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How Michael Saunders & Company Mastered a Brand Enhancement

An iconic local leader with both national and international reach for 43 years, Sarasota, Fla.-based Michael Saunders & Company (MSC) certainly didn’t need a branding campaign to make its presence known. But an increasing amount of “clutter” in the market led company Founder and CEO Michael Saunders and President Drayton Saunders to view the firm through a fresh lens.

“We knew it was time to enhance and tell our story a little bit better,” explains Michael. “In the competitive world we live in, you have to be clear on your story.”

In this exclusive interview, the leaders discuss how, with partner 1000watt, they clearly defined their messaging and refreshed their brand, all while preserving the company’s rich history on the Gulf Coast.

Maria Patterson: Congratulations on a successful and beautiful brand refresh! I’m curious to know what led to the decision…in other words, why now?
Drayton Saunders:
First of all, there’s never a bad time to go through a refresh. We have always tweaked our messaging to align with what we know is core to the company’s success: our values, our history in the market and our people, all of which are built into every aspect of how we do business. At the same time, we realized a thorough brand review was long overdue and we felt like this was the right time to do it. The industry seems to have more noise than ever about what it is to be a strong real estate platform, and we wanted to be clear about how we’re communicating our story. As the saying goes, if you are not telling your story, somebody else is.

Michael Saunders: A brand cannot be stagnant. It’s a living entity, like a person. You interact with it daily—it needs to be current, and it needs to be interesting. It needs to reflect the community, our leadership, our amazing agents and employees. We knew it was time to enhance and tell our story a little bit better. In the competitive world we live in, you have to be clear on who you are. You have to distill your story and distance yourself from the competition.

MP: You refer to this initiative as a “refresh” as opposed to a “rebrand.” Please explain the difference, and why it’s important.
MS:
There was nothing broken about the brand. It is a respected name, certainly within the community, as well as within the industry nationally and internationally. It just needed to be enhanced—kind of polished a bit. Enhance is an even better word than refresh. It was really about using a lens to make it very clear who we are, how we are different, and what our value is to agents, staff and the community.

Since launching her company in 1976, Michael has pushed the boundaries of real estate brand marketing. She’s pictured here, to the right of her mother, Fran Mayers (left), and her brother, Tom Mayers (center), standing in front of the company helicopter, once used to view the extensive development happening in Sarasota from a birds-eye view.

MP: Why and how did you make the decision to partner with an outside agency?
MS:
We’ve refreshed the brand often since 1976, but we never engaged an agency to work with us. We felt it was time to look at our message—the look, feel and emotional part of the brand story—and we knew if we did this internally, we might miss key things an outside agency with this type of expertise would find. We’ve worked with 1000watt on other projects and trusted their creativity and understanding of our space. But we had them pitch us on their vision. Going through something like this, the agency partner was equally as important as the decision to do it.

DS: Working with an outside agency allowed us to get the external jolt of perspective only new eyes can add. Knowing that everyone has a blind spot, the value of a skilled agency let us look at every aspect of the company—from print to web to the story on the street—to bring out elements of our story that might have been missing. 1000watt brought the creative spark, which was an essential ingredient to the overall success of our process.

MP: Why was 1000watt the right choice?
MS:
We knew that the founders (Marc Davison, chief creative officer and Brian Boero, CEO) are highly creative and speak real estate. And they have built a respectable agency of outstanding creative and strategic thinkers and developed a methodology for producing original work that produces results. What amazed us was how deep they went and how detailed they were. Their approach was formidable and went well beyond discovery with Drayton, myself and our Chief Marketing Officer Jennifer Horvat. They spent a full week living here in the community, speaking to everyone, including our agents, department heads, locals, community leaders and people on the street.

MP: What would you highlight as the most significant components of the brand refresh?
MS:
1000watt pulled everything together to come up with one simple, three-word campaign mantra: “Nowhere But Here.” It speaks to who we are, the quality of our agents and services, and the community itself. We’ve grown up here, we wake up here every day, we have roots here. It’s really a mindset.

At first, I pushed back on the mantra. But one day I sat under a tree and began thinking about it. I started applying it to everything. Nowhere but here can agents find someone as rooted as we are, with an international reach. Nowhere but here can they be involved in a charity like ours, the MSC Foundation. Nowhere but here can agents find fellow leadership, non-selling managers and division heads, tech and marketing support, and a community like ours. So much of the campaign 1000watt created touched on this sentiment. It took time, but I trusted them. When it finally hit me, I got it in a big way.

Michael Saunders (right) and son Drayton Saunders (company president, left) began work on the rebrand with creative agency 1000watt in November of 2018.

MP: How would you describe the visual elements of the campaign?
MS:
1000watt underscored who we are and gave us that saturation of color reflecting the beaches and sunsets and lushness of our landscape. They gave us the power to take the brand color—our blue—that we’ve used for years, and make it pop with the added texture and color they designed. And it’s all about the white space.

MP: Michael Saunders & Company has such a long and important history in the region. How do you tackle revitalizing the brand while not disturbing its roots?
DS:
One aspect was looking at the internal story and how it flows through our associates and all of our branded materials. Michael was very focused on the details of our history, which goes back to 1976. It was all about focusing on those details, then turning the lens and being hyper-focused on what that means in the community. Our agency’s approach was to go out into the community and take what they heard and use it in creative ways to re-engineer our presence through that narrative. We’re a local company that lives and works in the community. Our agents identify that we’re a company with roots and history in the community they love and care about.

MS: People think history is stuffy and old. But it doesn’t have to be. It all depends on how that story is expressed. We wanted to give a nod to our history, but a look to the future with something creative, fresh, bright and sharp. A fusion of historical strength and innovative, creative leadership. 1000watt pulled all those elements together to tell our story in a way that we’d be too modest to say, and really, we would never think to tell it. They helped us express all the things we built the company on over the years: values, trust, creativity, innovation.

MP: So how has the brand enhancement helped clarify the evolution of Michael Saunders & Company?
MS:
In the beginning, the company was just focused on waterfront properties. We’re still the leader in the upper end of the market and waterfront, but we have expanded to serve all markets. We wanted this refresh to give us options for agents to enhance and grow their own brands while proudly connecting to ours. We’ve given them a palette of color and texture to work with and we’re watching the brand enhancement come alive through our agents’ use of it in all media.

Southwest Florida’s coastline is bordered by long, narrow barrier islands. The jewel tones from the natural landscape of the region were the inspiration for the brand’s new palette.

Beyond static colors, the brand’s refresh brings in dynamic tones and textures inspired by the landscape of the region Michael Saunders & Company serves.

MP: How has this effort helped underscore the company’s competitive differentiation?
MS:
One of the first tasks that 1000watt undertook was an analysis of the competitive brands in the marketplace, as well as those who might enter the marketplace. We had to show how we’re different to the consumer and the agent. We’ve built the company based on relationships, and that’s what makes us different. That’s what we wanted to get across to our agents and any agent looking for a home. It truly is our ethos—it’s the sum of everything we are.

DS: We know we are in a competitive industry, and when you look at the ingredients of a successful company, you think tools, local knowledge and creativity. What the brand exercise has done is to remind us that we bring all of those together in a unique way for the people we serve and the markets we are in. Ultimately, the competitive edge was to bring to light that we had a lot to celebrate and offer, and not be hesitant to tell that story. The microsite is a great example of taking that narrative and bringing it back to light in a way that is vibrant and different. It really showcases some of the new ways we are engaging the market.

MS: The microsite is a growing, breathing organism that continues to evolve. It tells our story and gives us the opportunity to never be static or stand still.

MP: How was the brand refresh received by your agents? How will this help them compete and increase business moving forward?
DS:
The rollout of the brand has been a strategic approach that includes layering in elements as we move through the fall and ramp up for 2020. The biggest piece of this was unveiling the concept of Nowhere But Here. The response to the messaging has been extremely positive. How the refresh translates to agents’ day-to-day business is about connecting their own story of Nowhere But Here. Real estate is local, it is people to people, and in an industry where it is easy to be distracted by the latest technology, our brand refresh ultimately doubles down on the importance of relationships.  Whether it is working with our customers or introducing our communities to the newest curious visitor, when it comes to real estate, we want them thinking, Nowhere But Here.

MS: People say agents don’t like change, but it’s a myth. Agents love and want change as long as the change makes sense, is strategic, is executed beautifully and benefits them. Our agents think what we’ve done is very exciting. It helps define them in a new way and gives them a strong foundation and confidence in the company that supports them.

MP: Finally, what do you anticipate from the brand refresh moving ahead?
MS:
I couldn’t be more pleased with our enhancement. It’s a fabulous evolution. But this is not a one-and-done brand enhancement—it is a guideline and map for the future. Our in-house marketing and technology teams will continue to work with 1000watt to launch this campaign and evolve it over time. This is just the beginning, and we’re very excited for what’s to come.

Learn more at the brand campaign microsite, NowhereButHere.net.

Maria Patterson is RISMedia’s executive editor. Email her your real estate news ideas at maria@rismedia.com.

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