By Maria Patterson
RISMEDIA, February 28, 2011—When was the last time you heard the words “energy,” “fresh” and “fun” in conjunction with the real estate market? Or remarked that a brand is consistently over-delivering despite a challenging environment? If you’re like most in this business, it’s probably been a while. Yet, those are exactly the sentiments Better Homes and Gardens® Real Estate brokers use to describe their brand, which explains why the franchise has grown to approximately 7,000 sales associates and 190 offices serving home buyers and sellers in 21 states in the 30 short months since its official relaunch in 2008. In a time that has been punctuated with much negativity, Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate brings a clean slate to real estate, creating what it believes is a brand for the future—a brand whose momentum is building. As President & CEO Sherry Chris says, “Our positive results confirm that we’ve done the right thing.”
Going Up in a Down Market
While no one said it to her face, many said Chris was “nuts” for relaunching a brand in a market like this. In fact, says Chris, the scuttlebutt was that she’d be “out of business within a year.” But a year has come and gone—more than two, actually—and Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate enjoys steady growth accompanied by a groundswell of support for its innovative take on real estate.
The environment Chris and her team have helped to create is being viewed as Real Estate 3.0. “Taking our cue from the way technology companies talk about new product releases, I look at this time as the 3.0 phase of our industry,” says Chris. “We’ve moved from a broker-driven model to an agent-driven model, and we are now in a consumer-centric era. Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate has made it its mission to usher in this new era by redefining how a real estate brand does business.
“I knew this was going to work,” says Chris of her fledgling real estate franchise. “In a tumultuous real estate environment, people are looking for help; they are looking for change. Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate stepped in at the right time and offered a fresh branding approach and a fresh set of tools, and has brought tremendous help to forward-thinking brokers.”
One such forward-thinking broker is industry veteran Ed Krafchow, who affiliated with the brand to become Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate Mason-McDuffie in September 2010. The primary impetus behind joining the brand, says Krafchow, was to deliver a much-needed shot in the arm to his market-weary agent force.
“The industry has been hammered,” Krafchow explains. “Agents were tired and not as inspired; a lot of them were working really hard but sometimes it was not paying off. The industry needed more energy because energy can drive the market and change the market. We committed to going down this path of change. We want to reenergize our agent population because when you have a place that has energy, more people want to join, and growth becomes exponential.”
This theory is bearing out nicely for Krafchow, who has recruited 245 agents in the last 90 days (at press time). “These agents represent an incredible result, as it is more than half of a normal yearly recruiting cycle,” he explains. “We are on a great growth path and our pipeline looks full for the foreseeable future.”
Another part of the brand’s appeal for Krafchow is that it is both local in appeal—“Everyone here knows the name Better Homes and Gardens”—and global in scope. Meredith Corporation, from whom Realogy licenses the Better Homes and Gardens name, is a media giant with an international reach. It distributes magazines in 11 different countries outside the U.S.
In a region with such a diverse, international population as the Bay Area, Krafchow is taking advantage of the brand’s unique relationship with Meredith and Meredith’s international media presence to target consumers in international feeder markets that drive business for his company.
At press time, he was preparing to launch advertisements in the China-based editions of Meredith’s magazines. “A large percentage of the properties being sold in San Francisco are being sold to Asian clients—if you’re not involved in that, then you’re not involved in an important segment of the market.”
Uniting the Like-minded
As Chris sees it, there are three types of real estate companies today: those that have downsized; those that have gone out of business; and those that have been able to take advantage of this market to find growth opportunities.
“We have built a brand that aligns with companies in this third category,” says Chris.
The brand’s ability to grow while the market as a whole shrinks can be attributed to its focused and unique approach to growth. As Chris explains, “We have a laser focus on key target markets, but that isn’t where our development process ends. For us, it isn’t enough to just be in the right locations. The brokers also need to be aligned with our core business values, our culture and our unique value proposition.”
From the very beginning, Chris and her team were on a mission to create a brand unlike any other.
“We really took our time in choosing how we wanted to establish ourselves as a brand and as a company,” Chris explains. One of the first exercises the team conducted was to define the brand’s core values: passion; authenticity; innovation; growth and excellence.
“Firms that join the brand must be carved from a similar set of values, and must also believe in the brand’s unique lifestyle positioning,” says Chris. “Today’s consumers are more informed than ever. Their home-buying decision process is more sophisticated, more collaborative, and more precise than ever before. Our brand delivers the service, tools and technology to empower our network to be in front of that trend.
“We launched as a lifestyle brand,” adds Chris. “What that means is that we are not just talking to broker/owners and agents—who are our key customers—but we’re also speaking directly to the consumer, who today is first and foremost buying a community and a lifestyle, not a property. Not every brokerage is comfortable with a brand that speaks directly to their consumers. But our model is different—brokers that get that and see the value are the ones that are a fit for Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate.”
A self-described “calculated risk taker,” Chris applauds her parent company’s support in this new vision of real estate brokerage.
“Realogy empowered me and my team very early on and challenged us to build something that is different,” she explains. “We proposed announcing the new company on Twitter. It was unheard of at the time but Realogy supported our mission to be innovative. Without that kind of empowerment, you can’t be free to move forward with game-changing ideas.”
Technology that Counts
What makes the Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate value proposition attractive to so many firms is the fact that it marries two diametrically different characteristics: 97% brand recognition, thanks to a name that’s been around since the 1920s; and a completely innovative approach to real estate, replete with homegrown tools and technology that speak to the future of the industry.
The Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate brand was rebuilt with technology as part of its DNA, as opposed to an add-on or side strategy, says Chris. “We have had the benefit and the huge opportunity of being able to build a brand with a completely clean slate at a time when many new social and digital technologies were available to us. We architected a more agile business platform and are positioned to stay ahead of the curve.
“We looked at what brokers and agents see as priorities—and their priorities are based on productivity and profitability. We built our tools around that—to help brokers grow their business and to help agents be more productive.”
To put the right technology tools in place, Chris talked to those in the industry whom she considers to be future minded. “No one person or single team of people has all of the answers. There is always something to be gained by collaboration and best-practice sharing,” Chris explains. “That is precisely why social media has transformed the way we live our lives. I applied that same idea to the way we do business. Our corporate blog (bhgrealestateblog.com) and our social media strategy enable us to share ideas with people who are passionate about real estate and about our brand, and get feedback as to whether we’re fulfilling our mission: to create the future of real estate.”
Building the right technology tools also involved closely monitoring the habits of today’s consumers.
“Baby Boomers are slowing down and Echo Boomers are stepping up,” Chris explains, “and how they buy things and communicate is very different. The Echo Boomer is collaborative and relies on a network—often a digital, social network—of friends and family to make big purchasing decisions. That’s how they’ve been brought up, so they’re not afraid to give feedback. We’ve built our tools to allow for the flow of communication between the agent, broker and consumer to take place in a very collaborative way.”
Of course, effective communication with today’s new generation of consumers requires the effective use of social media. “The moment we announced that we were launching the Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate brand, we built the whole social media piece and new media piece into our platform,” says Chris.
As regional manager for Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate Florida 1st, Summer Greene knows the value of providing agents with an effective technology platform. Greene first got a taste of the brand’s technology core when she saw Chris speaking about social media at industry events in 2008.
“Sherry was talking about social networking and Facebook and this new brand they were launching, and she invited everyone to friend her on Facebook. So I decided I would ping her to see if she would really respond,” recalls Greene. “Not only did she immediately respond, but it was a personal response, so I knew the response was from her.”
Greene was duly impressed by this initial connection to Chris and Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate. She shared her belief in the brand with Florida 1st owners Gene and Cathy Whiddon.
“When the three of us went to Parsippany to visit Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate at Realogy headquarters, we were blown away by the technology, by the brand’s vision of where real estate brokerage is going, by their energy and by how real everyone was,” says Greene. “At the end of the day when we got back in the car, we looked at each other and said, ‘Whoa, we didn’t see that coming.’”
Upon returning to Florida, the Whiddons pursued the opportunity further and converted their firm’s five offices and 300 agents to the Better Homes and Gardens brand in 2009.
“Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate gets it. They realize that real estate is no longer a transaction…it is about lifestyle and relationship,” says Greene. “The world has changed rapidly in the past several years and the reality is that technology is how people interact with each other today. Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate has been ahead of the curve on this. Beyond their leadership in social media, they have an amazing digital marketing platform where agents can create their own Web commercial, for example. Their online Talent Attraction Platform is a great recruiting tool. The consumer is online and that’s where we need to be. This was the most compelling part of the brand’s value proposition for me.”
This focus on technology and new media attracted Dallas broker David Winans, an innovative broker whose viral videos have logged about 200,000 views and even prompted a visit from Texas Gov. Rick Perry, along with articles in The Economist and Newsweek.
Winans officially joined the brand in November 2010 to become Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate David Winans & Associates.
“I needed to work with a company that knew about social media—that was really important—and Sherry and Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate live social media,” says Winans. “We just launched a rap video with a trailer to our upcoming comedy series, ‘The Agent.’ I knew that only Sherry would understand this craziness. The whole point of social media and our videos is to create attention and encourage people to have fun. Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate is the best of both worlds, because they’re on the front end of social media yet they’re also this super-trusted brand that’s apple pie and America. It’s this perfect combination.”
Tools Plus Service
Part of its ability to deliver such diverse and effective tools can be attributed to the brand’s familial relationship with Meredith Corporation, one of the leading media and marketing companies serving American consumers. Meredith’s trusted brands and content reach more than 75 million consumers across multiple touch points, including 23 publications, 12 television networks and 32 websites. Through the partnership with Meredith, Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate has unprecedented access to the media giant’s insights and lifestyle tools, which pay dividends in terms of building relationships with consumers.
The other powerful tool that emanates from Meredith’s media strength is a technology tool known as “PinPoint.” PinPoint is an exclusive program that provides Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate brokers with access to Meredith’s database of more than 75 million consumers who interact with the Better Homes and Gardens brand through the magazine, website and other Meredith brands. What makes this particular database so powerful is its intense degree of specialization, providing up to 1,200 data points per consumer. This facilitates extraordinary target marketing opportunities for brokers and agents.
“There are reports of a supply of homes on the market that is upwards of eight or more months,” says Chris. “Clearly, there is an imbalance of sellers to buyers. The goal of PinPoint is to help agents more effectively identify and direct market to potential buyers as well as sellers by targeting criteria that makes sense for their listing.
“This way, agents aren’t contacting people who aren’t interested, but rather connecting with people who will be interested.”
While PinPoint is just one of the many great tools Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate provides, all tools are meaningless without the ability to effectively deliver them to constituents at every level. “‘Excellence’ is the final value in our core value system. What that means to us is overdelivering in every instance,” says Chris. “We believe it’s the small things that make a big difference—we want to make sure that the broker’s expectations and the agent’s expectations are exceeded.”
According to Chris, Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate is able to deliver on this promise by designing its service and technology platforms to be completely scalable so that as the brand grows, the same level of service excellence is delivered to brokers and agents across the board. “We built a flexible platform so that we’re able to scale both the technology and the human element of service,” Chris explains. “This will allow the brand to continue to grow at a rapid pace and become very large in a relatively short period of time. Once we become even larger, our scalability will allow us to offer that same level of service.”
This high level of service and attention to detail was a major factor in Winans’s decision to join the brand. “From the time they picked us up at the airport in New Jersey and drove us to Realogy, to the actual conversion, it’s always been about the details. They’re impeccable,” he reports. “When you’ve been one brand for a long time and then, overnight, agents have to change, that’s a big job. We received an incredible amount of support from the Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate team and it’s continued from there. They overdeliver on every level. Whether it’s business planning, recruiting, training or the Greenhouse intranet, we are touched by them constantly.”
Greene agrees. “The support they give us month after month has been amazing,” she says. “For example, we have a diverse group of agents of different age groups and not all of them embrace social networking. So Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate sent down a technology team and hosted a full-day boot camp for us. And there are a host of webinars on Greenhouse that constantly reinforce what we’ve learned or what we might have missed.”
A Network for the Future
When looking at Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate’s success to date, Chris largely attributes it to her excellent team: “If you have the right group of people, together you can accomplish anything.”
“It’s apparent that they’re very serious and very smart…but best of all, they’re fun,” says Winans of Chris’s Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate team. “It’s been less than two months (at press time) since I joined the brand but I already feel like I know everyone. The group of brokers that Sherry has put together might be all shapes and sizes and from many different geographic areas, but we all have one thing 100% in common—we’re all about collaboration and we’re all excited about change. I really feel fortunate to be in this club.”
“This brand and broker network will continue to grow because it attracts a high quality of brokers,” believes Krafchow. “These are very difficult and dangerous times for everyone. Standing still is not something I want to do—I want a brand that will move to the new market. A lot of this business is based on clients trusting agents; therefore, agents have to trust the brokerage and know that we’re serving them at the highest level. My job is to help agents be productive.”
Looking to the future, Chris points to “a significant pipeline of strong potential partners in 2011.”
“We are proud of the brand we have built, and of the tools we provide to our network,” says Chris. “We are focused on strategic growth. We will continue to align ourselves with brokers in the right markets who share our core values and our belief that our lifestyle, technology-centric approach will give them a competitive edge. We provide exceptional service to our brokers and agents so they are positioned to provide exceptional service to their customers. Together, we will drive the future of real estate.”
For more information, visit www.bhgrealestate.com.
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