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Is agent-centric branding a good thing or a bad thing?

I write this post not from a position of authority, but from one of inquisitiveness.  There is A LOT of branding going on in real estate; branding of the brokerage, branding of the agent, branding of a blog, even branding of a specific listing. Recently, as part of the reinvention of my own brokerage and blog, I’ve begun to look at my personal branding (or, shall I say, lack thereof).

I’ve always taken the position that Realtor pictures on cards, signs and collateral is, in a way, cheesy (sorry guys, I know some of you are getting mad just about now).  More like a used car salesman than the professional I consider myself to be.  I also ascribed to the idea that our services are more about the client and not about us and the message should be the same… Butttt, when I look at some of the top producers out there (in CGI), I see that most of them incorporate their personal brand strongly into all of their materials.  Their image and their name are often paramount.  Maybe this means I should reconsider my position.

Pros of a non-agent centric brand

  • focus on the client, not on the agent
  • it’s sell-able (ie sell your biz when you move on, it won’t be handicapped by the missing figurehead)
  • it’s less salesy
  • easier to implement a team approach

Pros of an agent centric brand

  • People identify strongly with a figurehead
  • People remember that picture, and will recall it when the time for real estate rolls around
  • A picture is worth a thousand words

A few qualifiers in this discussion, I am NOT talking about rehashing old and outdated photos, I’m talking about professional well designed personal agent branding that does incorporate the agent’s picture and name and main elements of the sales brand.  I have seen some agents do this really really well.

What is your opinion, pro and con, of incorporating a strong personal brand into your real estate marketing?  I’d love to hear it!

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Written By

Janie has been in the development, construction and real estate industries for over 20 years. She began her career in commerical construction and has slowly worked into all of the related industries and added residential properties to her resume 7 years ago. She is currently the co-owner of sister companies, Papillon Real Estate and Papillon ReDevelopment (a construction and project management firm). Janie blogs for The Coral Gables Story. In her "free" time, she is a graduate student of Atlantic History with a focus on the history of business and technology. She is a lover of geo-anything. She loves the story.

49 Comments

49 Comments

  1. Terence Richardson

    October 6, 2010 at 1:30 pm

    I’ve struggled with the idea of agent vs non-agent centric branding and a very successful agent once told me when I was just getting started that people don’t really care about you, they care about what you can do for them. With that, I started off with non-agent centric. My marketing messages were aimed at the solution instead of dominating personal branding and I’ve had a good amount of success so far. I haven’t really tried branding myself specifically.

    Logically speaking, I think both methods can be very successful. It all depends in how you market them.

    • Janie Coffey

      October 6, 2010 at 2:43 pm

      that is exactly what I always thought, but I have been hard pressed to find a really top producer here at least (Miami) where agent centric isn’t a big part of their marketing, which is precisely what made me begin to question it… Maybe that ego contributed to their success?

  2. Sheila Rasak

    October 6, 2010 at 1:51 pm

    I’m not certain I’ve ever seen an effective branding other than one on a shopping cart at my local grocery store. The agent’s last name was Berger and he had a picture of his little putt putt boat in the marina here that was named “Berger King”. I’m uncertain that, as a consumer, I’d want Berger King to represent me in a real estate transaction. Just sayin’.

    • Janie Coffey

      October 6, 2010 at 2:45 pm

      I’ve seen some top notch agent branding, Ashton Gustafson in TX comes to mind, where it almost makes me WANT to use him as opposed to any more generic branding…

  3. Matt Thomson

    October 6, 2010 at 2:07 pm

    I think it’s essential for agents to brand themselves, but that doesn’t need to be with a photo of them. What if you got a logo for Janie Coffey Real Estate? Your photo could be around in some places so folks could identify with you (it’s always nice when you’re in a coffee shop or post office and people recognize you), but the logo would allow you to sell your business without a big interruption (think Bill Gates and Microsoft).
    Agent-centric branding, in my opinion, IS client-centric. What does it mean to be client-centric other than the level of service you provide is best for the client? If you, as an agent, are a client’s best option for real estate, branding yourself will benefit them.
    A well known, well respected agent, will often times get a house sold or a buyer into a house more smoothly based on reputation alone. Branding yourself and building up a reputation as a client-centric agent can only help your business and your clients.

    • Janie Coffey

      October 6, 2010 at 2:49 pm

      that is a really great point and one I had not thought of, by branding yourself as a top notch agent, you are helping your listing clients by possibly getting them greater exposure and sell better/faster. This gives a whole new perspective to the conversation.

  4. Ken Brand

    October 6, 2010 at 2:39 pm

    To me branding is way more than our head shot photo. I think of my business brand as my business personality. Part of how people view my business personality is how they perceive my appearance, which includes my photo, logos, colors, typography, etc., all the visual stuff, and the rest of my personality is what I know, who I know, what I share, how I behave, etc. All part of the branding.

    Also, the reason I think a photo is so important is because most everyone is visual. Reading a name in text is no where near as sticky or memorable as our picture. I think this is why all big business who spend a bajillion dollars on marketing, create logos, or they turn their name into a logo, because it’s memorable. For example, the Apple logo is way more memorable than the word “apple”. Google is an example of turning their name into a logo, when you see it, you don’t really read Google, the colors and the image tell you what it is, Fed/Ex is another. Creating Top of Mind Awareness is also hugely enhanced by using your photo. If we’re competing with people who use memorable images (that convey trust, etc.) and we aren’t, we won’t be remembered, which means we’ll lose out on some of the business.

    IMO, using your photo is critical in all marketing. Of course it can’t be a lame photo, or look like someone else, it has to be current and professionally done. Except of course, when we use casual shots for social media stuff, but those should be chosen wisely as well.

    my 2 cents. Love the thought provoking stuff you share. Thanks.

    • Janie Coffey

      October 6, 2010 at 2:51 pm

      I used to live in a community where a guy (Coldwell Banker agent) sent out postcards once a month with his photo, info and solds. I never paid attention to his info, and the rest of the stuff was generic, but he had the same photo, in a blue blazer, month after month. I knew that should I need to sell my home (this was pre agent days), I would just wait till the “guy in the blue blazer’s” postcard showed up and call him. This is part of the reason I am reconsidering my earlier stance.

  5. Jody Cowdrey

    October 6, 2010 at 3:02 pm

    Great discussion!

    In my opinion, most branding is a waste of money for the average agent. Once you get to the point where you’re doing $8 or $10 Million in volume or so, you can probably afford to do it correctly, and can begin to think about it. Average agents who attempt to brand themselves often come across poorly and waste quite a bit of money.

    For these (and most) agents, marketing dollars are better spent finding a better and easier way for potential buyers to search for homes – No buyer is going to be use your services because you’re wearing a suit and have won awards, but they WILL use you if you can give them what they’re looking for quickly and for free, and you know what you’re doing once you DO talk to them.

    I would advise any new agent or even most agents to forget about branding and figure out how to get in front of and talk to the most people at one time. Simply put, the more people you interact with, the more business you’ll get.

    Of course there are different levels of “branding”, but generally speaking, if done incorrectly, branding will waste time and money, and can often hurt more than it will help.

  6. Daniel Bates

    October 6, 2010 at 3:11 pm

    Launching my own brokerage this weekend and I have definitely kept those points in mind while trying to build a solid, singular branding effort with a consistent theme around my brokerage. It’s never too early to consider your exit strategy, even before you’ve technically entered

    • Janie Coffey

      October 6, 2010 at 3:20 pm

      Exit strategy is, to me, one of the main reasons that agent-centric might not be the best solution

      • John Kalinowski

        October 14, 2010 at 8:09 am

        Hi Janie! I know this is a constant theme, particularly with the KW crowd, that an agent should build a business they can sell when they are ready to retire, but have you ever heard of an agent actually doing just that? It’s obviously easy to sell a brokerage, but an individual agent’s business? I’m not so sure. I’ve seen various Remax agents come up with teams like the A-Team, or the Super Results Team, or something like that, but I don’t see how there’s ever anything of substance that could really be sold. Imagine someone trying to buy Russell Shaw’s business and run it without Russell? I would think even his database wouldn’t be worth much without him to back it up.

        I think a better exit strategy is probably to use our real estate knowledge and connections, and BawldGuy’s ideas to build investment property income that sets you up for retirement. Or, start your own brokerage and build it to something substantial based on a unique set of ideas or marketing strategies.

  7. Michael Russell

    October 6, 2010 at 3:43 pm

    I think the old saying of, “Go big or go home” still works. fear is an amazing paralyzer. It’s cheesy if you are branding your ego like multi million dollar producer and all of you sales stats but not if you are branding the uniqueness of your business. We all need to find ways to separate ourselves from the also rans. Are you selling your services or your companies?

  8. Janie Coffey

    October 6, 2010 at 3:47 pm

    I wanted to share Michael McClure (ask @ProfessionalOne)’s comments which are on my Facebook page. He gave me permission to share….

    I’ve always believed that agent photos are out of place on biz cards, flyers, brochures, etc. When you look at how other professions do it – attorneys, CPAs, etc. – no one uses their photo. I’ve never had my photo on anything in real estate, and almost all of the agents at my company follow my lead. To me, it comes off as ego. I’ve always been against it, and always will be…

    I think Realtors do it because they see OTHER Realtors do it and think it’s the “way it should be.” My first thought – no matter HOW GREAT the picture may be – is this: “a photo on a biz card is unprofessional.”

    It has NOTHING to do with anything other than, one more time, the ego of the person behind the decision.

    Just my opinion!

  9. Andrew McKay

    October 6, 2010 at 4:03 pm

    This is very unscientific but aren’t the top producers generally the ones who have been in the industry a few years and started at a time when it was almost compulsory to have your photo?

    I don’t have my photo and agree with Michael McClure.

    Relating to ” Berger King” there was an agent near Toronto whose surname was “lade.” His slogan was “Come and get Lade at Remax.” The local real estate board banned it 🙁

    • Janie Coffey

      October 6, 2010 at 6:20 pm

      that is a very good point, but I do know of one agent at least, who is very young and does a very high GCI and his branding is very agent-centric, but very good point indeed

  10. Michael McClure

    October 6, 2010 at 4:47 pm

    Janie,

    One more thing to throw into this conversation: the number one thing that makes advertising fail is “being platitudinal;” that is, being just like everyone else in your particular industry.

    For an incredibly educational deep dive into this, check out the free CDs you can get at mymonline.com/ (full disclosure: I have ZERO connection to that company). I would IMPLORE you to listen to those CDs, because it will immediately make you rethink everything you do to promote yourself and your business.

    To cut to the chase, “being platitudinal” in real estate means doing the following:
    * Using your photo to promote yourself
    * Telling everyone how great you are
    * Telling everyone how much you’ve sold
    * Telling everyone how great your company is
    * Talking about yourself and saying almost nothing about the value you bring to your clients

    Sorry, I didn’t mean to go off on such a tangent – we WERE only talking about photos, right? – but to me all of this is connected. I wrote a blog post about the larger motives for doing what we do, and how we “message” ourselves, at p1fran.com/2010/08/why-is-why-real-estate-brands-dont-matter.

    Thanks for triggering such great conversation with this post!

    Best,
    Michael

    • Janie Coffey

      October 6, 2010 at 6:32 pm

      thanks Michael, you have, indeed, put a great deal of thought and research into this topic. I will check out the CDs immediately. One thought, I wonder if agent-centric COULD be useful in getting the lead to make the initial CALL, but less effective in getting them to SIGN the agreement. Two different objectives… just my own musings out loud…

  11. Jolenta Averill

    October 6, 2010 at 8:49 pm

    Agent-centric is a terrible exit strategy. That’s why when I went solo I decided against it, even though I have a unique name and it would have been easy to build an agent-centric brand. Regarding photos, yes, they are undoubtedly cheesy but unfortunately they are a necessary part of the biz. People don’t use Realtors year in and year out like they do CPA’s and attorneys so it’s important to make yourself recognizable and memorable. Also, I forget what percentage but the average consumer often does not have the best opinion of real estate professionals (maybe raising the licensing requirements would help raise the profile of the industry??) so small things like a professional headshot, company logo, NON cheesy byline, website & social media links can all go a long way toward putting your best foot forward when introducing yourself to consumers. Just my two cents worth and probably worth noting I was deadset against putting my face on my biz card 7 years ago when I started out.

    • Janie Coffey

      October 10, 2010 at 6:14 pm

      The exit strategy angle is definitely a huge issue with a real estate team/concept focused on one agent. You are right about that!

  12. hermanchan.com

    October 7, 2010 at 2:32 am

    it’s not a matter of good or bad., it’s just a personal choice. some realtors function better under another company/person’s umbrella, others don’t like to be co-opted with the herd.

    personally i would be nothing without branding….it helps me stand out and more importantly, it allows me to monetize my personality.

    • Janie Coffey

      October 10, 2010 at 6:17 pm

      Herman, you are a perfect example of good branding. It all ties in to your concept. Great job.

  13. Marilyn Wilson

    October 7, 2010 at 9:49 am

    Actually I think is fundamentally the wrong question to ask. As the former VP Marketing for Fisher-Price, branding has NOTHING to do with whether you include a photo or not. Brands are built on a clear definition of your unique value proposition. They are also built on DELIVERING against your value proposition consistently and better than anyone else. Fisher-Price has a strong brand because it delivers high quality, well-thought out, developmentally appropriate and FUN toys for young children, for example. If you provide an inconsistent delivery against your brand promise, your brand gets tarnishes. When Fisher-Price experiences a product recall, for example, as they just experienced recently, it tarnishes their brand. If agents want a strong brand, they also need to deliver a consistent, high quality product if they want to build a strong brand. Don’t worry about your photo – worry about whether you are the most educated, supportive and professional sales person you can be.

    I just finished focus groups with real estate consumers last night and they don’t really care if you have a photo or not. Here’s the focus consumers want from agents:

    1. Help consumers qualify their agent more effectively – provide them with questions they should use when interviewing agents so they make a good decision and find a good match
    2. Clearly articulate what makes your approach to selling real estate unique and different
    3. Participate in a legitimate agent ratings program. Consumers want to read about your performance from your past customers – they don’t always believe agents when they say they are good, especially if they have had bad experiences with agents in the past.
    3. Spell out what they can expect from you during the sales process – some even asked for agents to provide a series of short webinars or even a live class explaining what they can expect in the real estate sales process. This is especially important for first time home buyers.
    4. Walk your client through all of the steps they will be going through and then explain each step immediately before the stage begins
    5. Help them understand the purpose and details of each of the documents they will be signing and help them review it so they know what to look for
    6. Help them do research on the area they are looking for – are there are geological problems? Have their been any problems with other homes built by the builder? Is there anything or anyone troublesome in the neighborhood? Is there anything they should be looking out for?
    7. Financing – this is the biggest nightmare for consumers, especially if they are involved in a short sale or REO. They are overwhelmed because the rules are changing so quickly. They asked that agents get monthly training on the continual changes in these areas so that their realtor can be a helpful resource, not a liability here. They feel like they are all alone out there trying to figure their way through the changes in FHA, HUD and lending rules and they are VERY frustrated by it!

    Bottomline, it’s not about your picture or not – it’s about being a supportive and smart sales professional that is the “go to” resource throughout the sales process. Consumers don’t need agents to find homes, they need agents to help them weave their way through all of the complicated legal documents and financing concerns. If you want to build a strong brand you need to position yourself as your client’s “guide”. They need a lot of help and if you stay one step ahead of them and help them work through all of the complicated and sometimes scary steps in the process you will build a strong brand regardless of whether you have a picture on your business card or not.

    • Carrie

      October 7, 2010 at 1:42 pm

      I so wish I agreed with this comment – and do for other places I’ve lived…. However, I live in the same area as the author and for us, in Coral Gables and other affluent areas of Miami, it is very much about ego and image. From the cars that are driven to the way people dress – it’s all about knowing the right folks, being seen and image, image image.

      I most recently moved from Boston and there it was much more of a value proposition model type society.

      Along those same lines – is it important to drive a fancy car to pick up new clients? In some areas overall it might be a turn off or not at all important. In Miami, however, I do think it matters.

      • Janie Coffey

        October 10, 2010 at 7:04 pm

        Carrie, you are right. In Miami or other larger Metro areas where the number of licensed agents is so high and the expectations are as well, you have to stand out. You need a brand that reflects your professionalism and your USP, otherwise, you become a generic, expendable commodity, not a must hire professional.

  14. BawldGuy

    October 7, 2010 at 12:38 pm

    Hey Janie — I’m as much of a MarketingTard as a Techtard, no doubt about it. IMHO, I don’t think having a picture is even relevant, though, as always, I’m willing to be dead wrong. Never had one on a card, or in a letter. Don’t have one on my blog. Do have one on my firm’s site, but only to prove it didn’t mean anything, which has, so far, been true.

    I’ll leave branding to the pros. My personal experience clearly says that if the public perceives you as a producer of RESULTS, the ones for which they’re looking, that’s all the ‘branding’ you need. Wish I knew a lot more about marketing, but it seems it’s not really necessary as long as folks associate results with your name. Those for whom branding played a large part in their early success, suffered greatly if they didn’t produce the expected results created by the effective marketing. Beware what you wish for.

    Make sense?

    • Michael McClure

      October 14, 2010 at 7:53 am

      Jeff,

      What you said…I agree with it all…

      Best,
      Michael

  15. Greg Lyles

    October 10, 2010 at 4:37 pm

    Congrats to Marilyn for setting the record straight. I hear agents talk constantly about branding yet very few have any clue what it really is. Marilyn’s comments are spot on. It’s not about your picture, your catchy tag line, or what kind of car you drive.

    Branding is all about the perception of you and your services in the marketplace. Most clients don’t care whose name (company) is on the sign. They want you to get the results you promised, in as short a time as possible, with the least amount of stress for them. If you can consistently deliver on this “value proposition”, you’re word-of-mouth exposure will increase, your brand will strengthen, and you’ll have something tangible to communicate rather than meaningless phrases like, “I want to be your best friend and Realtor for life.” Please!

  16. Janie Coffey

    October 10, 2010 at 6:31 pm

    I think the numbers are that consumers hire the first agent they interview upwards of 60+% of the time. So, before you even have your foot in the door to tell them about your added value, you have to win the appointment. How are you to stand out as a serious professional in a sea of 20,000+ Realtors to be that first appointment? I think branding (with or without an agent photo) is not something that can be lightly dismissed. It may be your one and only opportunity to get to the next stage with a potential client. Just like a Penguin Classic vs. a higher end Barnes and Noble copy of the same work, there are clients who will buy (and pay more) for that higher end copy. So I don’t think branding can be disregarded, by either new or seasoned agents. Goal one is get the appointment then solidify the deal with your unique value proposition. A clear and professional brand will set the tone for that next stage.

  17. BawldGuy

    October 10, 2010 at 6:36 pm

    Janie — you won’t say it, so I will. Your brand is — results. Your results are so automatic other agents/brokers hire you to sell THEIR properties.

    HIre that Janie gal — she really gets it done. What batter branding is that?

    • Janie Coffey

      October 10, 2010 at 7:01 pm

      Thanks Jeff, that is my unique selling proposition for sure, one I am proud to be able to claim. But i have to get in front of the potential client to be able to tell them about it. The brokers who hire me to sell their properties have insider trading knowledge that the consumer wouldn’t have. For referrals and word of mouth, it’s less important because your reputation DOES precede you, but for the off the street (or internet consumer) they might not know anything about you or how you are different from Joe Schmo at XYZ Realty. So I guess it’s really the second group we are talking about, not the first. How do we get them to select us from the masses to even hear what we have to offer?

  18. BawldGuy

    October 10, 2010 at 7:17 pm

    Exactly the way you seem to be doin’ it — via your blog and various other sites. The fact your ‘listing’ websites are so head and shoulders above the competition only underlines how you’re producing those results.

    Gotta think the odds of a given buyer/seller finding you are far higher than average.

    Also, offline efforts must be consistent and strongly applied.

  19. Michael LaPeter

    October 11, 2010 at 3:01 pm

    I agree with the earlier comments that your brand isn’t just about your photo. When I first started as an agent, I focused on branding my service as data-driven and focused on results. So, instead of mailing my farm a postcard with a just sold, I would provide them area sales data, and then try to lead them to my website for more sales data. I think picking a message and then consistently communicating that to prospects is super important, and helps you to stand out.

  20. John Kalinowski

    October 11, 2010 at 4:30 pm

    Janie – We avoid the cheesy agent photo marketing, and focus our attention on advertising the client’s home, specifically with custom yard signs. One of our tag lines is “You’ll never see our agents’ faces or pictures of our pets on your yard sign. We use the sign to advertise your property!”. This works great for us on expired listings that just spent six months with some agent’s ugly mug on the sign out front, or even better, a picture of them holding their dog! Nothing against dogs, I have a 105 lb Golden Retriever, I just don’t think there’s a place for it in marketing a seller’s home.

    Most of the high-producing agents who use this stuff gained momentum at some point for one reason or another, often pure luck, and just built on that momentum over many years. If you look at what they offer their clients, you’ll often find horrible listing photos, silly websites, and true results no better than the average agent. Mainly they focused on repetition. Repeating something that worked for them, usually not anything particularly brilliant or game-changing, they just did it over and over again for years.

  21. Matthew

    October 13, 2010 at 1:31 am

    I’m an Australian so my perspective might not match yours but we have found that photos are devastatingly effective.

    Not many agents do it here which is a plus.
    In listing presentations we bring it up and say “you’ve no doubt noticed we have our face on all the materials. This means that if we do well OR stuff up, everyone knows who it is. So we are accountable and putting our reputation on the line for your home which gives us the motive to get you a big win. I wonder why other agents don’t do the same…”

    This puts a huge seed of doubt into their mind about the other agent. Second, it’s a good point and vendors love this line because it’s obviously true..!

    • John Kalinowski

      October 14, 2010 at 8:10 am

      Matthew – I guess there’s more than one way to skin a cat (or a kangaroo)!

      • Matthew

        October 14, 2010 at 8:08 pm

        Absolutely John.

        A favourite saying of mine is “zig where they zag” – ie. take the different path to your competitors.

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