The CMO Interview: Michael Fischer

Realizing Real Estate Dreams Amid Recession

Coldwell Banker VP Fischer Sees Opportunity in Challenging Times

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- The two biggest purchases in a consumer's life? Houses and cars. The two things consumers aren't buying right now? Houses and cars. But Michael Fischer has had to lead marketing efforts for both. And he's unfazed. His philosophy on marketing troubled products and services: "Build trust. No one wants to trust their hard-earned dollars to someone or a brand they have questions about," says Mr. Fischer, 49, senior VP-marketing of Coldwell Banker Real Estate and former director-marketing communications at Nissan North America.

Michael Fischer, senior VP-marketing, Coldwell Banker Real Estate
Michael Fischer, senior VP-marketing, Coldwell Banker Real Estate
Easier said than done in a recession. But as he celebrates his one-year anniversary at Coldwell Banker, a 103-year-old real-estate company, Mr. Fischer is enthusiastic about the opportunity to grab "dreamers" and boost web efforts.

In an interview with Ad Age, he talked about how he plans to market the Coldwell Banker brand in a near-catastrophic housing market.

Ad Age: You're overseeing marketing for a brand that's smack in the throes of one of the worst housing markets we've seen in decades. What becomes your marketing strategy in those sorts of conditions?

Mr. Fischer: How to differentiate us, how to keep us relevant, how to keep our message in front of consumers, and how to use our 103-year legacy to our advantage, to get people to really think about whether or not they want to get in or out of real estate.

Ad Age: Is real estate just an impossible sell right now, and therefore isn't it nearly impossible to market a real-estate brand?

Mr. Fischer: No. There are 5 million home sales forecasted for 2009, equating to 10 million "sides" -- buyer/seller sides. They are immediately in the market. But there are also tens of millions [of people] who are in the "dreaming" process. They're online, looking at listings, building up trust with brands, local companies and individual sales associates anonymously from the comfort of their office or home. Marketing remains extremely important to reach consumers and help our affiliated companies increase market share.

Ad Age: You came from the auto industry. What's different about marketing a service as opposed to marketing a product?

Michael Fischer on Michael Fischer
MARKETERS HE APPLAUDS, EVEN EMULATES: Geico. I really admire the subtle change they made in the proof points to address the economy while keeping the brand personality consistent.
WHAT'S KEEPING HIM UP AT NIGHT: How we can continue to add marketing value to our affiliates and agents as real estate continues to evolve. What will the value proposition look like five years from now? Ten years from now? Also, how we can get our brand to be more engaged with our consumers while also keeping our agents front and center in the transaction?
THE BOOK HE'S CURRENTLY READING AND WHY: "Into the Wild," by Jack Krackauer. I've been reading a bunch of historical biographies lately and needed a change. Plus, I feel a little like Alex walking into the wilds of Alaska with this recession. I hope my story ends better.
Mr. Fischer: Real estate is local, and so is the car business in a lot of ways. Whatever we do nationally we have to make sure that our brokers and our agents understand what we're doing, making sure our messages will be relevant to their business day-to-day. So that's been the biggest similarity for me and really why [Coldwell Banker] looked to have someone from the car business come over to try their hand at real estate.

Ad Age: Do you feel increased pressure these days to show ROI?

Mr. Fischer: Yes. But we have a marketing fund that's generated from our affiliates, and so there has always been a need to show value and to measure all the ROI for marketing, because we need to report every year to the affiliates what we did with the dollars that were generated from the marketing funds.

Ad Age: Let's talk about consumer trust. Is that something you need to work to rebuild?

Mr. Fischer: Any time there is any type of conflict like there is right now with the economy, consumers are looking for brands they can trust. One of the reasons why I came to Coldwell Banker, and why I love Coldwell Banker, is this idea of a 103-year legacy. So we've seen it all, we have great leadership, and that, to me, gives me the right to have a trust conversation with consumers during these tough times. And that's really what we're trying to do, and why the founders [Colbert Coldwell and Benjamin Banker] in our legacy play such an important role in our marketing.

Ad Age: And so how are you doing that?

Mr. Fischer: This housing downturn really started about a year and a half, two years ago. So last year we brought the founders in as our main spokespeople for the brand [in a campaign developed by agency of record McKinney, Durham, N.C.]. And it does a lot of things. No. 1, it helps differentiate us. It also gives us the ability to show that 103-year history, and to really be able to tell people, "Hey, we've seen this before. Real estate comes back. It will be better, you know?"

Ad Age: The founders have Facebook pages, and they're on Twitter. Why those platforms?

Mr. Fischer: The particular customer we're looking at really loves that empowerment [of the internet], but they know that when it comes time to make the purchase decision, they need to engage a real-estate professional. So we know they're online, we know they're looking for information online. So going into Facebook, going into Twitter -- not only do we have an opportunity to have a conversation with consumers, but it also gives us a great opportunity to talk to the 100,000 or 110,000 global agents that represent Coldwell Banker.

Ad Age: Are you going to be spending more or less on marketing in '09, and is it important for a real-estate company to be spending more in this economy?

Mr. Fischer: I will tell you we're spending less. Our budget is derived from home sales. So when home sales are down, our budget is affected. But what I've done is made sure that all the back-office spending that doesn't truly add value against our three brand pillars -- our legacy, our network and our innovation -- we really aren't spending and investing the money in it.

Ad Age: Are you putting more in your online and alternative media as opposed to TV?

Mr. Fischer: Yes. Last year we were about 30% online in our media mix; this year we're about 40%.

Ad Age: Have you lost share to people are looking to sell themselves or discount real-estate companies offering lower agent fees?

Mr. Fischer: I haven't seen anything really making a big dent. When I was in the automotive industry back in 2000, everybody was worried that Edmunds and Kelley Blue Book were going to put dealers out of business. That never came to be because it was the second-largest purchase in anyone's life, and you weren't going to trust that to the internet. Well, if that holds true for the second-biggest purchase, I'm convinced it's holding true for the No. 1 biggest purchase in someone's life. They're going to need a professional, and that money you pay an agent is well worth it.

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