25th March 2015

Private Rented Sector Place Branding

By Tim Lewis

Article original published on PRS Update, The Young Group. www.prsupdate.co.uk

Whether you like it or not, it seems the Private Rented Sector (PRS) has been slower than most in recognising the capability of a ‘brand’ in influencing customers’ decision making process.

The sector needs to shift its thinking about how a strong  brand proposition is increasingly important in the PRS.

The role of brands and branding in property marketing has always been an interesting debate. The agents have one opinion, the developer another and often the marketing department yet another. The answer is never clear cut. There is however, one common agreement – if you get it right, a good brand will add value.

We should pause for a definition of terms. If your definition of a brand is a logotype, then all we are talking about is the symbol by which we identify a place or organisation. The only value this will add is a limited expression of the character of the place and (possibly) some reference to its location. Whilst this is useful, it is unlikely to be very persuasive, and persuasion should be the brand’s most important job. A brand's personality is the sum of your vision, values and the promise you make to your customers – a brand organises and brings your story to life.

The golden rule in creating a good brand is that it should draw its strength from what it symbolises and not the other way around.

Think about Apple. The symbol and name are largely irrelevant to the product you buy. The Apple brand has a clear vision, and stands for a range of attributes and values which run through their people and find their way into the products that people covet and queue for. The Apple brand manages their thinking and creates a very persuasive story.

Of course, it’s easy to admire Apple with its multimillion dollar marketing spend. We can, however, identify a key principle they have adopted. For Apple, brand is an inside-out concept; it drives their product and the story, not simply articulates it. Quality, performance and innovation are at the centre of the Apple brand, not a by-product of it.

In 2011 we helped create best practice for local government marketing practitioners. Within it, we created a three point definition of the role of place brands.

  • Define the place and what it stands for, its vision
  • Unite all stakeholders in delivering this definition by creating shared values
  • Project the definition and values to the right customers to attract them to us

Interestingly, within the research behind this definition, the most common reason for the failure of place brands was an inconsistent vision for the place which led to different interpretations of the story.

It’s easy to see that if, for example, developers, architects, agents and marketers don’t line up their thinking, the expectation they create won’t fit the reality of what they want to deliver. This will not create a strong, long term brand.

Long term ‘brand’ thinking for the PRS is critical. More large-scale schemes are being conceived and built with rental in mind. By their nature these places must (arguably) stand the test of time more than a sales led development. Commercial success relies on taking a longer-term view, in the same way a retail asset pays attention to its brand, so must large PRS led ‘places’.

They must be clear on what they stand for so they can create repeat demand by delivering what they promise. This means creating consistency, not just in product or promotion, but in how it is managed and the terms and conditions they offer; the story they tell must become much deeper. This can’t be done with just a logo or without everyone in your organisation believing in the same thing and agreeing the desired outcome. Suddenly a vision (a definition of what you want to achieve) and brand values (the things you believe in which create behaviours) become critically important in creating a place brand.

So you can, and must, learn from brands like Apple. PRS brands must think beyond logos, brochures and websites and think about their brand as an inside-out concept. If not, they lack the framework of controls and support which a clear vision and values provide. This is long-term brand thinking and that’s where the value is.

Small Back Room (SBR) started working on the East Village brand  identity over three years ago and at the centre of their brand lies a vision called; ‘a new way of London living’. This vision is underpinned by three promises; space, time and choice. A simple theory. If through location, design and management of the place they can bring these promises to life, they will provide easier living. Easier living creates more rewarding experiences, a positive atmosphere and a sense of well being; if they are consistent and become known for these things then they will be able to retain residents and easily attract new ones. Making these promises come to life creates their brand values.

We can’t tell you that this will create more rentals (yet), but next time your project team meet to review strategy, ask everyone to write down the vision and values behind the place you are creating. If it’s wildly inconsistent, you are facing a risk of not delivering a consistent customer promise and that alone is bad for business. If everyone is saying the same thing, give yourself a pat on the back, you’re on the way to creating a good brand.

We have waxed lyrical about establishing a brand which defines and unites (as we hope to have convinced you of the importance of the inside-out concept) so we will turn our attention to point three, projecting the brand.

There are two golden rules to effective brand positioning. Firstly, how you project the brand must reflect the true nature of the place. Secondly, it must be relevant to the target audiences. These two add up to brand positioning – we define this as: “the space we want to occupy in the customers mind”. Effective positioning is dependent on a clear vision and understanding of target audiences and what drives their decisions.

Whilst we at SBR suspect the old adage of ‘build it and they will come’ has slowly died out, all too often we still see limited investment in quality audience research. This makes creating a good brand difficult and the knock on effect will be on marketing effectiveness. Regardless of how well you target communication, if the brand isn’t right, it won’t resonate. It’s like Snoop Dog playing at Glyndebourne – the fit simply isn’t right.

Effective data on rental audiences and their motivations is rare in the PRS but its value is undeniable. An audience segmentation and profiling exercise is, in comparison to the scale of overall investment, very small. All of us should ask one simple question – “how well do we really know our customers?”

A key additional part of an effective positioning is authenticity. If a place brand lacks this, customers won’t believe it and you will only occupy their mind space for a short period of time.

You want customers to feel a sense of ownership. To do this, they have to be given scope to make up their own mind. A by-product of an information rich, brand savvy society is (unfortunately), cynicism. People see through shiny new logos and made-up, zippy names; if they feel a lifestyle or place is being contrived for them, they will be less likely to buy-in.

The best places feel like they are part of the wider locality, like they could have been there forever, as they blend in and don’t try too hard to invent themselves as a ‘something’.'

You wouldn’t give Notting Hill a strapline which said: ‘West London’s Bohemian Quarter’. Anyone cool or Bohemian would be quickly running to Shoreditch. So why do we so often see a meaningless strapline, which states the obvious, added to a new development. It is Notting Hill ‘the brand’ and experience which creates its positioning, not its name or a strap line. The more authentic the brand, the more likely it will stand the test of time, and this has to be better for the longer term nature of a PRS development.

So, we hope that you will now be thinking about your brands as inside-out concepts, creating clarity around your place vision and values, you’ll be advocates of customer insight, be keeping names simple and please, ban the jazzy strap lines!

There are of course many more things to consider, how to create physical and emotional attractors to brands, how to engage teams so they become the brand’s frontline, how brands are activated consistently across increasing numbers of marketing channels and the importance of making the corporate visual identity, to name but a few.