Cookie-Cutter Advertising Does Not Cut it

If you are in a real estate market selling or looking for a residential property or have sold or bought one, you would have noticed it and will agree that all real estate print advertisements look the same. If you have not noticed the similarity yet, I am confident that after reading through this article, you would. Real estate print advertisements are of same size, mostly small, with similar layout, image on the right hand side of the ad, text on the left, small type font and lots of ads cluttered on a page. In multicultural (ethnic) newspapers as well, where generally properties are not listed, the ads layout resembles the mainstream newspapers. That is, the ads are small in size, mostly black & white, the image of the property, however, is replaced with a headshot of the sales representative. One difference in the real estate ads in multicultural newspapers and magazines is that these do have a caption or a heading. Though, the relevance and emotional connection of the heading with the target market is a moot point.

I call the above mentioned advertisements the cookie-cutter advertising, as if a baker has used his recipe and a mould to cut all real estate ads similar in size, look and feel. This symmetry could be a job par excellence in bakeries but I believe it does not provide a unique selling preposition (USP) or a competitive edge to real estate advertisers. To me, it is akin to driving through a street alongside townhouses built by one builder, Daniels, Mattamy Homes or Great Gulf Homes, looking similar in architecture and style. One has to slow down and make an effort to spot a particular townhouse. Similarly, a reader has to make an effort to discover the offer or simply, what’s in it for him!

Another analogy is with the commodity wholesale market, where all shops look alike, filled up to the roof with products, waiting for customers to come and dig out the products they are interested in. Real estate cookie-cutter ads are also filled up with information with out differentiation compelling readers to move on. Pick up a newspaper with a real estate section or any multicultural / foreign language newspaper and you can see the similarity in the cookie-cutter ads for yourself. These print ads are full of information, however, devoid of creativity, appeal and emotional connection. Thus cookie-cutter advertising does not provide the advertiser with the bang for his buck.

There are several reasons for cookie-cutter advertising with minimal creativity and appeal and no emotional connection. These are as follows:

1. The Real Estate sales representatives and advertisers are mostly incognizant of the potential of advertising and specially marketing, when it is creatively developed and diligently implemented with a laser-sharp focus. Their businesses are usually one-man shows, preoccupying them and not providing adequate opportunities to wear the marketing hat. Sales representatives could be awesome deal makers but not all reps are marketing savvy. I offered help to a Real Estate Sales Rep friend in his marketing & advertising efforts but the initiative has yet to see the daylight. Instead, he jumped on the bandwagon and advertised in the newspapers with a series of cookie-cutter ads.  

2. Generally real estate organizations look for low cost advertising options. They endeavor to negotiate ad rates to a bare minimum compromising ad size, colors, creativity and consequently ads’ appeal. At times they prefer to advertise in low cost, fly-by-night newspapers with unverifiable circulation. Instead of worrying about the cost of advertisements, the focus should be on the ROI, measured in terms of reach, which is, cost of reaching thousand households or customers with the message. It is prudent to invest $500 on an ad in a newspaper or a magazine with a circulation of 50,000 than paying $200 for an ad in a newspaper with a circulation of 10,000 copies.

3. Newspapers are expected to develop print ads but all newspapers are not equipped with competent creative and composing departments. It tantamount to asking TV stations to develop TV commercials! Moreover, ads are placed by the clients at the eleventh hour, not providing sufficient time to develop creative and attention-grabbing ads. Mediocre creative department and inadequate lead time for developing ads result in cookie-cutter advertisements.

4. Real estate advertisers embark on advertising & promotion with out setting up strategic direction and a formal marketing plan, frequently relying on one medium, mostly in line with the market trend. Absence of well-thought marketing plan produces lack of direction, obscure benchmarks and inconsistency, which hamper effective advertising and its monitoring.

I hear you asking, if all is not well with real estate advertising than how we see numerous happy and successful real estate organizations and representatives.

Like other markets, real estate business also depicts Pareto’s 80:20 principle, that is, 80% of the revenue is produced by 20% of the reps. These top 20% successful sales reps are dominant market players and we frequently see them in media – happy and successful. They have the financial muscles to advertise in varied media and sustain the advertising momentum. They combine it with marketing insights and planning, superb implementation, excellent client service, state-of-the-art deal making, diligent analysis and follow up. They are the role models and inspiration for other 80% reps, who take this visible lead from these adroit achievers and advertise to maintain some market presence. Nevertheless, they miss out on other vital elements of the marketing mix, failing to be effective and successful.

Moreover, there are many real estate reps and many more buyers and sellers in the market creating a critical mass for all to benefit and a fallacy that cookie-cutter advertising works. Print ads do yield phone calls and inquiries. How many of these calls result in business deals is anybody’s guess. I have posed this question to several real estate reps and did not get a positive answer. They maintained that advertising helps in establishing their brand (names and service) with their prospects. This is a legitimate marketing objective; however, the means to reach it are inefficient causing waste of resources that could be otherwise directed for building business. Furthermore, the objective is inconsistent with advertisers’ expectation, which is to get warm leads that could be materialized in near future. Even if the idea is to create brand awareness, a number of facets need to be considered before initiating an advertising campaign, for example, the target market and their needs, best media to reach target market, costs of ad placement, appeal of the message and ways of gauging response.

It is imperative for real estate advertisers to take a step back to see a broader picture of their business and market. Draft a business plan, a one-time effort that should result into a dynamic but simple document delineating major components of the business. As Steven Covey, in his book 7 Basic Habits of the Highly Effective People suggested, all important projects should be developed twice, first on the paper then on the ground, like building a house. The business plan should be a hard document consisting of the SWOT analysis, value preposition and short & long-term objectives vis-à-vis expected deals and revenue per year. The plan sets expectations and direction for the business activities.

Next, target market should be ascertained in terms of its size and composition. Ask questions like who are your perfect customers, what is their profile, where do they frequent, what are their likes and dislikes and what are the best ways to reach and acquire them to understand your target market. A mix of media is available to advertise; electronic, print, on-line, direct, public relations, networking and business collaboration. Each of the aforementioned media categories offer several options with unique qualitative & quantitative benefits and costs attached to it. The media with the promise for maximum return on your marketing investment (ROI) should be used.

After gaining insights into your target market, relevant media and cost of reaching potential clients, match the ground realities with the objectives set forth in the business plan. Is the market big enough to get required leads for converting into expected number of deals in a year? Are the funds adequate to sustain advertising for a predetermined period? This analysis serves as a sanity check, provides for realistic goals and sets strategic direction for minimizing the gap between resources and business goals. This is not a rocket science; however, has a jugular importance in developing SMART goals.

Based on the above work, build a marketing plan incorporating competitive position, unique value preposition (what you can uniquely offer to your client), differentiated message, efficient use of media, costs, marketing goals and a fallback option. Message is the core to any advertising campaign. It has to be realistic, emotional, unique and attention grabbing. Remember, no two reps would have similar marketing plans – no more cookie cutting please! Innovate; as Andy Goodman wrote, when everyone zigs, it’s time to zag.

The three most important considerations in the world of real estate are location, location and location. The three most important marketing considerations are consistency, consistency and consistency in implementing the well-conceived marketing plan.


About Fazal Siddiqi
Fazal Siddiqi Writes on current marketing, branding, communications, diversity and socio-economic opportunities & challenges. He lives in Canada and works for OPAL Marketing Group.

6 Responses to Cookie-Cutter Advertising Does Not Cut it

  1. polishedpromoter says:

    Brilliant !!! As a marketer myself I help create personalized and targeted marketing plans.

    Today, I had the fortune of speaking with a local real estate agent – because I noticed his uniquely branded direct mailer. If you’re in Vancouver, I think the ReMax Crest team gets it! The realtor was Steven Jamieson.

    Looking forward to reading more of your writing.

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  5. Tracy says:

    Agreed!! I am also in the real estate marketing business. I have some ANTI cookie-cutter marketing that will blow your socks off. Check it out now. One more thing – This gets a 10 to 25% reposne rate and works not only in real estate business, but others, as well (mortgage brokers, personal training, etc)

  6. Fazal Siddiqi says:

    Thank you Tracy, hotya and polished promoter for your comments and Tracy for the insight that non cookie-cutter ads increased response rates by 10% – 15%.

    Indeed, innovative, attention-grabbing and measureable ad campaigns can be employed for all service offers with equal effectiveness. However, abuse of marketing resource is so rampant in real estate industry that I couldn’t help using it as a case study.


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