 58 77 58
Re/Max 51 51 61 53 53 66
*The scores in yellow highlight the responses for the brand among its own customers.

As would be expected, clients of each realtor rated its agency the highest (most likely to recommend) compared to the other two realtors. The highest across all scores (both years) belongs to buyers/sellers using KWRI, rating the agency 65 in 2009 and 77 in 2010. For reliability and validity purposes we are more interested in the pattern of results in 2010 compared to 2009, which verify that KWRI clients rate it the highest (77), followed by Century 21 (66) and Re/Max (66).

Impact on Purchase Intention

Table 1.2

2) How likely would you be to pay for the services from each of the following in the future? (intention)

Client of:

20092010
Variable Cent. 21 KWRI Re/Max Cent. 21 KWRI Re/Max
Cent. 21 62 51 51 62 52 54
KWRI 52 63 48 52 71 57
Re/Max 52 52 58 52 54 65
*The scores in yellow highlight the responses for the brand among its own customers.

We see a similar pattern when it comes to the likelihood of choosing the same realtor the next time a customer needs to buy or sell a home. Reflecting on Table 1.1 and 1.2, the pattern of results suggests KWRI improved its position vis-à-vis Century 21 from 2009 to 2010.

Impact on Brand Loyalty

Table 1.3

3) How loyal are you to the following brands?

Client of:

20092010
Variable Cent. 21 KWRI Re/Max Cent. 21 KWRI Re/Max
Cent. 21 49 39 38 55 45 45
KWRI 41 52 36 45 58 45
Re/Max 42 40 46 47 46 56
*The scores in yellow highlight the responses for the brand among its own customers.

For all three companies, it is concerning to see that brand loyalty scores are significantly lower than recommendation and purchase intentions (at an absolute level). Combined with Table 1.4, the results imply customers are not taking great stock in the national brand. Even among a realtor's own customers, loyalty is only rated as in the realm of a 5.0 score on a 10-point scale. Although KWRI's scores are slightly higher, they are not significantly different from its competitors.

Impact on Brand Distinction

Table 1.4

4) To what degree do you believe each brand is distinct from others that sell the same products or services?

Client of:

20092010
Variable Cent. 21 KWRI Re/Max Cent. 21 KWRI Re/Max
Cent. 21 52 45 44 59 50 50
KWRI 46 52 42 49 55 48
Re/Max 49 46 50 50 47 56
*The scores in yellow highlight the responses for the brand among its own customers.

Regarding brand distinctiveness, the differences between the high scores (e.g., 52, 52, and 50 in 2009) do not show a clear pattern of results across the three realtors. Again, these scores on an absolute level (42-59) suggest even a realtor's own customers do not see the brand itself as particularly distinct or unique, let alone other brands. In any case, the brand image does little to separate the three realtors--despite Century 21 and Re/Max investing tens of millions of dollars in brand advertising campaigns. If national brand campaigns were more effective than investing promotional dollars in local agencies (viz., sales force & training), we would expect Century 21 and Re/Max to achieve higher brand distinctiveness scores among its customers than KWRI.

Scores for Those Not in the Market

Scores for willingness to recommend, intention to use, brand loyalty, and brand distinctiveness among those who have not been in the real estate market in the past decade are very low; consequently, we don't present these scores in the results tables. On a 1 to 10 scale, those not in the market uniformly rate these realtors as a 1, 2, or 3 on the four questions we asked. This may suggest that advertising through mass media channels represent significant waste where most of the market is ignoring the message.

Conclusion

This independent study conducted in 2009 and replicated in 2010 demonstrates a consistent pattern of results. Century 21 and Re/Max have built a strong brand image through heavy investments in national advertising campaigns; however, the results of our study also show that the investment in education and support for local KWRI agencies produces positive attitudes toward the realtor among its customers.

As an agent in the national real estate landscape, it is important to evaluate the marketing investment strategies for real estate companies, considering the impact of brand building versus agent development programs. Whatever your strategy, consider an agency that complements your strengths and provides the important resources needed to propel your career forward.

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Appendix

Table 1.5

Demographic Information

Client of:

20092010
Variable Cent. 21 KWRI Re/Max Cent. 21 KWRI Re/Max
H.H.
Income
$69,175 $74,825 $76,925 $65,775 $66,675 $69,075
Resp. Age 36 38 38 39 39 41
H.H.
Size
3.3 3.1 3.0 3.2 3.1 3.1
% of
Market
7.20% 7.90% 9.30% 7.20% 6.70% 8.10%

The income, age, and household size for the three realtors are relatively similar across the three agencies. We do see, though, that KWRI and Re/Max appeal to a slightly older age group and income level and that Century 21 appeals to a slightly larger household demographic.

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About the Author

Kirk L. Wakefield, PhD
Edwin W. Streetman Professor of Retail Marketing, Baylor University

Since arriving at Baylor University in 2002, Professor Wakefield has planned, initiated, and successfully executed plans for the creation and development of three unique programs housed in the Department of Marketing, including the Sports Sponsorship & Sales program and its advisory board of 25 major league teams, the Music & Entertainment Marketing program with its own student-run record label (www.uproarrecords.com) and entertainment company, and the $5 million endowment for the Keller Center for Residential Real Estate Marketing.

Dr. Wakefield's research in retailing covering almost two decades focuses primarily upon fan and consumer response to pricing and promotional tools. This work appears in the Journal of Retailing (1993, 1996, 1998, 2003), Journal of Marketing (2007, 2010), and Journal of Consumer Research (2010), among others. His research measuring consumer response to sports sponsorships can be found in the Journal of Advertising Research (2006) and Journal of Advertising (2007, 2010). Dr. Wakefield has received awards for his research published in the Journal of Retailing (2003), Journal of Personal Selling & Sales Management (2006), and Journal of Marketing (2007).

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