Businesses come and go, brands last forever

Building a real estate firm used to be simpler. Plant a stake in the ground on main street, print up some business cards, place an ad in the Yellow Pages and pop an ad in the paper. By placing the words Real Estate after your name, you were essentially building a brand.

At least that’s what you thought. In truth, you were only building a business.

Bob’s Real Estate meant the same thing to the consumer as Jim’s Realty which meant as much as Mary’s Real Estate Services.

Each, interchangeable with the other. They sold the same things, using the same methods.

Over the years, Bob’s Real Estate Company grew. As Bob recruited more and more agents, he himself became less crucial to his business. If you walked into Bob’s Real Estate, Bob might not even be there. But Barbara, an agent, was. So you worked with her. It seemed as if Barbara worked for Bob. But in reality, she worked against him. She was her own business. Bob’s name didn’t appear on her business card. Or her letterhead. Or her ads. Bob’s Real Estate hardly ever came up at PTA meetings when people asked her what she did.

Bob’s name did go on her yard sign however.
Bob might have thought that was a good thing for his business.
But what Bob didn’t realize was how incredibly damaging it was to his brand.

Soon there were more Barbara’s. Bill’s, Ralph’s, Jennifer’s. And Fido. Bob’s brokerage grew. And during a brief shutter of time (1970-1995) the Bobs of the world became wealthy building that type of business. More agents meant more sales. It was a proven model. And a formula that everyone followed straight toward the cliff that was soon approaching.


They occur in business. They are those pesky idiosyncrasies that nibble away at your profit center. They the stubborn mindsets that gnaw away at your brand. Old model real estate has many termites — independent agents doing whatever they feel like, whenever they want.

Bob’s business may still be hanging on, but the brand had been eaten away. It means nothing other than real estate sales – same as Jim’s company and no different than Mary’s. All in need of serious fumigation.

Bob might not care anymore. He’s long retired. There’s a shrine to him inside the corporate office, somewhere in the back with a glorious view of the neighborhood. Pictures on the wall stand as testimony to a great business he built. But not a brand.

This is a big problem for Bob Jr. The child that took over. The firm dad built is full of holes punctured by an old model that doesn’t work anymore. Reamed by a fat lease on dead space. Shredded by a down market. Pilfered by a roster of agents who don’t list, don’t sell, don’t co-brand but demand their picture be placed in the paper every Sunday.

Bob Jr. is screwed. Maybe he knows it. Maybe he doesn’t. But he is.

Real estate brands are like gas stations. Shell, Sunoco, Chevron, Mobil – they sit on intersections catching customers by happenstance. Often, they attract customers for only one reason: There is no other option.

But now, today, new options are rearing. Sawbuck, Estately, Movoto, BugRealty, Redfin – they offer options. Innovations. They are hard at work doing something the old timers snub their nose at citing approved rhetoric about how new models have always tried to enter this space and have always failed.

These new companies are also building brands.

Businesses come and go. But brands, the great ones especially, the ones that were grown with great care, whose caretakers place the tenets of brand building ahead of business building, stand a chance of lasting forever.

If you have built a great business, you have more work to do to keep it sailing into the future. You need to stop right now and come up with real answers to these questions:

What does my company mean to me?
What does my company mean to the people who work here?
What does my company mean to those who have hired us?
What does my company mean to those who are thinking about hiring us?
What does my company mean to those who aren’t thinking about hiring us?
What does my company stand for to everyone who has experienced it?
What makes my company different from my competitors?
Do those differences have any street value?

These questions are your exterminators. They will poke and prod until they reveal where the nest of your termites lay. You might find you can’t answer these questions. You may find that the answers vary so much as to be meaningless.

My belief is anything can be revitalized. Anything. Especially a once-great business. The first step is starting the process.