Land Values: Real estate companies are betting big on branding developments

How do you brand an entire developing company?

To live in contemporary B.C. is to swim beneath a steady waterfall of words crafted ever so carefully to seduce us with visions of a dream life. Also known as the perfect pre-sale condo unit.

The enticements proliferate everywhere. Giant ads in the exit halls of Vancouver International Airport. Messages and pithy sayings on hoardings at construction sites. Billboards, every kind of print material from giveaway flyers to mainstream media, websites and advertisements that pop up whenever you pick up your scrolling device of choice.

In Vancouver, where pre-sales play an unusually large part in the real estate market compared to other cities, the word strings and slogans promise a utopian life—but not the same one for every building. Instead, each is geared to its own demographic cluster, the marketers writing love sonnets to different sets of imaginary customers, a literary genre popularized in the city by uber-marketer Bob Rennie and expanded on ever since.

In Mount Pleasant, where Relic Entertainment, Hootsuite, AbCellera, Image Engine and the like are headquartered, Habitat on Broadway (not quite finished) is a “modern community designed for creators.” Also “efficient,” which I presume is code for “small, but we did our best with design.” So, younger, urban, tech kids.

In Downtown Vancouver, there’s a different message, executed in an elegant font. “1818 Alberni is a multilayered experience in elevated luxury living. The boutique collection seamlessly weaves iconic contemporary architecture, interior finishes of the highest quality and ingenious design details for harmonious living in perfect balance.” Yes, for wealthy people wanting to camp in a downtown resort.

Surrey’s Parkway promises an “energizing day-to-night neighbourhood” that “puts you close to everything.” Translation: sure, it’s not Vancouver, but we’re putting in lots of extras, like restaurants and a community centre, plus it’s close to a SkyTrain stop.

In Burnaby, Greenhouse is a festival of lavish language: “Conceptualized as a modern-day facsimile of the French orangeries of old, this one-of-a-kind project was created in harmony with nature down to the last detail.”

Behind the Building

The missing element in many of these messages? Anything about the developer behind the building. For those wondering, the four projects above are being developed, respectively, by Fabric, Landa Global, Bosa Properties Inc. (BPI) and Concord Pacific, in case you hadn’t guessed. Oh, occasionally, there will be a reference like “we’ve been building in Vancouver forever.” A sort of reassurance that they’re not about to skip town, leaving new buyers to deal with flooding underground garages and deficient countertops on their own.

But there’s a new trend I’m seeing developer companies turning to: a kind of branding that isn’t just about the individual building but the builder behind it. Veteran Vancouver development companies like BPI, Reliance, PCI Group and others are looking at ways to create public recognition for those names—maybe not quite at the level of Nike or Apple, but something more than a company logo on a website that’s focused mainly on the latest tower.

At BPI, there’s a whole brand and communications department headed by Jen Riley, who came over from Electronic Arts, while most of the rest of her team has come from outside the real estate world as well. They’re changing the way pre-sales marketing has typically worked.

Related: 5 Questions: Bosa Properties’ Sally Parrott talks diversifying the development industry and her Aritzia past

“Pre-sales condos became a thing in the 1980s, but most work is outsourced,” she says. “Things would get built, then you call in the marketer.”

Riley’s team now gets involved from the beginning, doing work to research what buyers are going to want in the future, which might be very different from what they bought four years ago and are just moving into now.

But it’s a tricky thing. No one asks you to buy cars or vacuum cleaners or frozen pizzas on spec. But that’s the model here in Vancouver for this major buy. “We’re selling air. Ether. So it’s built on trust,” said Riley. 

I’ve had a hard time understanding the concept of developer branding (possibly the reason that I’m in journalism and not marketing or public relations) since I started hearing about it a while ago. That’s likely because I think of branding as being for a different kind of product: toasters, cold remedies, cereal, bikes. Products that you buy more than, say, once in your lifetime, and where you’ll get reviews from multiple friends about whether they were reliable or broken down; whether they worked properly or didn’t; whether they tasted good.

How do you brand an entire development company? The thing is, condos and new homes of all descriptions are hard to assess. Consumer Reports doesn’t touch them, though they do provide cautionary advice about homeowner associations. There is nothing like an Edmunds car ranking system or a CARFAX or Kelley Blue Book estimate of a car’s resale value, which takes into account how solid a product it was to begin with.

Buyer Beware

Potential buyers work in an information desert. They can go on vague impressions and news stories about past specific problems (defaults, prominent lawsuits or, more specifically, the case of Holborn and the bad taste left over its purchase of the Little Mountain social-housing site) or developer personalities (such as Ian Gillespie at Westbank: flamboyant, very design- and detail-focused). They can scour the extremely complex documents provided with pre-sales, which can be so unreadable that a buyer might not even realize there’s some quirky provision (developer has provided himself with a penthouse on top that is its own separate air parcel) baked in. Or they could try looking up past court cases, where they’ll discover anywhere from zero to 179 lawsuits in B.C. Supreme Court judgments associated with various top development companies in the region.

It would be helpful to have that kind of data in the current real estate world in this city, even for developers, as pre-sales have become tougher and more competitive. Buyers didn’t use to ask who the builder was. But they’re starting to pay much more attention, according to Max Jakubke of marketing agency Publish Partners.

“In a hot market, people didn’t care,” Jakubke says. “But now the marketers have noticed people are asking more questions about the builders. Are they local? They’re coming back three or four times and are more thoughtful about buying. They’re not camping out any more.”

A sign of the times, besides the focus on branding, is the emergence of a company like MLA Blue, which offers a service rating of homes for sale. Part of the firm’s “blue score” is a focus on the developer, which is rated “based on number of units completed, years of experience, Google rating and survey responses from our real estate agent database.”

But those seem like incomplete metrics for a purchase that is likely to be the largest one ever in many people’s lives. So branding has to go beyond that.

Like several other big local companies, BPI emphasizes its long time in the market—started by an earlier generation and now being carried on by the children of the founders. But it also closely tracks customer satisfaction post-move, using tools like the Net Promoter Score system. The messaging it has developed is not just for the buyers of its condos—the statements about goals and ideals are meant to serve as a guide for its own employees. And it touts its clean record when it comes to defaults and its practice of requiring higher deposits in pre-sales.

That last one might seem contradictory, but that’s because developers have more than one audience they’re trying to reach with their branding messages. Development companies need a strong identity as good players for other key audiences: the politicians who will approve their projects, the government officials who will decide on what kind of program money they might get and the banks and equity partners that provide the money to build.

The message to those audiences is especially crucial these days, when many developers are putting projects on hold because they can’t get financing in this era of high interest rates, complicated rezoning processes, constantly climbing construction costs and hesitation among potential buyers having trouble getting mortgages.

It turns out the company’s identity has to sell not just potential buyers, but the people who will make it possible to build at all, says Riley. “Our most important customers are our lenders,” she notes.