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Wed 17 Dec 2008 04:00 AM

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Building a brand

As more and more projects are launched in the Gulf, developers are ploughing millions into marketing.

As more and more projects are launched in the Gulf every day, developers are ploughing millions into marketing and branding. Monika Grzesik examines the best ways to get noticed in today's crowded marketplace.

With developers giving away free Bentleys with every apartment, reams of marketing material extolling the virtues of the latest ‘luxury living' concept, and A-listers from Brad Pitt to Pamela Anderson showing up to endorse eco-projects around the region, it seems that the real estate industry in the Gulf has been built on branding.

In an increasingly competitive market, the right branding is crucial to developers drawing attention to their projects and being noticed above the rest. "It's a fairly sophisticated market just because of the wealth that's here," says Rina Plapler, executive director of global brand consultancy Futurebrand.

We don't rely solely on celebrity endorsement. If the product is not nice it won't sell. Michael Schumacher's involvement gives us that extra push.

"On a superficial level, it's very well understood. Delivering the brand is the more challenging part."

Reach for the stars

There's no doubt that, for most developers in the region, money is no object and, when it comes to enticing buyers, some are willing to pull out all the stops. As this year's Cityscape demonstrated, nothing beats a celebrity endorsement.

The exhibition saw a whole host of famous faces, from Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta Jones attending the launch party of Nakheel's tower project and Bollywood sensation Shah Rukh Khan unveiling his new Ras Al Khamiah beachfront development, to Michael Schumacher - already a well known face on the property scene having now put his name to two UAE projects - who launched the Michael Schumacher Champion Tower, a tie-in with Deyaar.

Kunal Aurora, marketing analyst at Deyaar, believes that the association with the F1 star has been well worth the investment, thanks to the hype generated around the project. "People went completely crazy. Michael Schumacher was mobbed," he said.

"We had initially thought that maybe he could spend some time on the stand, but I couldn't even get a photograph with him! We don't even have brochures for this building yet. The only thing we have is the fact that it's the Michael Schumacher World Champion Tower. It's all pinned on that."

Aurora declined to specify how much Schumacher would be paid for his part in the project, but he acknowledged that it would be a substantial sum. "By all means, it would cost millions of dirham. He has the whole tower named after him, so he is going to make a lot of money. But we don't rely solely on celebrity endorsement," he added.

"If the product is not nice it won't sell. Michael Schumacher's involvement gives us the extra push."Former tennis champion Boris Becker was another sports star to attract a huge flurry of attention at Cityscape, where he unveiled the US $817 million Boris Becker Beach Resort & Tennis Academy in Ras Al Kamiah - his second project endorsement with ACI Real Estate.

"The market was quite simple four years ago, but now you have to be more outstanding," commented Robin Lohman, managing director of ACI. "Branding this way gives us better recognition."

Others are less convinced that superstar branding is the right way to market projects.

We appreciate branding, we appreciate the importance of branding and we are continually investing in our brand. It has to be strategic and it has to be targeted.

"I wouldn't buy into a project just because it bears somebody's name," says Mohammed Abdulla Al Hathboor, project development manager for Meydan.

"At the end of the day, I want something with all the right facilities, benefits and features. To be honest, I don't think Boris Becker is a good role model. He was a Wimbledon champion for a few years, but then he lost all his money on some quite unworthy pursuits. People who are going to buy in Boris Becker Tower, they don't care if it's Boris Becker - they're investors looking to buy and then resell. But end-users, actual end-users, they'll not buy just because of Boris Becker either."

Meydan, he says, are focusing on a less gimmicky approach for their next launch.

Luxury talks

Developers may have become savvy to the short-term hype and excitement generated by a famous face, but what about creating a successful brand identity for the long term? Futurebrand recently released its fourth annual study into the Gulf real estate sector and found that, while developers may have the cash to plough into expensive branding campaigns, the messaging is always the same.

"Hyperbole continues to reign supreme," said the report. The study pin-pointed that the top five most over-used words being churned out in marketing materials were ‘luxury', ‘dream', ‘paradise', ‘live/living' and ‘reinvented'.

"Luxury is going strong, with more and more entrants jumping on this bandwagon," states the report. 'Paradise', 'masterpiece', 'dream' and 'perfection' are other lofty claims that developers make, suggesting that modesty is not a virtue when it comes to property. In their efforts to top one another, more and more projects are parroting the same tired phrases."

"It makes it hard for a brand to stand out because everybody is talking about the ultimate dream and luxury getaways," explains Plapler. "How do you really stand for something when everybody is saying the same thing?" Unfortunately, developers seem reluctant to change.Our clients all want to say it. It's hard to get them off it as they think people won't think they're luxurious. Rather than attracting potential investors by conjuring images of an enviable lifestyle, Plapler says that the constant overuse of hyperbole has only the effect of making people skeptical.

"At best, they become immune; at worst, they become cynical. How does anything live up to these kinds of phrases? Especially when you're buying off-plan." Moreover, the very definition of the word luxury appears to have been lost.

"How can it always be true? I mean, what exactly is luxury when it can refer to an inexpensive property as well as something worth AED 30 million? It almost neutralises everybody."

Your brand isn't just your logo in the brochure…it's every person who works in your organisation and everything the company communicates, from a press release to a website.

One of the biggest players in the real estate sector to recently undergo a major re-branding is Damac.

The company revealed a new logo, corporate identity and a brand promise of 'Wish Fulfillment' earlier this year. While the new branding appears to have jumped straight onboard the 'hyperbole' bandwagon, Niall McLoughlin, senior vice president of corporate communications, says that it was important for the company to convey its position as a global leader in luxury real estate and that the new brand promise takes it one step further. "We wanted to personify what we describe as luxury," he explains.

"We established ourselves from the very first as a luxury provider of real estate and we have taken it to the next level with our brand promise. ‘Wish Fulfilment' is about the tangible product and the benefits of living in luxury; not only the features of luxury."

It has, he claims, been well received. "We appreciate branding, we appreciate the importance of branding and we are continually investing in our brand. It has to be strategic and it has to be targeted. We spent a substantial sum and we've had positive feedback so far."

The winning formula

So, what's the key to creating a successful brand? Futurebrand's 2008 Gulf Real Estate Study says "Although it's a considerable challenge, in a sea of overstatements nothing is as memorable as a new message." In a crowded market, coming up with an original and unique idea is bound to get attention.

Plapler also warns that developers need to consider carefully before making wild and unsubstantiated promises to potential customers, particularly in the Gulf region where the study found there was an "undercurrent of distrust in the real estate marketplace and a need for reassurances."

"I always joke to my clients that I could say I'm Miss America, but it doesn't make it so. The brand has to be rooted in something that's true. Just saying your thing doesn't really convince people, you have to prove it into everything you do," confides Plapler.

"That's what we tell our clients - your brand isn't just your logo in the brochure, it's how you treat it when you walk into a sales centre, it's getting your call returned if you're an interested buyer, it's every person who works in your organisation and everything the company communicates, from a press release to a website. While part of branding is what you promise, the other part is how you perform and I think that, while the region is easy on the promising, the performing comes up a little short. That‘s the challenge."