Marketing for the Long Haul

Marketing pros call it branding - when the public knows your company by name, knows what it stands for, knows what it does and knows that it does it well.

March 01, 2003

 

Marketing pros call it branding - when the public knows your company by name, knows what it stands for, knows what it does and knows that it does it well. At that point, all the hard work pays off, for there is no need to sell yourself and your company to a prospect. Imagine knowing that whether you'll build a custom home is based upon your schedule, not your bid.

Mary Boorman, vice president of sales and marketing for Pinnacle Communities, a high-end residential builder in New Jersey, believes luxury home builders should be proactive in their marketing work and control the sales process. For example, Boorman says, rather than wait to get leads from architects, custom builders should secure their customers first and then select which architects to use for each job.

To become the destination for prospective customers as opposed to a referral from another source, builders must market themselves with a certain image. For high-end custom builders, that image should reflect the quality of their work. "The very nature of your advertising will tell a customer how you build," Boorman says.

Setting a Budget

Most marketing professionals suggest that before you start the marketing process, you should develop a marketing budget. This is more complicated than it sounds.

Before developing the marketing component of their business plan, builders who focus on custom homes must plan their company’s future. How big do you want to get? How many homes per year do you want to build? In what price category? The questions are critical, as a successful marketing campaign might cause you to expand too quickly or attract customers with the types of jobs you aren't interested in performing.

Once you address the more difficult issue of your company's future, a marketing budget can be set. There are basically two ways to set one. First, how much can your company afford to spend on marketing? (This is related to a similar issue: How much must your company spend to market itself for future business?) Second, how much would an effective marketing program cost?

Hiring a Professional

A marketing program ultimately entails a number of components, with each completed by a different vendor. While it might ultimately prove less expensive to subcontract your company's marketing program to each vendor, it's probably a mistake because you would be at the mercy of each subcontractor in a field in which you lack expertise. (Do you tell your customers they'd be best served by subcontracting their custom home without your expertise?) An inexpensive printer, for example, might not have the vision to design an effective brochure. The cost might be right for your budget, but the product might be totally wrong.

The best advice is to retain a marketing firm to oversee the entire job. While it might prove slightly more costly than subcontracting on your own, the end product should prove more professional in nature. More important, good product should lead to a successful marketing program.

When interviewing prospective firms to handle your account, you should ask very specific questions:

 

  • Has the firm worked with builders? If a marketing firm does not understand how luxury home buyers find builders, even the most expensive marketing campaign will never be successful.
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  • Has the firm worked with small (medium/large) clients? A firm that deals only with clients with large budgets might relegate a relatively small client to a less experienced staff member with little knowledge about the luxury home business. Similarly, a firm with a history of relatively small clients might be overwhelmed by the demands and needs of a large builder client.
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  • Will you be shown conceptual drawings/sketches/copy for your approval so you can sign off before the end product is finalized?
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  • How fixed are the price quotes provided by the agency, and who is responsible for cost overruns?
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  • How will you measure whether the marketing campaign is/was successful, and how will you determine whether you're satisfied with the final product?

    Think of the good questions your customers have asked you over the years, and ask them of others to solicit honest, accurate answers.

    Working in Stages

    Marketing is multidimensional; a company rarely can take a single step that results in success. Think of the junk mail that inundates your mailbox. Do you open each piece? Do you read and immediately act on the offer or product?

    Even if budgetary constraints don't exist, consider implementing your marketing plan in stages for two reasons: effectiveness and satisfaction.

    Assuming that you do not require an immediate impact in the marketplace, implementing a marketing plan over time allows for slightly more quality control. If the first component was not exactly what you had in mind, adjustments can be made for the next step. Ultimately, shortcomings early in the campaign will be corrected by the final stages. This leads to better product and a more satisfied customer (you).

    One of the first pieces of a marketing plan should be your stationery. Included is logo design; while you can choose from stock designs offered by national (mail-order) stationery companies, a more unique design might be more appropriate. Items such as business cards, letterheads, second sheets and fax cover pages all are included in stationery design, as is any slogan that might be suitable for the overall impression to be conveyed to your public.

    For the next component of your marketing plan, consider a portfolio of your work. With photos taken by a professional photographer and then professionally arranged in a presentation binder, a portfolio should convey the quality of work completed on previous jobs. The photographic array should focus on detail: carpentry craftsmanship, masonry skills, painting and other finishes, hardware, fixtures, flooring and cabinetry, to name a few. The photographs should not be from brochures offered by manufacturers but taken from actual jobs completed. If you have a good relationship with previous customers, photographs of your work taken in homes that have been professionally decorated can be outstanding additions to the portfolio.

    Another necessary component of your plan is a brochure. This is a critical piece, as a brochure is either the first piece of substantive information prospects see about you and your company or the last piece they view after they have met you and been exposed to your work. The brochure should clearly convey the image you want to project and could include the team aspects of your organization by depicting important players in your company. The copy within the brochure also is critical. Told in well-written narrative in addition to photographs, a brochure can be a powerful tool to set yourself and your company apart from other builders competing for the same work.

    Boorman notes that a brochure also can elaborate on the construction process while branding your work as high-end, detailed and professional. Depending on the opinion of your marketing professional, you might choose to have more than one type of brochure in your arsenal, letting you highlight your company in one piece and your construction procedures in another. Inserts can be used for individuals or products subject to change over time, as replacing inserts is far less costly than redoing an entire brochure.

    The Media

    Once your company's identity is established, a logical next step is getting the word to potential customers through the media. Again, a public relations firm can be used to get your story out by publicizing information about your company, its people and its deeds. Build a spectacular house with unique design elements? That's ripe for a story in the lifestyle section of a local newspaper or regional magazine. Install a revolutionary energy-saving system in a new home? Great story for a science editor. Allow a fund-raising event at one of your projects before closing? Wonderful tale for a regional news editor.

    The same is true whether you contribute labor and materials to a new community playground or help build a ramp for a disabled individual. Telling the tales of your good deeds might be self-serving, but stories about giving and charitable work also can be inspiring to others.

    Press releases, interviews, television spots, information pieces and even media advertising can enhance your reputation. As with other pieces of the marketing campaign, the intent is to inform the public in general and potential clients (or referral sources) in particular of a high-caliber luxury home builder in their midst (you).

    The Web

    A savvy marketing campaign probably includes a Web presence. Fortunately for most luxury home builders, a Web site probably is more static than dynamic. In other words, once the site is set up, it probably will require minimal maintenance.

    Taking the time and incurring the expense to establish a professional Web site adds credibility to a builder's reputation. For some tech-savvy prospects, their first impression of your company might come from an online presence. The Web site - outfitted with the logo, slogan, company colors, etc., that have been developed to this point - can include company historical information, owner and employee biographical information, photos of previously completed projects, educational material on home construction and techniques, and testimonials from previous customers about how they were treated by you and your staff and the timeliness of scheduling and completion dates.

    As a potential source for leads, the site also should include an opportunity for prospects to complete a screening questionnaire and request further information or contact with you or a staff member.

    Endnotes

    A marketing firm should be able to design a program that fits your company's budget, even if the program will be phased in over an extended time. Each component (brochures, mailings, media, etc.) should dovetail like a puzzle, all addressed to people who are or might one day be in a position to retain your services as a custom home builder. On a larger scale, a cohesive marketing program should help your company reach its predetermined sales and profit goals, allowing you to own and direct the exact type of organization you conceptualized in your business plan.

    Stan Ehrlich, a past president of his 550-member local builders association, is a personal financial adviser in Clinton, N.J. E-mail him at sfehrlichassociates@earthlink.net.

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