Time to embrace branding

09:41 | 05/09/2011
Until the lengthy time before move-in, what apartment buyers are relying on is an image. Yet most developers fail to develop a strong brand image for their project and themselves, writes Richard Moore.
Richard Moore is the managing creative director of Richard Moore Associates, the first firm specialising in brand identity to receive a 100 per cent foreign-owned license to practice in Vietnam. The firm has offices in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and New York City. Moore has over 40 years of experience in helping companies develop their brands.

While the long term projection for the real estate market is still good, developers are currently experiencing severe problems.

The State Bank is tightening the availability of funds for real estate projects. The supply of high end properties is beginning to exceed demand. The construction and management service quality of many “high quality” properties is actually low. Pricing is inconsistent and often unreasonable. What has been a seller’s market is in many cases turning into a buyer’s market.

On the other hand, the demand for housing is still high and increasing. With Vietnam’s demographics, it must.

A major reason for many of today’s problems in real estate development stem from the wide gap between buyers’ expectations and developers’ habits. Essentially, their perceptions differ, resulting in a classic brand image problem. It’s surprising that developers have paid such little attention to the most important branding steps.

They should. More than almost any other business segment, what developers are selling requires a close alignment of buyer and brand emotional characteristics, and the emotional relationship that all brands endeavour to establish.

Most successful brands who actively participate in formation of the image their customers have of them begin the process with research. When we begin working with a company to develop a strong brand image, we start with the brand itself. We want to learn not only the functional aspects of what the company is planning, but also their dreams and aspirations for the brand. We do this through in-depth interviews. And then we use other techniques like focus groups to learn the same of brand users.

When done well, this process usually uncovers two things that developers could benefit greatly in knowing about their targeted customers. They learn what customers think about what is available on the market now, and more importantly, what those customers would really like to have. When there is a gap between the two, good brand research can reveal both opportunities and dangers.


A property project’s branding is an essential vehicle for getting more buyers onboard

Some current real estate development problems that could have been revealed with insightful brand research is the huge demand for medium priced apartments with affordable quality, the negative perception of excessive room sizes in many high end properties and the degree of construction quality that high quality real estate buyers have come to expect.

When research reveals gaps, it doesn’t necessarily mean that a brand should follow what buyers think they want. But it does mean that a brand must find a way around a problem that becomes known.

For example, when we helped PNJ with focus group research before we created the brand identity for Cao, its sophisticated high end jewelry brand, it seemed to some that the brand name sounded to “hard.” But Cao is a great name – short with very positive meaning. Knowing of the perceptional problem, we were careful to create a flowing, elegant design that is anything, but hard.

Some developers are learning. Nam Cuong Group has somehow caught what buyers want by developing Le Van Luong Residentials with many small apartments at a low price to meet the market demand.

The next step in branding is to use what’s learned in research to determine the most important brand differences so they can be communicated clearly to buyers. In a crowed marketplace, emphasising those differences in the core identity of the brand can maximise the communication of all of a brand’s communication materials. We use those differences to form the foundation for all verbal and visual creative development.

There are few products that a customer can see so little of and wait so long to take possession of after turning over such a large amount of their livelihood as an apartment. They are investing their dreams of family and status with a brand they in almost all cases have never done business with before.

Successful brands have human-like personalities. Every communication that a developer shares with a customer should reinforce a clear persona that fits both the developer’s aspirations about the property, and the expectations of the buyer. Every communication that fails to do that is worse than a lost opportunity, it can also reinforce doubts that a buyer might have about this stranger who is proposing to help him with his dreams.

Those communications, from a business card to a billboard, should consistently use a brand name, positioning phrase, logotype, colours, typefaces and formats in a way that strategically underlays whatever short term message is required along the path from first impression to move in. And afterwards, they should continue to perpetuate the property’s image and reinforce the sense of pride residents should have in their community, helping maintain property values by doing so. 

Brand building is not just about good, consistent design. The image aspects of it require an image that fits the brand and its consumers. Consider the playful character of the V-sign logo we developed for the V6 channel for Vietnam’s youth. Compare it with the inspirational sun-like logo we developed for DongA Bank. What has made the success of these and other brand identity programmes now familiar in the Vietnamese marketplace is that that they help tell the brand’s story in every communication.

That story must fit the reality of what the brand offers. Those developers that are promoting their medium quality projects as luxury dwellings don’t earn the trust that is needed for a strong, ongoing brand relationship.

One of the biggest insights that real estate developers could learn from brand image developers is the relationship between the image of the parent brand and its sub-brands. When we help brands with this, if we find there are advantages in showing a strong relationship between parent and sub-brand, we overtly show the relationship. If there are disadvantages, we find other ways to communicate the relationship.

Some real estate developers create images for their projects that distinguish them from each other, sometimes very well. But more often developers do not identify their buildings well, especially not in a way that contributes to a strong image for the parent. For example, new buildings in Hanoi are often named CT, A or C followed by a numeral, even though such terms are void of any image or relationship to a brand. Indochina Land is an exception. They consistently remind clients about the parent’s involvement in every project, gaining trust and developing a good brand image. Mixed-used projects are named INDOCHINA+name. And for other projects like uniquely named resort villas or golf courses, their statement “A quality development of INDOCHINA LAND” appears on all communication materials. This works well for Indochina Land because they market solely within one segment, high end properties.

A bad example of using the parent name for projects is Vimeco. It has many buildings named Vimeco, but it also uses its name for businesses unrelated to real estate, such as Vimeco Mechanic and Trading, and Vimeco Kindergarten. That won’t instill confidence among property buyers.

There are other things that real estate developers could learn from brand builders, but these are some that will help developers build the solid foundation they need for their brands, just as they do for their buildings.

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