“One of the things Century 21 emphasizes is the ability of its agents to work on a personal level, understanding the goals of individual people and marrying them in a national media outreach,” says CMO Bev Thorne, who joined the company a year a half ago at the beginning of the housing crisis. “I think what it really boils down to is an issue of trust, and the agency and agent understanding their consumers' needs.”
At a time when the nation's economic instability is attributed in large part to mortgage-related investments, generating business is simultaneously about Century 21's own financial solvency and consumer confidence in its brand.
When Thorne first joined the company, she says the real estate brokerage was a global brand with high recognition, but without strong consumer preference.
To address this issue, she “re-architected” the marketing team and strengthened the role of PR, including the hiring of Burson-Marsteller as AOR in late spring 2007.
“I believe PR was not an appropriate portion of the [marketing] mix previously,” says Thorne. “[The new team] really looked at and tackled the position Century 21 was in and looked to matching our capabilities with our perception in the market. PR efforts have been instrumental in positioning the brand.”
Tony Telloni, MD and New York market leader at Burson, adds that one of the first initiatives he worked on for Century 21 was to leverage its CEO Tom Kunz as a thought leader in the real estate industry. The idea was to put the company in front of the issues that were most worrying to consumers.
“Century 21 had been very quiet in terms of external communications,” he says. “When we came on board, we came to the same conclusion as Bev – that someone needs to go out and champion [the industry]... If all anyone read were the headlines, you could logically come to only one conclusion: the market is terrible.”
So, Century 21 placed Kunz as a trusted expert on national and regional media outlets, in some instances even appearing side by side with local brokers.
“The media was very receptive because they had only heard [about] and been writing one side. With such success, we replicated [this effort] in a variety of markets and many media relations [efforts],” says Telloni, who notes Kunz still regularly takes part in such initiatives.
Matt Gentile, Century 21's director of PR and brand communications, says positioning Kunz in this way will continue to be part of the company's PR strategy.
Gentile adds that as a recognized brand in real estate, “I don't have to knock down doors to get reporters to answer my calls. Instead, my challenge is to look at our current media outreach and enhance it.”
Another key way the company sought to build on consumer recognition and trust was to reinstate the golden jacket, worn by realtors until the mid-90s.
“[We] discovered in talking to consumers that it was the most recognized icon in the industry,” says Thorne. “It was perfect in terms of speaking to the qualities [of] the brand and level of professionals.”
The golden jacket, along with a climate-analogous line for markets where the jacket may not be appropriate, was relaunched globally in early spring to draw attention to a back-to-basics approach to realty for consumers, says Telloni.
Another program was the promotion of April as Open House month. Century 21 sought to revitalize this industry staple by creating a supporting YouTube channel and by having brokers and consumers create entries in a video contest featuring creative Open House footage.
“We energized the [Open House] effort... and made it into something: hip, fun, and contemporary for younger consumers,” says Thorne.
The point was to build mechanisms using new media to reach up-and-coming home buyers through the most relevant media, she adds.
Due to the success of this program, October will also serve as another national Open House month.
Thorne also notes the recent launch of a Web site to create more relevant consumer-facing programs.
Century 21 brokers are expected to play a key role in including consumers in messaging, and some media training has taken place in upwards of 45 to 50 local markets.
The company also provides all agents, regardless of training, with access to PR Studio, the company's online program that educates and trains partners in relevant messaging, says Thorne.
Such initiatives, which ensure the Century 21 message is infused in all levels of
property communications and consumer interaction, have become a way to propel the company.
“Although the market is still down, the percentage of activity we're seeing, both in terms of percentage and volume of leads, is up,” says Thorne, “We're [now] in the direction we want to be headed in and are working hard to keep going with it.”
Matt Gentile, director of PR and brand communications for Century 21, discusses key messages in this environment:
Things aren't as bad as they seem
“Right now, many people can buy, rent, or move up. [Overall,] the number of foreclosures are a very small part of the market.”
Always look local
“To paint broad brushstrokes in terms of a national real-estate market does not give a fair perception of the market. It's market by market, right now.”
US market is international
“Real estate is growing internationally. Also, inter-national buyers are looking to the US as a safe haven and wealth generator, as we all should right now.”