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By Maria Patterson

RISMEDIA, July 3, 2008-Branding just might be the most ubiquitous term in real estate. From the large franchise to the local independent to the individual agent, creating a recognizable brand name has long been considered the foundation of success in real estate.

Talk to Kaira Sturdivant Rouda about branding, and you’ll get a very unique take on the subject-one that makes a lot of sense, in fact. For Rouda, president of Columbus, Ohio-based Real Living, creating a brand is an internal process-a journey of self discovery, so to speak. This process of creating a personal brand from within, says Rouda, leads directly to highly effective target marketing, allowing agents to connect with those customers that stand to generate the most business. This approach to branding is, in fact, the principle on which Real Living was founded six years ago.

“Back in 2002, it was an odd notion that we would target women,” explains Rouda. “It was revolutionary back then.” But for Rouda, it was obvious.

“We know that women make or influence 91 percent of all home-buying purchases and control 94 percent of all home furnishing purchases. At the time of purchase, women increase spending by 200 percent. Capitalizing on the power of women was a no-brainer. We were able to tap into technology to brand ourselves and acknowledge women as our focus.”

Making It Personal

According to Rouda, real estate professionals should take a cue from the strategy Real Living employed in building its brand. Now, more than ever, she believes, is the time for agents to discover and capitalize on their own personal brand.

“The general notion of mass media is becoming a notion of waste,” says Rouda. “You can no longer send the same message to groups of all different people; it doesn’t work anymore. Agents have to start saying that they’re not the perfect agent for everyone, but they are the perfect agent for the right customer. We are trying to help our agents understand the paradigm shift and focus on niche marketing.”

Becoming an effective niche marketer, however, means determining your own personal brand, a process Rouda describes as “very intuitive.” She suggests creating a “brand board” that includes all the things you are passionate about as well as your hopes and dreams. Doing so will help you determine which customers you will connect best with, and which customers you should target.

“You have to ask yourself, ‘Who do I have the best rapport with? Who would I be most genuinely connected with?'” advises Rouda. “Perhaps you’re passionate about saving the environment, but you’re also a big scuba diver. In a more traditional way, you would have woven that into your message with a slogan like, ‘Land a Big One.’ Today, that no longer flies because it’s not about you, the agent-it’s about the consumer. There are hundreds of like-minded people who care about the environment and a number of people who want to save the reef-start thinking about the people you would most like to attract, who are interested in what you most authentically believe in. Join Facebook and go to events you have in common. Start making those types of connections-they are deeper and more genuine and real. That’s the real type of target marketing we’re talking about.”

Rouda points out that some of the target markets agents traditionally focus on are really not very specialized at all. First-time home buyers, for example, a common niche often referenced as a specialty, can really mean anyone aged 25 or 65. Rouda instead suggests honing in further, such as first-time home buyers who are newly divorced women. The idea is to choose target markets that you can relate to based on common interests and particular life stages.

By taking the time to discover which customer groups you click best with, you will create relationships that are more profitable and more productive. Why? Because as Rouda says, by first revealing your own passions and identity and then connecting with kindred spirits, you will create truly authentic relationships and be able to offer genuine advice. This, in turn, generates invaluable trust.

“You have to play to your strengths,” advises Rouda. “When you serve customers with not the ‘surface you’, but the real you, the passion you demonstrate leads to more results and to raving fans.”

Analyze Your Customers

One way to determine the right target market is to look at the clients you have historically had the most success with. Who are your best customers and what is their profile?

Rouda cites an example out of New York City where one real estate firm conducted a study of their best customers and uncovered an array of surprisingly consistent characteristics: they worked in the financial district or at ad agencies; they chose properties from the same six buildings; they frequented the same restaurants, etc.

“You can do the same thing anywhere,” says Rouda, “but you have to take the time to find out who your best clients are, survey them and ask them questions.”

Rouda recommends creating a snapshot of your best customer to discover the people you are currently targeting and then determining who you want to target. Where do they work? Where do they shop? What do they look like? What sites do they visit online? Doing so will help reveal the common characteristics of the target market you wish to attract, which will enable you to develop the best strategy for attracting them.

Tom Grimshaw and Jennifer McClosky of Real Living Properties in Florida know their luxury Miami clientele inside and out. The team purchased a Real Living franchise in August 2006 and was able to make a name for themselves by delivering outstanding service “literally 24/7.”

“We are very careful about how we brand ourselves,” says Grimshaw. “One of the reasons we chose Real Living is because of the Real Living brand. Since our focus is on luxury, we put a lot of focus on the Platinum part of the Real Living brand. We also highlight our memberships in other important organizations like Who’s Who in Luxury Real Estate, Luxury Real, The Luxury Marketing Council of Florida and others.

“We didn’t actually choose the luxury market, it’s just what we know best,” Grimshaw adds. “Our backgrounds and experience just came together with our customer set. We are very focused on the areas of Miami that really exemplify the best that Miami has to offer. All provide lifestyle amenities that are important to what you might call today’s luxury buyer.”

All Things to All People? No More.

While Rouda’s approach to branding may seem contrary to the traditional school of real estate thought-fill the funnel, expand your sphere, etc.-it actually helps generate more business for agents by enabling them to focus their efforts in the best direction.

“It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t pay attention to general niches,” says Rouda. “But it’s deeper than that. You are not the perfect agent for everyone in every suburb. Agents have been told that they can be all things to all people so you’ll see slogans like, ‘Serving Greater Chicago.’ You just can’t do that-it doesn’t feel real. A customer will Google you and find out everything they can about you-if what they hear from you doesn’t match who you really are, they will spot that.”

Grimshaw and McClosky fully embrace this target market concept. “Like in any business, in real estate you cannot be all things to all people,” Grimshaw explains. “And you don’t need to be. No matter what you do, you have to have a passion for it. We have a passion for our customers and the lifestyles that they either create or enhance by owning property in Miami. For some, it is a permanent home for them and their families and so the availability of the best schools is critical. For others, Miami is a getaway from a stressful life in another city, so water views and beach access are the most important things. The common denominator is that they have high expectations about the experience that they are buying, which includes the property, the community, access to an international airport, great shopping, and dining and culture.”

Discovering your personal brand is more important in today’s current real estate climate than ever before, Rouda emphasizes: “If you are not clear about your personal brand, then you are not clear about your competitive advantage. You need to begin by taking a look at your current marketing material and what you are saying in the marketplace. Evaluate your personal ads and listing ads and see if it’s saying anything of meaning and substance. Head shots and slogans don’t do anything for consumers-nor does saying that you’re a $500 million producer…to me, that says that you don’t need my business!”

By setting the stage as a company, Real Living makes it easy for brokers to follow in the path of personal branding, says Grimshaw. “Real Living is so focused on protecting the brand that they have created, that it allows us to take it a step further and focus the Real Living brand in our market very easily. Kaira Rouda’s intense work on making the brand relevant and real has allowed us to introduce it to Miami with great success. So much success that we have already purchased the rights for another Real Living office in Miami Beach.”

Ultimately, Rouda believes target marketing is vital in today’s market. “You need to be able to articulate your brand-you have to discover your passion and use it.”