How real estate developers can get the most out of their branding agencies

The secret is definitely out. More and more real estate developers are adopting a practice that restaurateurs and hoteliers have long used as a means for differentiation: branding.

It’s easy to see how we got here… A nationwide trend takes hold: people young and old are renting, and they’re renting in cities. The trend creates demand for apartments. Demand for apartments spurs development on a massive scale. Massive development means massive competition — for residents, for retailers, for attention. Such competition causes developers to seek differentiation by any means possible. An amenities arms race takes hold, pet spas become a thing, and still — the product is largely treated as a commodity. In walk the branding agencies.

Image credit: Kathryn Rotondo/Creative Commons

In our crane-dotted urban milieu, plastering a building with a sexy name and a shiny logo has become de rigueur. It’s so commonplace, in fact, that we’re left to wonder: why hasn’t branding lost its power to actually differentiate?

The answer has to do with the fact that brands are really more soul than logo. Great brands can’t simply be copy-and-pasted from one development to another. They are unique. They tell a compelling story. They take on layers of complexity, like well-drawn characters. The best ones become forces of integration, bringing product design, customer experience, and business practices into harmonious alignment.

There’s a problem, of course. Not all brands are created equal. Some merely are a sexy name and a shiny logo plastered across a soulless building. And if that’s the case, the developer is leaving money on the table. By failing to properly leverage the power of branding, developers will lose out on a critical opportunity to command higher rents, decrease resident churn, and position their projects for long-term success.

So if you’re thinking about hiring, or perhaps have already hired an agency to brand your next project, here are five ways to squeeze the most value out of that relationship:

1. Bring the agency in early. (Really early.)

Architects often use a French word — parti — to describe the organizing thought behind their designs. Some call it a big idea. At Proverb, we call it a Brand Truth. Either way, designers thrive when they have a larger context or platform from which to make design decisions.

When branding teams come in early, it means that the parti/big idea/Brand Truth is not based on personal aesthetic preferences, but rather on consumer needs and competitive white space — the bread and butter of brand strategy.

So how early is early? In an ideal world, the branding team would begin its work before the exterior of the building is set in stone. With the types of projects we work on, that typically means a full two years prior to opening.

2. Facilitate collaboration across disciplines.

If you’ve hired creative people, just put them in the same room together. When your branding team is presenting, invite the architects, interior designers, and property managers. And when those teams are presenting, invite the branding agency.

It’s that simple and yet most developers never think to do it. In our experience, the second halves of these meetings often turn into natural brainstorming sessions — the kind of “yes, and…” dialogue that tends to generate breakthrough ideas.

3. Be prepared to spend some extra money.

Your branding team will generate its best ideas during the course of the project, not when scoping out a proposal. But a great idea is useless without the ability to execute.

Don’t forget to leave some padding in the marketing budget so that you can pay for those ideas that no one saw coming. Bear in mind, though, that good ideas don’t have to cost a ton of money — keep an antenna up for those that achieve high impact at a low cost. A single set of custom door pulls at the entrance, for example, can create a more lasting impression than 300 marginally nicer faucet fixtures.

4. Bridge the property management gap.

Inevitably, the engagement with your branding agency will wind down. The website will go live. The collateral will be printed. The big ideas will come to life. All too often, however, the agency will ride off into the sunset and leave the brand in the hands of a property management team that has been insufficiently prepared to sustain it.

Including an onboarding phase in the process will help ensure that your teams are aligned, and more importantly, that your customer experience feels seamlessly consistent from start to finish.

5. Be brave.

Lastly, empower your branding team to go big. If the target audience bears a striking resemblance to the general population, tell them to focus. If the copywriting sounds like marketing-speak, tell them to be more human. Have the courage to know that the best brands aren’t for everyone.

After all, if at first an idea is not absurd, there is no hope for it. Albert Einstein said that.

Proverb is an agency focused on building powerful brands and creating a more thoughtful world around us. We partner with innovative real estate developers, cities, hotels, museums, architects, hospitals and other organizations that seek to transform the built environment. See some of our work at