Evolution demands re-branding

Re-branding is the name of the game when a company undergoes a major transformation. But, it is certainly not a project to be taken lightly and it does not happen overnight.

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The country’s fourth largest apartment REIT, known as United Dominion Realty Trust for the past 35 years, recently underwent such an image metamorphosis, shortening its name to UDR, Inc., and discarding its somewhat outdated logo for a new one that reflects the company’s focus on the future.

“We spent nearly a year wrangling with different scenarios about changing the name, we actually went out searching for a name, but we just kept coming back to UDR. It’s our ticker symbol. It’s straight- forward,” UDR CEO Tom Toomey told analysts during the REIT’s Q1 conference call early this month.

The old name, he said, embodied the company’s reputation as a provider of rental housing for the middle-income demographic, an image UDR is determined to put behind it. “We’ve said we’re not really that company now. That company doesn’t exist. And, at the same time, we thought people usually referred to us as UDR.”

“Our vision is to be the innovative real estate investment of choice,” he said, explaining the new name and tag line– “Opening Doors to the Future”–during an Investor Day presentation in mid- March. “We feel it is time to establish a new identity to reflect our focus on the future and not on the past,” he said.

The new green-tinted logo represents a door or a window opening to the future, rendered in a color that implies fresh thinking and growth, said Toomey.

For the past 25 years in the multifamily business, Toomey has been known as a company fixer and that was why he was recruited to head up the REIT about six years ago. But, with a massive repositioning of the portfolio into primarily Sunbelt and coastal markets almost complete, a refocusing of operations through use of new technology and an overhaul of the company’s vision and strategies to achieve those goals, he believes UDR is fixed and ready to take advantage of opportunities that lie ahead.

To help choose a name and design a logo and tag line to reflect its newly minted image, UDR called on Genesis, a 40-year-old Denver-based identity enhancement and branding firm, where Partner Deborah Kelly has directed value-enhancing investor relations, corporate communication and strategic positioning for a number of corporate giants, including Boeing, 3M, PepsiAmericas, Nordstrom, Steelcase and Washington Mutual, during her nearly 12 years with the company.

“It’s all about transformation,” Kelly said of the re-branding process. “It could be a change of market focus, it could be a new vision. There are any number of things that would qualify, but it is always about transformation.”

And that kind of revolutionary change has prompted other apartment companies, both REITs and privates, to adopt new names, just as UDR is doing now, driven by geographical repositioning, altered strategies and mergers with other apartment companies.

Home Properties of New York, which was founded in 1967 and became a REIT in 1994, shortened its name in 2003 to Home Properties to reflect the company’s intention to eventually move out of the northern portion of the Empire State and into new markets that today include the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, Midwest and Southeast Florida. When the company completed its IPO, 85 percent of its assets were located in the Upstate New York suburbs of Rochester, Buffalo and Syracuse, with just one property outside that region–a 604-unit asset in Columbus, Ohio.

And, true to the strategy that prompted the name change, Home sold its entire upstate New York portfolio of 4,567 apartments in 18 assets for $252 million last December to a JV of Albany-based Dawn Homes Management and Tri-City Rental and Morgan Management of Rochester.

AvalonBay Communities was the result of a merger between two REITs, one focused on the East Coast and the other on the West Coast. The East Coast company, Avalon Properties, Inc., which was formed as a REIT by Trammell Crow Residential (TCR) in 1993 to focus on apartment investments on the East Coast, grew out of the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast Groups of TCR, when the huge merchant builder decided to restructure its numerous nationwide divisions as REITs. West Coast- focused Bay Apartment Communities, which had no affiliation with TCR, was formed as a REIT in 1994 after assuming the assets of San Jose- based Greenbriar Development Company.

In 1997, Avalon Properties bought TCR’s Midwest portfolio for $196 million, with plans to become America’s dominant player in the luxury sector and Bay Apartment Communities was pursuing a similar strategy on the West Coast. Bay CEO Gilbert Meyer and Avalon CEO Richard Michaux, who had known each other for many years, agreed to merge the two companies and their names in 1998, creating AvalonBay Communities, which today is focused almost solely on buying and building luxury apartments in high-barrier markets on both coasts. Michaux stepped down from the CEO spot six years ago, and, as part of a carefully crafted succession plan, current CEO Bryce Blair moved up to the top spot from his previous position as the company’s COO.

Privately owned JPI started life in 1976 as Jefferson Properties, Inc., a subsidiary of Texas-based Southland Financial, one of a number of companies Southland created to develop Las Colinas into the country’s premier corporate address in a huge mixed-use community on 200 acres John Carpenter bought in Irving in 1928. The Carpenter family took Southland Financial public in 1971. In 1988 a JV of Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association and JBM Realty bought Southland and, a year later, split off Jefferson Properties, changing its name to JPI, Inc.

Just two years prior to that purchase, Jefferson Properties launched the prototype of its branded communities–Jefferson Estates in Richardson, Texas–creating the Jefferson brand that has become well- known in the multifamily space for its luxury apartments, student housing and condominiums spread across 18 states from coast to coast.

Archstone-Smith has seen a number of name changes, almost every time reflecting another merger-driven transformation. Now known for its upscale apartments and soaring high-rise communities, the company was born in 1963 as El Paso Real Estate Investment Trust, just three years after Congress established the REIT investment structure. El Paso changed its name to Property Trust of America in 1970 to eliminate the regional implications of the former moniker. In 1994, the year current CEO R. Scott Sellers joined as managing director and the company started repositioning its portfolio from concentration in Texas, Arizona and New Mexico into high-barrier markets, Property Trust bought Security Capital Pacific, changing the company’s name to Security Capital Pacific Trust.

Sellers was named chairman and CEO in 1997 and, a year later, the company acquired Security Capital Atlantic and reworked its name again –this time to Archstone Communities. The name was coined by Lippincott & Margulies, one of the nation’s leading branding firms that also named Starbucks, making Archstone the apartment industry’s first national brand.

In May 2001, Archstone bought the 50-year-old Charles E. Smith Cos.’ high-rise apartment business, adding both the Smith name to the brand and product diversity to Archstone’s mostly garden-style portfolio, resulting in Archstone-Smith, a company that owned almost 87,500 apartments with another 5,000 under construction and boosting the company to the second largest apartment REIT in the country at that time.

Although Genesis has not performed its branding magic on any other multifamily companies, Kelly believes image repositioning is a similar exercise, even though every company is different and unique. “The process that one goes through to really create that positioning and communicate it is very similar across industries,” she said.

When UDR’s VP of Investor Relations Larry Thede approached Genesis for assistance in getting the word out about the changes the REIT has undergone over the past six years since Toomey and his new management team took over, Kelly was delighted. “It’s actually quite fun for us to have different industries to work in, so we feel quite honored that we would be asked to do that,” said Kelly, who worked for Quaker Oats, one of the country’s oldest branded companies, for 15 years before joining Genesis.

In the case of UDR, she said, “The project really started out with a question about the name of the company and had a lot more to do with UDR feeling like they had this very extensive history–and there are always really good things about any company history that you want to make sure you preserve–but a lot had changed, especially over the past six years and I think there was some frustration that they were not reflecting those changes and the different way the company thought about its future in terms of their visual and verbal voice.”

But first it was necessary to define the new vision and strategies before coming up with the image and words that would communicate those elements to apartment residents, leasing agents, corporate management, shareholders and investors, by finding the common denominator that would resonate with all of them, she said.

For UDR, that common denominator eventually was defined as a desire to be recognized as an innovative multifamily investment of choice. “A resident who is going to rent an apartment is thinking about the future and home is a really important part of your life, so we wanted to reflect that excitement and innovation in this process,” said Kelly.

The company’s new vision and the name, logo and tag line that communicate it, also are intended to create excitement about the future among the company’s employees, she said. “It’s one thing for a small group of senior management to say, ‘This is our vision and this is where we’re headed,’ but it’s a different thing to engage an entire workforce to be excited about that future. That’s really the benefit of communicating to all of those constituents that this is a company that has a vision and knows what hill it wants to climb. There’s an element of excitement around that that gets people motivated and wanting to be a part of it,” she said.

But, she said, “A brand is a promise, and UDR’s brand promise now is value creation in everything they do. People have choices of brands all the time and I think most companies for whom brand is really important are trying to always be adding to those positive experiences and delighting their customers.”

In order to reach the final product–the name, tag, and logo, which Kelly views as “the period at the end of the sentence”– Genesis spent about a year asking questions, talking to the various constituencies to ferret out what makes the company different, what are its strengths and weaknesses, how people perceive it and what the company wants those perceptions to be five years from now and on into the future.

“It’s almost like being a corporate shrink in some ways. We listen and we try to play back what we hear and organize it around the principals that we understand about positioning,” she said. After compiling all of that input, Genesis goes back to the management team for their feedback, then back to the drawing board throughout the collaborative, iterative process. “And, when we get to a point where we think that we have some answers, we still go back and get feedback and revise, so it takes a while,” said Kelly.

Genesis Partner and Creative Director Janet Johnson, who developed the brand identity strategy to illuminate UDR’s vision, agrees that the process was two-fold, beginning with finding the common threads between all of the constituent groups. “Then we looked externally at competitor identities and developed a messaging platform and a visual voice to differentiate UDR,” she said.

Because UDR’s Web site is a vital source of communication designed to attract prospective residents and retain current renters, Genesis wanted to develop something that would umbrella that user experience and be compelling, as well, said the graphics expert, who is working with UDR’s information technology team and another Web site development group to bring the new brand look and feel to life in cyberspace.

Johnson, who studied graphic design at the University of Denver and Art Center College of Design in California, believes most of her learning has been on the job, working with creative strategists at companies in Vermont and New York, where she was involved in the creation of a co-branded Web site for the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Tate Modern in London, followed by a project for Scient, where she gained insight into big corporate Web sites.

“The beauty of a Web site is that it’s almost a living and breathing communication. Unlike print, the user experience is not confined to the page size. It’s a wonderfully responsive and scalable medium for engaging all stakeholders,” she said.

And, it was Johnson who came up with the concept of a green logo. “In our first presentations, we had some green studies and then it evolved to this one. The competitors are almost all blue,” she said.

“Green is the new blue. Green is the third most popular color around the world and we think it connotes fresh thinking, growth, health, harmony and energy. As the first REIT to adopt green as their identifier, UDR may just enjoy first-mover advantage within the multifamily industry,” Kelly agreed, adding that the color is more earth-friendly and, because UDR has several green initiatives underway, the verdant hue was even more appropriate.

And both women agreed that the brainstorming effort, where everyone puts their ideas out on the table, produces some pretty interesting and exciting results. “It’s fun,” Johnson said. “The marriage of the words and the pictures is where the magic is.”