Brand Your Land

The following discussion is about how to build a brand for big property development. What to do, when, and why.

Get yourself a glass of red wine. Now a piece of white paper. Hold the wine up to your mouth, take a swig, and be a bit messy about it, so some of the wine dribbles over the rim of the glass. Watch the drop slowly run down the side of the glass, down the stem, onto the curve of the base. Move the glass to and fro, just so. If you do it right, you’ll end up with a red line around most of the base. Stick the base onto the piece of paper. Pick it up again, drink the rest of the wine.

You should have on the piece of paper a red, messy, almost-complete circle of about 8cm across. You photograph this and send the photo to the client. If you’re a designer, you call this a logo and charge $30,000 for it. If you’re a really smart designer, you’ll sell them on three different colours of the same logo for another $5,000 each.

I can show you at least half a dozen similar logos currently in the market place for very similar projects. And the designers who did them don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. The engineers and architects and accountants who approved them don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. They all think, cause it looks like the others, they are in the ‘fashion’ of the moment…bozos.

Agencies do things differently.

Good ad agencies put serious thought into the whole game. Especially the psychology of how it all hangs together. But if you’re not a seasoned large scale developer, you may not know the disciplines…or why you ought to use a disciplined ad agency over a bunch of hip, cute, but dumb designers.

Welcome to the world of property, big time. I’m not talking about doing the local paper ads for an apartment block of 8 or 10 in Caulfield. I’m talking 2,000, 5,000 or 20,000 house lots – whole suburbs.Bit of background. We’ve been in the property branding game for some 12 years now. There are basic rules you apply in this industry that are as standard and proven as any you can list for any marketing projects. If you follow them, life is smooth and the whole thing goes like clockwork. But if you skip a few steps, it invariably means you end up making way less (save $100,000 to lose $1,000,000, or for that matter, $100 million). Oh, the politics of big money and bigger egos in the Australian Wild West…

Why a brand here?

Where do you live? Point Piper? Elizabeth Bay? Balmain? Every name I just mentioned conjures up different images of people, their backgrounds, their accents, their cars, what their kids wear to school.

You are your suburb, to a great extent, regardless of what your hippy friends would like to think. People know this. They will crawl across broken glass and literally pay hundreds of thousands of dollars more for a house on one side of a street, so they can say they live in Toorak, or for that matter, Caroline Springs (the Toorak of Melbourne’s newer suburbs in the west).

It affects almost every aspect of their shallow lives. “You drive a Honda, but I thought you lived in Armadale?”. “How can you drive a Range Rover and live in Byron Bay, it’s like so wrong…” A very rich friend of mine actually has bought a Kombi to fit in up there. And when he’s in Byron, he dons different clothes and talks cooler. The town, or suburb, or at least his perception of it, affects his behaviour.

This is why you create a brand. You create expectations. You create a perception of wealth, or not, of attitude, of services, of the kind of businesses that would provide employment in the area, of the kind of schools that would be there. The brand involves everything and literally moulds the people who live in that area.

It’s a subtle, sophisticated psychological exercise. The detail is so fine. Everything matters when the choice is so critical and the purchase decision maker, usually female, usually hugely emotionally involved.  She will check it all in a split second. She is seeking a nest site; something that will work for herself, her kids, her partner, her mother. Her friends. Her husband’s friends. She checks the whole lot in the time it takes to flick from pages 59-60 to 61-62 in the Wentworth Courier. Less than 2 seconds.

It’s about the name, the logo and the brand promise as much as it’s about the models, the hair, their dog, the actions, the light used for the shoot, let alone whether you’re alive on twitter or dead on you-tube.

It’s very hard to get the balance exactly right. To meet the expectations of those who will move out to a new suburb, the bold, anti-the-rest pioneers and also meet the needs of those who then follow, the second wave of slightly more hesitant pioneers, then the third wave of early adopters, the forth wave of later adopters etc.

Yes, location matters. Yes, the features matter in the area: is the river dangerous, does the shopping centre have a major supermarket, or whoopie, a decent independent. But the core issue is ‘What kind of suburb is it? Who would live there? Will my family be properly protected, properly occupied, properly happy?’

Get your customers right

People come from other places. Amazing that. They don’t just grow on trees. That means you have to find out where they will come from. Depending on what you want to build and where, there will be certain people who want to downsize to your project or want that bigger bit of land that you offer. You need to look at where you are, what you’re proposing to offer and think about who would like that.

I’ll give you an example. If you’re building a new suburb outside of Brisbane, on the way to Surfers, they are most likely to be either escaping the crushed, street-filthy anger of inner Surfers, and want open-spaces and quiet Saturday nights, or they are retiring from a big house in Brisbane to a less complicated life-style near their kids who have just bought three houses up. Or they may be escaping the crushed, filthy anger of inner Delhi, or Beijing, and want anywhere that doesn’t involve hitting a person on a pushbike every time they drive home from work.

Where they come from and why, especially who they are, determines what will excite them.

Research their motivations

There’s lies, damned lies and the ABS. The Bureau of Stats, (whist I love them as a resource) are inherently a bureaucracy living in the mid-20th century. In a time of instant access to information, they are still conducting paper-based surveys on lifestyle every four years. If they wanted to, for more or less the same money, with today’s technology, they could probably do it once a quarter.

Real issue is, they are selling information that most of the time is 3.5 years old. While you can draw broad conclusions from the ABS stuff, any stat group who works on that data alone, like say ‘Mosiac’ (a life-style analysis of backgrounds and behaviours based on ABS) is selling what is, by definition, no longer fact. You just can’t rely on it, sorry.

You need information on what they want, where they come from, why they would move here, how they would do it, what are the trade-offs and how to stop them in their tracks. Yes, use basic stats, but embellish them, don’t just reanalyse the same inherently inaccurate numbers.

Focus groups

Will help with some of this, so does Social Media research done well, so do in-depth interviews, but this research must be done with statistical accuracy (especially good on-line) and a fair degree of sensitivity, cause many people will only reveal their true motivations about how they want to live in certain circumstances to certain people.

That person may need to be a recognised member of the respondent’s tribe to get the real facts. You see qualitative research fail time and again (“why don’t they like our brand, I thought we’d done the research”?) when developers don’t get the subtleties of buying issues at this very personally intense level of buyer involvement. Yes, spend the money on 8 or 16 focus groups. Do them over a few months. Go back in again and test the creative. Test the ads, the branding. Be generous on the research here – large-scale qual is your most critical area.

Plan for growth

Customers change….the housing life cycle is that people get born in an apartment or little house. Mum and Dad buy a bigger house when they have two or three little tackers. At some stage you grow up and leave home, (with Gen Y, this may not happen until you are 35) you move into an apartment or a small house with your bestie.

At some stage you meet a person you like having sex with and may want kiddies. You breed. You then buy a house to put them in, then a bigger one with a pool and a tennis court (if you’re any good at marketing) and then eventually you divorce and move into an apartment again or downsize and go to a retirement home or whatever.

The point is, you have many types of places you live in for your needs during each phase. Different styles cater for different people in different stages of their busy lives. Build brands with that in mind.

You are not niche marketing. You are broad-based desire fired marketing.

What’s in a name?

A rose by any other is still…complete crap. Names in suburbs matter hugely. I’ve been involved in heated arguments for weeks over the mere spelling of a suburb name.

Whether it’s stealing a name from England (Brighton), Italy (Capri), some stupid battle in Turkey (Balaclava), a flower or a motor part, it’s how it sounds, what it conjures up, what you can wrap around it visually, that makes a huge difference to what you can do with the brand of the suburb.

You can’t do much with Dubbo or Elwood. Yes, it may be the name one of the Blues Brothers, but how do you use that? Can you make ads for homes of young families featuring two fat middle-aged men in dark-glasses and black suits?

If you choose the name of an airplane, or for that matter, a type of rock, make sure it sounds like you want it to and it can be easily made into great ads. Get your agency to play with the word and the imagery before you decide on the final spelling combo or you may regret it forever.

Like sex, it’s all in the process

Great customer experiences start with consistent processes – map yours out and embed a point of difference in it. Stick to it. Good processes can embed cost savings by getting the customer to do some of the work and keep them highly engaged in the transaction at the same time…isn’t internet banking the greatest cost saver of all time? And everyone loves it. And do what you say you’re going to do. I don’t know how often I have to say that to developers…it’s all about trust.

Promises: Moving it on

Stages matter a lot too. If you’re at the early stage, as I hinted at before, the chances are you’re trying to attract pioneers or risk-takers. When you’ve sold out those properties and you’re moving into second or third stages, you will have to tone down the pioneer vibe, which is often a ‘get away from it all’ story or a proposition that is tied closely to the lower-price benefit of taking a bit of a risk to jump in on the promise of the lake, the supermarket and neighbours that won’t put the Torana on blocks in the front yard, and move more to life-style – a safer promise for a safer customer.

This is probably something to do with the amenities offered by the development or perhaps the eco-friendly nature of the location etc. Later stages require a different story again. Move to where everyone has gone (e.g. “Where the F are you? We’re all here….” Or a focus on guilt works well with this lot – “Where are your kids growing up?”.


There are basics in this game you can’t ignore. You need the big glossy brochure, the bigger signage through-out the location. Wayfinding is important. Any physical evidence you can think of. The sales offices, the shopping centre displays, radio, TV ads, face-book, direct mail in the right ‘burbs and a good campaign across social media.

Most places get a snappy video done and run a stack of banner ads on linking back to microsites. Some run competitions to get punters to visit at key times and all run aggressive local paper campaigns cause while they are old-fashioned, they are still the place you look when you’re bored on a Tuesday night. And you need to change over the messages (with the same core story) in all these media in an integrated fashion every few months just to keep the punters interested.

The Fine Art of Pricing

Make sure your pricing matches your project positioning. If it’s big and on the golf course, it’s worth more than the tiny corner lot near the milk bar. Derr.

Critical to gather momentum by rewarding your early buyers with cheaper deals and getting penetration. ‘First stages sold out’ is the best local paper ad you can run. Good to not get sucked into cutting the price of the last few lots in desperation, or releasing the next stage before the sales team have sold the last couple.

Sticky stock is not about inferior product quality. It’s about bad pricing strategy. You know there’s a buyer for the lot next to the substation…at the right price – set that price correctly first time rather than kidding yourself or killing your sales rate. Don’t be lazy. Do your homework: I’m always surprised how many people set prices almost on a whim and leave so much money on the table without realising it (i.e. When they are selling too fast, up the price).


It’s about team work. You need a great working relationship with your sales team, your agency, PR, finance people and your ground crew. They need to meet regularly and plan things out many months in advance. They must know what each is thinking and be able to put steps in place to maximise the effectiveness of various marketing operations.

Above all, the atmosphere of a big property development comes across to those buying. When signs fade from age, or you run out of brochures, due to a desire to milk money early, it shows.  When the buyer has a great experience with the land sales guy but is snubbed by the builder’s rep (or vice versa) it’s a disaster.

When sales staff are changed frequently due to ‘poor performance’, and people are confronted with someone different – that scares the hell out of a buyer who may take months, or even years (understandably) to make a decision to change their whole life. If the ads vibe changes, the brand has changed it’s mind – why? What’s gone wrong? What am I getting myself into? Danger Will Robinson, Danger…

With major lifestyle decisions, it’s good thinking, done early, coupled with strong, disciplined planning and mature, determined management that makes projects easy to market and a pleasure to move into.

The Cowboy Factor

Cowboys ruin potentially good or great developments. Especially beware of entering into JV’s with the obviously inexperienced. They often ruin projects by indecision, by insisting on cutting corners. Worst, by not doing what the professionals say works and thinking they know better.

The difference is this: On even a smaller major project, you may sell a couple of hundred home sites for $25,000 or $50,000 less than they other wise would have got.

Looking at it the other way, for a bit of discipline and professionalism, in only a small development, there’s probably an additional $5 or 10 million (much more in large developments) than would have otherwise been there, straight on the bottom line, merely for following a proven path. It’s a lot of money for a bit of planning and teamwork.

Top Ten Development Marketing ‘Must Dos’

  1. Brand matters – great development marketing is about the name, the logo and the brand promise: Toorak or Tooradin?
  2. Get your customers right – research their motivations.
  3. Understand what you are marketing – development marketing is not niche marketing, it’s broad-based desire-fired marketing.
  4. Process matters – great customer experiences start with consistent processes.
  5. Stages matter – different project stages require different stories.
  6. Media channels matter – different channels need different messages based on the same core story.
  7. Pricing strategy matters – sticky stock is not about inferior product quality, it’s about bad pricing strategy.
  8. Teamwork is critical – great developments result form a great working relationship between the sales team, the internal marketing team and the agency.
  9. Trust is critical – trust your agency and that trust will be rewarded.
  10. Avoid cowboys – JV Cowboys or Agency/Design Cowboys.

The Property Cowboy’s Top 10

  1. Ignore proven process ‘That’ll take too long’
  2. Refuse to research ‘We know our market’
  3. Do questionable deals ‘John wants in’
  4. Use their mates in design/media ‘We’re saving money’
  5. Change media frequently ‘We’ve tried radio – it doesn’t work’
  6. Break up working teams for ‘control’
  7. Change the branding promise ‘No-one wants a holiday’
  8. Screw suppliers ‘I don’t care what the quote says’
  9. Go price instead of dream ‘The competitors are cheaper’
  10. Go to Court ‘That’s not worth the paper it’s printed on’
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