Can a Golden Retriever Help Push More Real Estate?

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NEW YORK ( -- Coldwell Banker Real Estate Corp., facing a dog-eat-dog housing market, is trying to distinguish
The Coldwell Banker dog has appeared in various guises as a guide to online real estate information and services.
its brand among homebuyers with increased advertising emphasis on its fluffy golden retriever.

First established as the "Personal Retriever" of specialized data on the national real estate company's Web site in the late '90s, the friendly dog will now grace a medium crucial for real estate -- the yard sign -- and play a larger role in upcoming TV ads.

Pooch becomes an icon
"That pooch has gotten over 300,000 people to register with us online ... and now we're taking [him] to a new level from a marketing perspective, making him an icon for the brand," said Regina Taylor, senior vice president of marketing for Coldwell Banker.

Standing out is key for the company -- tied with Remax for the No. 1 slot among realtors -- as the stock market seesaws and home ownership rises.

"The real estate industry has turned out to be a cornerstone of this economic phase we're going through, as real estate is often seen as a safe haven for people's money," said Ms. Taylor. As a result, she said, the industry has become more competitive and more focused on becoming "marketing companies rather than just sales organizations."

Not much brand loyalty
Ms. Taylor pointed to the dog's role in establishing branded relationships with customers in an industry that has historically been anything but brand loyal. It's not only a battle to develop loyalty among customers, who have a primary relationship with agents rather than companies, but also a challenge to win over the more than 90,000 independent agents hired by Coldwell Banker franchisees.

So far, Coldwell Banker has sold more than 10,000 of the Personal Retriever yard-sign additions to agents as a way to differentiate the signs, which Ms. Taylor said in the past have been "nothing more than boring logos" despite being a real estate company's leading ad vehicle. In addition, she said, using the retriever also promotes registration on the company's Web site service, which offers franchisees much-needed leads.

Although Taylor Nelson Sofres' CMR put Coldwell Banker's 2001 ad spending at $46.5 million, Ms. Taylor said she estimates budgets for local newspaper advertising, including real estate classifieds, at more than $100 million while the corporate national media budget is around $10 million to $15 million.

Like the Aflac duck
Last year, Coldwell Banker hired Bcom3 Group's Kaplan Thaler Group, New York, because of the agency's reputation for "taking smaller brands with relatively small budgets and doing things that get noticed and that get integrated into pop culture," she said, pointing to its work for insurer Aflac as an example. Although the TV campaign last year included the retriever, the extension of the effort this February will feature him more prominently.

"National real estate brands are giving up on using their funds to create point-of-difference advertising because they've realized that it's totally ineffective," said Steve Murray, co-editor of real estate brokerage newsletter Real Trends. "The golden retriever probably fits into the 'feel good' category. It's a new installment of 'We're good, wonderful people. You can trust us.'"

According to Mr. Murray, Coldwell Banker and Remax are roughly tied for first place in national market share, with about 16% each, followed by Century 21 with about 9% market share. He noted that much of the market is taken up by local and regional brokers.

'For sale' signs
According to the National Association of Realtors, consumers rely equally on "for sale" signs, the Internet and newspaper listings when trying to buy or sell a home. Nikki Block, president of Block Associates, a marketing firm specializing in commercial real estate companies, said she thinks signage is the most important advertising technique.

"We've come up with some amazing high-tech, very sophisticated ways to promote real estate, and yet, when someone drives past a home they want with a 'for sale' sign, they're on the phone immediately," she said.

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