Building a customer-first brand

It was just another Sunday afternoon in Oregon. Stepping indoors to get out of the whipping wind and rain, I shook off my jacket and pulled back my hood. What I saw stopped me in my tracks.

Indoors, just across the hall from the Apple Store and the Body Shop, stood a car dealership.

Electric revolution

The Tesla S starts rolling out to customers this fall. Its 416 horsepower pushes it from zero to 60 in 4.4 seconds, which is faster than a BMW M5. It has a top speed of 130 miles per hour.

The Tesla S is sporty. Sleek. Sexy.  

Oh, did I mention that the Tesla S runs on electricity?

The first generation of electric vehicles were slow, boxy and, let’s face it, ugly. The Tesla S breaks all the preconceptions around EVs.

Such a unique automobile demands a unique marketing strategy, which is why Tesla decided to forgo the traditional sales model of car dealerships and car salesmen and focus on putting their retail locations in high-traffic, high-visibility locations like malls and shopping streets.

Elon Musk, Tesla’s founder, explains:

This allows us to interact with potential customers and have them learn about our cars from Tesla Product Specialists before they have decided which new car to buy. The Product Specialists are also trained to answer questions about electric vehicles in general, not just ours. They are not on commission and they will never pressure you to buy a car. Their goal and the sole metric of their success is to have you enjoy the experience of visiting so much that you look forward to returning again.

I spent the better part of an hour in the store. Sure, some of it was the novelty. But most of it was the experience. I wanted to be there.

A light goes on

As I stepped back out into the brisk Fall air, I wondered: What if a real estate brand took this same kind of approach?

Here’s what I’d do:

I wouldn’t build any new tools. Let’s face it, we have more devices, tools, apps, websites, and more choices than ever before.

I’d start building my brand around helping my customers understand all the existing options, before they even start a home search. Then I’d help them use them effectively.

Furthermore, like Tesla, I would do it in a place where we still congregate, in person.

Executing a brand initiative on the web is hard. Attention spans are compromised, media channels are fractured. As marketers, much of what we do there for a brand is, paradoxically, hard to measure.

What Tesla has figured out is they have to connect with the customers before they move online.

So what if a real estate brand moved “up the funnel” and reached out to engage customers when they might not be fully in the market for a new home?

It could look something like this:

A digital display stretches floor to ceiling at the back. On it, we see huge, beautiful high-resolution imagery of nearby homes for sale. It’s interactive.

Near the front, a solid wood countertop with bar stools is covered in tablets. Installed on each are all the top real estate apps. Visitors are encouraged to pick them up and browse. Employees hang back, but are on hand to coach people with questions. They know every app intimately.

In the far corner, one-on-one smartphone sessions are taking place.

The store has a quiet, laid-back vibe that is inviting.

Most of America hangs back from real estate, wary, waiting until the last possible moment when they have to interact with a real estate company. Here, they lean-in and engage.

Yes, I know the “Cafe office” fad was largely a bust. I am also aware of experiments like Soma Living, a retail-like, tech-focused brokerage office opened in the late ‘90s. But these lacked either a strategic context or a viable business model. What I describe here is one touchpoint in a broader, and cohesive, brand experience.

A different road forward

While others were still building dirty gasoline engines, Tesla looked to the future and bet on clean technology. While other dealers hung out like vultures in giant car lots, Tesla opted to move indoors and ditch the predatory attitude.

Over the last few years, we’ve seen brands in real estate latch onto technology. We’ve also seen them align themselves to lifestyle. Some with great success. Others, less so. What we really haven’t seen yet is anyone truly anchor their brand around the customer experience.

There’s a wide open road ahead for someone to pull out of the garage with the customer firmly planted in the passenger seat next to them.

I, for one, am pulling for someone to try.