Imagine walking into a supermarket without a pre-determined list of brand choices. You could spend countless hours deciding between ten different laundry detergents or a dozen different paper towels. Instead, shopping is efficient and quick, as we reach without hesitation for the familiar box of Tide or roll of Bounty. The simple fact is that while companies make products, consumers buy brands. Everyday brands influence our buying behavior.
When do products become brands? A product becomes a brand when consumers begin to associate attributes to it that go beyond the product’s physical properties– attributes like trust, honesty, masculinity, femininity, reliability. A promise forms with the consumer that is both unique and bonding. We identify with the brands that reflect who we are or the image we would like to project. A Mercedes and a Ford will both take you from point A to point B. But when you arrive in a Mercedes, it says you have “arrived” in more than one way. We value the brand, not the transportation. The brand becomes part of our identity, not the product.
As consumers we express our relationship with the brands we choose through loyalty and repeat purchases. And because they give us more than just the product itself, we are willing to go out of our way to get them. Brands justify premium pricing in a commodity world.
So we ask the question of whether we can we create that same emotional connection with a product that is sometimes referred to as an “empty box?” Can we add value to apartments through branding when it is our consumers who impart their style on our blank walls? Our future residents often spend hours or days visiting different apartment communities. They compare floor plans, amenities and prices. Can an apartment brand help them to make their decision?
Branding in the multifamily sector
The multifamily sector has been slow to extend the concept of branding to apartments. Some real estate companies are content to view apartments as commodities, or believe that by putting their corporate name on their communities– signs that their branding job is done. Branding, however, should not only create identity but should create a relationship with a customer that will withstand the test of time. An individual property can be outdated or sold, but a brand lives on.
Prior to joining AvalonBay in 1999, I worked for traditional products with brand names such as Mr. Clean, Head & Shoulders, Glade, Edge, Salem, and Fruit of the Loom–I joined AvalonBay because I believed it would be possible to apply the same branding principles to this “non- branded” industry. Through branding, it seemed possible to create the same type of emotional ties between a multifamily company and its residents as companies like Nike have created with their customers. The business case was just as compelling in the apartment industry, and the potential rewards just as strong, as for a company like Procter & Gamble. After all, our customers live in our “box of Tide.”
Branding in multifamily should lead to gains in operational and marketing efficiencies. For example, how many leads do you get each day that are not qualified? The potential resident spends time in the leasing office or on the phone with your leasing agent and then decides your property is not right for them. Consumers use brands to help them differentiate between products, helping them to predetermine their purchases. Branding helps people decide what is “right” for them. This is why one consumer will decide to go to Wal-Mart, with its brand position of always low prices, while another drives down the street to Target to buy the same item at the same price. For that second consumer, Target’s brand position of style and fashion was more appealing and better fit with their own self image.
A branded identity signals to the consumer that this is the right place for them. Do they want a full-service property with 24-hour doormen and a concierge or a cost-efficient apartment with a lower monthly rent? Are they looking for a prime location or are they willing to travel further? By signaling through branding what to expect at your community, potential residents can self-select in or out of your leasing office, in essence “pre-pre-qualifying” themselves, which will help to increase the efficiency of leasing operations.
Branding also permits a company to improve its marketing efficiencies. Instead of creating separate names and identities for individual properties, which then forces each property to have its own marketing plan, branding can link communities together with a consistent and unifying look and message. This will not only impact consumers, but also investors and business partners. They too will be able to instantly recognize a company’s communities and help them to understand the depth of its property portfolio. This awareness can also help with municipal interests, who will know what else you have done, as well as attracting buyers and sellers of properties.
The business rationale for branding within the multifamily industry can be compelling, but it requires a commitment and a discipline to achieve the desired results. It requires the involvement of all levels of management, and the support of the Board of Directors if a company is public. And while there are costs, the biggest cost may be the commitment of time up front to ensure you are on the right branding strategy.
The branding process at AvalonBay
Following the 1998 merger of Avalon Properties and Bay Apartment Communities, we believed we had the opportunity to create the first national brand of luxury apartments. We had two companies that were compatible, with complimentary portfolios focused in high-barrier-to-entry markets, strong earnings growth, strong valuations, and similar cultures. But from a consumer standpoint, there was nothing that tied the individual communities of the newly formed company together.
Branding needs to be based on a clear, long-term business strategy. At AvalonBay, we began our branding process by gathering the key stakeholders in the newly formed company together for an all day, off-site work session to determine what our shared vision was for the brand. During the process we looked at the future demographic and economic trends in our markets. We also reviewed the changes in consumer behavior patterns that were predicted for the future. And importantly, we took a long look at the portfolio of communities that we owned and managed, and at our goals as a management team. While we felt that our current portfolio of luxury communities was consistent enough to live under one brand, the team also envisioned a point in the future where we might own a portfolio of communities that would be targeted to a different segment of the multifamily market (e.g. student housing, age restricted, value positioned). Therefore, we made the important decision that AvalonBay was the corporation–not the brand. We decided that Avalon Communities would be the consumer brand name for our communities. In doing so, we strategically created a structure that allowed for the possible growth of multiple brands in the future.
Following the work session, we conducted in-depth focus groups with our current customers to better understand how they viewed us as a company and the product and services we provide. We shared our new brand name and the logo and collateral materials provided by our design agency. We also talked to our competitors– residents as well, to understand why they did not choose to live with us. And importantly, we listened to what they were looking for, not just from us, but from their lives in general.
By combining customer input with corporate knowledge, we created a fruitful process that helped to define our “brand essence.” Brand essence is what defines a brand, what it stands for and how the consumer will view it. Branding is the road map that will help guide future brand decisions. In defining our brand essence, we were able to conclude that our target consumers were hungry for more time. Time to work. Time to play. Time to relax. We believed we were uniquely positioned to give them what they wanted. Through our convenient locations (close to work and entertainment), our amenities (swimming pools, workout facilities and business centers) and our high level of customer service, we believed we could give them the “Gift of Time.” Based on this, our Brand Essence became: Avalon is a place where luxury is provided without pretense, where success is rewarded with the gift of time, and where lives are enriched though caring service and thoughtful design.
With this understanding of our brand and what we wanted it to stand for, we then went back to our customers for more input. Through focus groups, we then distilled our brand essence into a short and easy to remember tag line for advertising–“Time Well Spent.” This tag line, with its multiple levels of meaning, has ensured a rich and relevant place for our brand to live. Through advertising, signage, brochures, promotional posters, community Web sites, and human resources and recruitment materials, we communicated the clear message of our brand.
Now, nearly a decade after we first began our branding effort, we continue to strongly believe in its value. Branding has made us a more operationally efficient company, with clear naming strategies, easy to use signage manuals, standardized brochure systems, consistent leasing center displays, and a thematic sales approach. The brand has allowed us to gain marketing efficiencies by combining regional portfolios under umbrella media ideas, giving us particular leverage in the world of Internet marketing. Internally, it has provided a rallying point for our associates, as we strive as a team to make sure that our residents will look back on their time with us as “Time Well Spent.” Because of our efforts, we now often see current residents who are moving from one coast to the other rent another Avalon apartment, sight unseen, because they know they can trust the Avalon Communities brand. Each day we work to fulfill the promise of our brand essence, and we believe our investment of time and effort will continue to pay an increasing dividend in the future.