Let us proclaim the mystery of brand

The Monsignor’s head would turn towards me almost imperceptibly.

Up from my kneeler, I would unhook the censer from its stand and place a purple cone of incense among the embers in its well. Plumes carrying age-old mysteries curled upward.

My walk to the altar was slow. Reverential. And gravely serious. hundreds of eyes belonging to elders, parents and schoolmates fixed on me.

At the altar the Monsignor took the censer and waved it above chalices over which he had performed a whispered consecration.

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem.


I was an alter boy. Twelve years old. I took it very seriously. The dress, the song, the ritual and the symbolic richness of the Catholic Church filled my young mind with meaning.

In graduate school, I spent a lot of time studying the Supreme Court. It was silliness mostly – using regression analysis to pinpoint, say, the effects amicus briefs had on Justice Burger’s opinions on busing.  Social “science” pedantry at its worst.

Much more interesting were the qualitative works exploring the nature of the Court’s authority. How, exactly, nine unelected judges could shape the arc of American political development without provoking revolt.

This authority was sustained in many ways that had nothing to do with constitutional prerogative. It was in the robes. The conscious remove from the political fray. The use of Latin to confer gravity and deflect deconstruction (Stare Decisis just sounds like something you need to accept, doesn’t it?)

Odd for a modern republic, perhaps – maybe even dangerous. But it worked.

The mysteries of brand


To the point: Meaning and authority – brand bedrock – are enhanced by the art of creating mystery, symbolism and ritual.

Here’s an example:

Apple. Great consumer electronics. Wonderful design. But there’s also a certain stardust that makes Apple more – something we can’t quite put our finger on but nonetheless registers as meaning in our minds. Something Lenovo, Toshiba or Acer can’t touch.

For many, this meaning is deeply satisfying. The act of buying a laptop becomes a transfer of that meaning unto ones’s self. In Apple’s case, it may translate as “Coolness,” “Intelligence,” “Prosperity,” “Creativity” or other values in the range of superiority. This sort of thing can be created in part by good advertising (The Mac vs. PC campaign is all about superiority), but I would argue that the real magic comes from other places.

It comes from the black turtleneck. The priesthood of fanboys summoned for Cupertino conclaves. The attention to sensory pleasure that makes opening an iPhone box a consumerist climax. The casino-like obfuscation of commerce that defines the Apple Store.

Yeah, it’s weird when you think about it. But we don’t think about it. We feel it. And that’s the point: Effective brands actively cultivate meaning through the artistry of symbolism, ritual and mystery.

Don’t give it all away


The debate about “branding” in real estate rages on. Whether you think brokers are dead appendages or believe the future lies in scale, I would argue that those who can, as Guy Kawasaki says, “Make meaning” will last.

How that meaning is made can’t be worked out on a spreadsheet. And good base elements are a must (this MacBook Pro I am typing on is still a damn good computer even stripped of its brand juju). It requires a sort of alchemy that can turn the name on a yard sign into something somehow more that that.

Does this exist in real estate? It sure does. But it is – as it should be – a rare thing. We know brokers who can do it. They have their own rituals, their own symbols, their own mysteries. And they are doing well.

Many others miss the mark entirely. They engage in social media promiscuously, mistaking it for brand love. They embrace “transparency” when they would be better served by calculated reserve.

Marketing follows the magic, not the other way around.


This is nebulous stuff and many (including, in less reflective moments, myself) dismiss discussions of brand development as bullshit. But I think there is something here that merits continued exploration.

Think about what it would mean if you ran a real estate company and could answer – instantly and credibly – questions like these:

  • What does it mean to be a [your company name here] agent?
  • What do you do to make being part of your organization something more than contract terms?
  • Can you explain how every point at which human beings encounter your brand supports that which you could claim as that something more?
  • What benefits do you deliver that cannot be enumerated in bullet points?

If you could do it, marketing would be a lot easier. So would recruiting, managing and pretty much everything else. It’s not easy in real estate context, where shortcuts are the rule. But it can be done. We have seen it.

So don your own black turtleneck. Summon your acolytes. And find some stardust of your own.