Units — May 2011
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Selling The Lifestyle
Phil Mobley

In the quest to increase loyalty, apartment operators build their brands online.

Brand “stickiness” is the holy grail of multifamily marketing, but it is maddeningly difficult to achieve. In the apartment owner or manager’s perfect world, residents would never leave. Or if they did leave, they would go on to lease in another, sister community under the same company umbrella, merrily living out their days among their similarly loyal neighbors.

The problem with that idea is that it’s difficult for companies to differentiate themselves on their product alone. Customers expect a certain level of finishes and amenities in their communities, and most developers are able to provide them. For true loyalty to develop, an apartment community must represent more than a nice place to sleep, more even than a home—it must represent an experience.

For the majority of new renters today, that experience begins in front of a digital screen. Apartment providers that want to keep customers in the corporate family are looking to leverage the power of their brands through a variety of Internet marketing techniques.

The Brand

At AMLI Residential’s communities, consistency is critical, says Kai Weber, Vice President of Marketing for the Chicago-based REIT, which operates about 22,000 apartments nationwide. At the onsite level, that consistency extends all the way to the refreshments communities offer to visitors and the career apparel onsite people are wearing, she says. But consistency is important in the online world, as well, so AMLI takes great care to manage the number of people who have the authority to update its online content—the more hands, the less consistency.

AvalonBay Communities uses its brand not only to develop name recognition and search recall, but also to create what Kevin Thompson, Vice President of Marketing, calls an “aspirational expectation,” that AvalonBay equals luxury.
“That has to begin at the earliest possible customer interaction,” Thompson says,“and for us, that means search engine marketing: tying key words and phrases to the Avalon brand name.”

Once on AvalonCommunities.com, visitors are “immersed” in the brand. “Our brand’s tag line is ‘Time well spent,’ ” Thompson says. “We are communicating that we give our residents the ‘gift’ of time through an apartment home and living experience that is hassle-free, maintenance-free and located close to their destination spots.”

Web branding also is critical to UDR, a Denver-based REIT. “We’re an acquirer, so there is no physical [building] template that necessarily reflects a UDR community,” explains Jerry Davis, Senior Vice President of Operations. Instead, the company must create customers’ expectations online.

UDR’s third-generation website, which rolled out in the fall, is built entirely around UDR’s brand of convenient, 24-7 self-service. With real-time pricing and availability built into the site, prospects can place a hold on a particular unit online. “Our goal is to make the experience on the site so comprehensive that there should be few surprises when they arrive onsite,” Davis says.

The Social Network

The customer’s initial online experience is what sells the brand, says Cristina Sullivan, Senior Vice President of Operations at Gables Residential, a private, Atlanta-based REIT that operates 38,000 apartments. So while apartment companies must keep their websites fresh in order to send the proper brand message, they must pay attention to Facebook and other social media sites where residents might want to interact with them.

“Connecting with residents on Facebook is new, and the industry is still figuring out how to utilize it,” Sullivan says. “It has to be organic to be legitimate, but from a branding perspective, we also want to manage the quality of the content.”

Gables is not alone in grappling with Facebook. AMLI is examining the potential benefits and pitfalls before diving in.“We never want to be the last to adopt something new, but we also never want to go into something without a strategy,” Weber explains. While concerns about proper use (and potential misuse) of Facebook are real, another very real issue is the onsite staff’s ability to dedicate the necessary time to maintaining a good page. “The management team has a lot of day-to-day responsibilities, so we want to make sure they can give it the level of attention it needs to be successful without sacrificing customer service.”

AvalonBay’s Thompson shares that perspective. “If you don’t keep these pages updated, it’s worse than not having one at all,” he says. AvalonBay is working with a third-party agency, in partnership with its onsite teams, to develop Facebook pages and make them relevant while maintaining a consistent feel.

“We’re trying to initiate conversations, but also facilitate discussions among residents,” Thompson explains. “We ultimately want to transition as much of the maintenance as we can to the onsite teams so they can truly tie in local events, shops, restaurants and so forth.”

AvalonBay currently has active pages for 41 of its 170 communities, a number that is slowly expanding. The company is very judicious about how, when and where it rolls out social pages, Thompson says, so that it can ensure it has the right onsite associate as the point person for those pages and that it has properly trained the staff on how to post, respond and update the pages. The company’s goal is to have most of its portfolio rolled out by the end of 2011 or early 2012.

If social networking pages require time from community staff to be effective, then perhaps technology can help save time in other areas. As owners and operators move to online leasing platforms, they may be able to find ways to redeploy time in the leasing office. “The leasing staff can spend more time marketing and taking care of their residents via the Web [including maintaining social networking sites],” Sullivan says, “and less time doing bookkeeping and administrative functions such as processing checks, late notices and evictions.”

The Right Face

Even if brand-building starts online, technology also is changing the way onsite personnel work.

At UDR, staff are trained to take new residents directly to a kiosk to sign up for the resident portal, from which they can pay rent, make service requests and (eventually) evaluate and select automatically generated lease renewal options. This directly reinforces UDR’s brand message. “We want them to get hooked right away on the easy, all-the-time self-service opportunities our technology allows,” Davis says.

The behavior of the staff is critical in kick-starting this process. Regardless of the sophistication of the available technology, having the right people to interact with residents is critical.

Indeed, one of the biggest frustrations in maintaining and promoting a brand is the notoriously high turnover rate in the industry, Thompson says. “When we lose people, we lose our brand ambassadors,” he says, “so we are literally constantly training and re-training on our brand.”

AMLI, like other players, faces a similar challenge. “Turnover, especially onsite turnover, is a natural evil of this industry,” Weber says. One of the ways AMLI attempts to combat this is through a robust employee referral program.“People who live and breathe AMLI know what we’re trying to do with our brand, so they know who among their friends would fit well in our culture,” she explains. And the richer the employee culture, the better the resident care—and the more differentiated the experience.

The industry’s biggest brand challenge, Thompson says, is that unlike in Other industries like packaged goods, brand is not in the top level of the decision hierarchy. “People have to live in a particular location and they have to be able to afford their home,” he says.“Brand is maybe third on the list, after location and price.”

But in some ways, this reality only intensifies the importance of differentiation through branding. Members of the new generation of renters have high expectations of being able to interact with brands on their own terms. “We’re all fighting for the newest amenity or great feature, but we’re selling a lifestyle,” Weber says. “We have to be Focused not just on getting residents in the door, but on the living experience.” For these industry leaders, the hope is that the experience sticks.

Phil Mobley is Vice President, Kingsley Associates.