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The mortifying business of building real estate brands

An insider view on what ails real estate marketing and its cure, the need for structures and plans, and putting at the fore, consumer needs and understanding. Shouvik Sarkar is an ex Category Head, Lodha Group (India's No. 1 real estate developer, by Sales) where he managed a Rs 1500 cr/annum portfolio. He is Founder, Agency 2017 - which offers Strategy, Marketing and Communications services to real estate developers. 

The mortifying business of building real estate brands

Sunday April 29, 2018,

8 min Read

Show me the money. The quick and dirty. Make my brand sticky, real sticky, like a Nike when you go shoe-shopping or a Beamer when you’re judging what next from the corner office to go with the corner office. The Patek Philippe for the fortieth.

Everyone wants a piece of class, minus the grime.

The wants are the same – brands want to get big, fast and with meaning. No problem. But here’s the gristle behind the glitz.

1. Customer need: 

Is there a clear market for the product defined/rolled out, or is it based on gut? Are the product specifications on cue with the what market needs? Is the additional utility room with the kitchen that’s coming at the cost of a marginally smaller living room worth the design specification change, given 80% of the waking hours at home are spent IN the living room? Those sundecks/niches/flower beds. 

What about them at all? Do they offer a view at all, or are they supposed to BE the view? Now, for the most part, product roll-outs have been largely rooted in reality, but the nuances are where lie the difference. Particularly the impact while a home is being considered, the visible and felt difference that +-10 sq. ft can make a standard room in a standard 2 bed (carpet area ~ 730 sq. ft., including sundecks) in a city like Mumbai, could make or break.

It’s all very good to have designer labels primp up a residential unit, but then again, the willingness to pay crops up. The marginal utility (profitability) of the bells and whistles I have rarely seen outstrip the discomfort and pain that a Marketing and Sales unit plows through, during the lifecycle of a product.

All very good to have tai chi corners and rivulets and hillocks engineered within a landscape – but what about CAM (Common Area Maintenance) charges? What about the retired gentry lovingly bought a home via remittances from the West, the Middle-East and god know where – and then left to deal with the maintenance mania that comes alongside a plethora of amenities?

Coming to the point – is there a clear established research finding that suggests what the fundamental and specific needs of a market are? Without that, it’s your guess versus mine and chances are, both of us are a hot bag of air.

2. Product Understanding

My brethren in Brand Manager roles – this be the holy grail. How many units, what SKUs, views (or otherwise), deck sizes, room sizes, space alignments, air flow, well-lit or not, lobby finish, materials used. Ingredient marketing has become the magic potion for luxury sales, but anything outside of a crore of rupees is a hard-working family’s hard-earned money (with any hope) and they deserve to know the antecedents of all the materials being used.

One of the Clubhouses which was part of a project I handled, for instance, had 9 different kinds of marble being used and 300 tons of it. It is one thing to make that a statistic, quite another to dig deeper into the history of the mines and the process of its procurement – when you’re selling a vision, the details matter. Customers will listen, no two ways about it. 

Vanilla products, for the most part, will have standard practices towards procurement, construction processes – however, given that most customers won’t be literate on construction processes, it is a Brand Manager’s moral responsibility to be aligned to all product facets, from the sizing to the sourcing to the assembly to the timelines and processes in between – and thereafter create value for what goes into a product.

Brings me to one of the sweetest Bose demos that used to wow audiences. It was a session where larger-than-life surround sounds enveloped one, as the potential customer lounged at the center of the demo room. The speakers were gargantuan ones and well, such sound quality was to be expected from a brand like Bose and speakers those big. 

After the music (usually a mix of Mozart/Bach) played out, customers were asked to shut their eyes and voila! – the façade of these enormous speakers was removed to reveal the tiny actual ones. I’ve never seen a customer not flabbergasted! Truly a product demo that transcended the aural. The sales manager thereafter used to proceed with all the technical facets of the speakers and the process itself had enough qualities to go viral – which it did!

3. Calendar Planning

Everyone apparently, but the back-end guy toiling away to obscurity - is the bees’ knees. Well, gentlemen and ladies, there is no short-cut towards a great real estate brand; not that I can think of. Want the lead pipeline to max out within your operating micro-market? The sustained brand presence and sweating all sourcing channels is just the beginning. 

Is your distribution geared up, alive and in line with your business goals? If not, about time the sourcing team downed some strong glucose and got going in the sun, met and educated all the Channel Partners. And for that, the only succinct way is to know the product and the business opportunity inside out. Are existing customers planning an ambush while they meet for the sea-side morning walks? How about first appeasing them and making them privy first to any pre-market opportunity? Are the site experience and process Ritz Carlton-level down pat? Or is a sales pitch starting off with a price – which by no reasonable stretch of the imagination, it should? 

First the product, then the process, and finally, the price. We don’t barge into an interview with a CTC, do we? Why should price unabashedly play supreme – isn’t there a better, more reasonable way to justify it? In fact, Sales process audit scores ought to be skewed in favour of product information dissemination over price.

But I digress. You want your brand to progress across levels – and that means some semblance of planning. What is the sequential sale of inventory by typology across time? Are there ways to win over loyalty, not with the intent of referrals and repurchase but rather referrals and repurchase as a natural outcome of the way you treat your customers? Are there cost-effective ways to build communities for booked customers, assuming you have cleanly and fairly dealt with them? How do these events fill up the events calendar? Is there a cogent communications strategy across a year, wherein various facets of a development/project/tower (location | homogenous community | access to social infrastructure and key business and commercial districts | infrastructural ground realities seeing a shape to drive consideration among buyers) are woven over time? 

Without the skeleton of planning, business is ad hoc. And that thing about being ad hoc? Good up to a point where you’re in start-up mojo-fuelled adrenaline mode, not so great when you have a middle-order organisation trying to corner market share. Ad hoc doesn’t beget budgets beyond a point - battle-ready strategies, product readiness, supported by timely vertical ingress and market-storming behavioural intent DOES.

Execution, Budgets

“Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory, tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” —Sun Tsu, Ancient Chinese Military strategist.

Let’s assume that the annual calendar is all prepped out – a well-planned, well-intended Excel sheet. Now for the Catch 22 – you need budgets planned across; which is contingent on vertical sign-off, de facto an agreement on principally adhering to a calendar. One begets the other, and it’s a delicate balance of planning, committing and taking.

In large organisations, large projects usually get the bulk of focus – which is where the lesser brands need to get more creative, work harder, and lean significantly towards creating long-term Digital assets. Print still remains for the most part about 60-65% of a large real estate player’s spends (and if smartly done, cash burn reduced to 60%-65% of overall print spends through innovative barters with the large print players). 

However, to have a kitty and justify it across the calendar needs to have organisation-level support, ecosystems and a culture that progressively collaborates towards that. For the most part, any meaningful pre-launch and launch (post RERA, which have dipped by up to 65% as per reports, and hence have become even more critical wins for an organisation) generally ends up spending up to 50% of project lifecycle spends and thereafter, it’s a careful balance of rationing those spends on sustenance and inventory/SKU-driven activations. 

Over the year and the years to come (given that a real estate product, at the least, has a 4-year horizon) it’s a painstaking process of discipline. Dashboards, reports, lead churning, reviews, course correction measures, keeping tabs on the micro-market, competition, inventory movement with associated pricing, dipsticks and research following that Excel sheet like a team possessed. There is no other way, really. Day in day out, it boils down to discipline and action.

Parting shots

The innards are all about rigour, the external world, however, needs a larger promise. By far, the most laborious decision for an end-user, real estate marketing needs to appeal to a more dignified, beautiful life. These days, it’s a marketing holocaust, with offers and price points in font sizes that slaughter a good creative writer, an advertising agency, and worst of all, the brand. I’d really hope to see some strong ones hold good and make good, on the brands they intend to build.

To all Brand Managers and Client Servicing teams, operate without fear. Fear is paralytic, fear is the exact antithesis of what makes a great brand. Be fearless, toil relentlessly and the rest will follow.


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