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Jane is a retail and small business writer with a special interest in emerging companies and entrepreneurs. She covered the financial services industry before moving into general business journalism and has written for The Age and The Australian Financial Review.

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Renovators’ delight or run-down money pit: Can real estate kick its marketing fluff habit?

Published 18 June 2013 08:49, Updated 21 June 2013 09:47

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Renovators’ delight or run-down money pit: Can real estate kick its marketing fluff habit?

Karen Hall of real estate group Ray White has pledged to cut the flowery language. Photo: Christopher Pearce

Anyone who has ever bought or rented a house knows the lingo only too well: “renovators’ delight”, “timeless design” and “heritage features” are real estate buzz terms that sound great but say little. However, real estate group Ray White has pledged to “cut the flowery language” used in sales campaigns in a bid to give customers what they really want – transparency.

The popularity and contagiousness of linguistic inflation is often viewed as a necessary evil in marketing, but the practice alienates customers and potentially dilutes branding, Ray White chief of marketing Karen Hall says.

“Every spring in real estate is full of ‘poppies, daisies and tulips’. ‘Spring into sold’, ‘property prices bloom in spring’ – the bad seasonal puns are always there,” Hall says. “But our research showed us that people are looking for clear, simple messages when buying property that is backed by data. Likewise, sellers are tired of these flowery, unfounded statements.”

Hall says such breathless exaggeration is designed to appeal to a buyer’s desire for comfort, security and status, but customers are more than aware of the unwritten rules of “real estate speak”. If the property is expensive, it’s likely to be “exclusive”; if not, it’s “affordable” or an “ideal investment”. If a house is run down and needs extensive repair it’s a “renovator’s delight” with “endless potential”.

But the constant use of this language has caused dilution. Few customers are able to differentiate between real estate brands. As a result, Ray White, which has 12,000 agents and 1000 franchises, has conducted market research and customer surveys with buyers to identify where it is going wrong.

“It’s a very cluttered space [real estate marketing]. There are countless brands in the marketplace saying and doing similar marketing, so it’s difficult to gain your fair share of attention.

There are countless brands in the marketplace saying and doing similar marketing, so it’s difficult to gain your fair share of attention

“Often in the absence of strong [property data], agents tend to default to using this kind of language. But what customers want is simple, true information – that is what resonates most with them,” Hall says.

Ray White’s research showed that most customers – including property vendors and buyers – want at the very least to be presented with sales data, market information relevant to their area and proof of previous successes.

At a time when there is a plethora of information and data available online, and often for free, marketers (including sales people) need to work harder to prove their value, Hall says. Customers demand transparency and personalised data that is updated on a daily basis, she says.

“Having a personalised approach is very important in real estate. It’s an emotive decision to buy or sell a property,” Hall says. “We send out an average of 700 market reviews to customers every day . . . and they all need to be personalised.”

Stating the facts

Hall says Ray White’s campaign – Ray White Know How – encourages agents to focus on seven areas that it believes influence buyers’ and sellers’ decisions. They include knowledge, experience, results, tailored marketing, creating competition, passion and ease of process. In addition to traditional media advertising, the company runs ads on social media and outdoor media and radio campaigns.

It also encourages customers to use its Neighbourhood Know How website, that allows users to rate their suburbs and interact via a forum format. “One of our agents, for example, gave someone a tip about where to send their dog for obedience training after responding to a local area question.”

Rethinking the marketing approach across the business will undoubtedly take work. Hall is non-committal on how this will be achieved, other than saying that the campaign will be launched throughout its network and ongoing training materials and videos will be used. She does not indicate how the agents’ sales pitches will be “quality controlled” throughout the campaign.

Can marketers really give up their lingo?

Branding expert Michel Hogan agrees that sales and marketing teams have a tendency to over-hype their campaigns, setting expectations that companies cannot meet. But she is dubious that companies such as Ray White can achieve their goals by cutting “flowery” marketing speak in their campaigns.

Advertising lingo, as she puts it, is as “addictive as crack cocaine” and is a habit that marketers and advertisers find incredibly difficult to break.

“When I hear things like ‘cut the fluff’ I always think back to the whole ‘they are boxy but they’re good’ Volvo joke ad from the movie Crazy People – ultimate truth in advertising. It’s the truth but it’s not sexy and doesn’t make for good advertising.

“I am curious about how exactly they will cut the fluff. Will we see them saying ‘run-down money pit’ instead of renovators’ delight?” she asks.

I am curious about how exactly they will cut the fluff. Will we see them saying ‘run-down money pit’ instead of renovators’ delight?

That said, Hogan says the perception of a brand is built according to a company’s promise and whether they can uphold it. She says National Australia Bank’s “breaking up with the banks” campaign was a good example of breaking with convention and speaking in real terms to customers.

“The real test is whether they can do this for longer than five minutes and really follow through with it. It’s a difficult thing to achieve.”

In Hogan’s own experience, marketers don’t recognise they are inflating their language.

“I say to them, ‘so the goal here is to be good?’ They say, ‘but if we say good, it doesn’t sound good enough’. So then I ask them, ‘how would you define great then, and is that something the company can really achieve?’”

In real estate, Hogan says consumers have become so used to the inflated language used by agents that they take no notice of it. While some nice photos of a property and a creative description in an ad might trigger a potential buyer’s interest, it is ultimately their relationship with the agent that will assist the sale of the property.

“It’s all about relationships and personal contact – whether that agent called you back and was transparent in their dealings with you. That is what makes a customer trust them more.”

What NAB did

NAB’s “breaking up with the banks” campaign is seen by marketers as a good example of breaking with convention and cutting the fluff in marketing campaigns. The campaign ran over four days in February 2011 and started with what looked like an errant tweet from one of NAB’s corporate Twitter accounts suggesting the tweeter was about to have a difficult break-up conversation. The following day media ran a story about NAB’s intention to pay subsidies of up to $700 to customers who switched mortgages. On the third day, Valentine’s Day, the bank launched the campaign, stating it was breaking out of the big four banking group to go it alone. On the final day, various publicity stunts were carried out.

NAB general manager, consumer marketing, Kevin Ramsdale, was heavily involved with the multimillion-dollar campaign. “The genesis of the campaign was to deliver a strong business strategy . . . and to do that we needed a very bold marketing strategy. That said, we had quite a simple brief.”

Management was behind the bold campaign from the beginning, which meant implementation was relatively simple, Ramsdale says.

Measuring the success of the campaign was done in two ways. The company measured the immediate traffic to its website and call centres as well as on social and traditional media. Over the following months it tracked how many customers switched banks and became NAB customers. “It was viewed as a success. It generated impact beyond the [cost of the campaign] and we had a good response from the business,” Ramsdale says.

He denies criticism that the company has softened its marketing approach in the past two years.

“Australians are an honest bunch who deserve an honest credit card . .  . and the leverage of our relationship with the AFL, I think you will find we are trying to be bold in marketing. The messages are different, but we are being bold.”

Ramsdale says with the level of “constant noise” customers are exposed to in the media, companies need to sit back and think about what consumers really need and want. “Lots can be said for simplifying the message and cutting the noise,” he says.

They said what?

A quick search by BRW on a popular real estate website found the majority of Victorian real estate agents used flowery, inflated language in property descriptions.

One run-down unit in the affluent Bayside suburb of Brighton was described as a “boutique buy” in a “blue chip” location. A local agent describes the run-down two-bedroom property, on the market for an estimated $450,000-plus, as “renovated in timeless style”, despite the fact it clearly needs updating.

An ad for a single-fronted weatherboard property on the major Bayside arterial, the Nepean Highway, is titled “potential plus”. The same agency describes the property as “Brighton’s best-value period home.

“This two-bedroom weatherboard beauty is an exciting entry to Brighton’s period precinct, with Elwood’s parklands and golf course just behind, train, tram, bus, cinemas, Elsternwick’s fabulous shopping strip just moments away and Elsternwick Primary School within a walk.”

5 marketing language tips

1. Bigger doesn’t always mean better when it comes to marketing language. Don’t use two words when one will do, it complicates the message.

2. Have the data to support a claim. Is a property really the “best value period home in Brighton”? What information and data supports that claim?

3. Avoid cliches. If it sounds insincere, it probably is.

4. Avoid puns and metaphors. They are usually cringeworthy rather than attention grabbing.

5. Be prepared to support the branding message. If a company claims to be “the real estate agent with the best service”, ensure sales staff are adequately trained and up to the task.

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