By Diane Slawych

Why do real estate agents often use their photos on business cards? Are attractive agents more successful? And how did a hot air balloon end up as the Re/Max logo? Adman Terry O’Reilly answers these questions and more as he investigates the world of real estate advertising in a recent episode of his hugely successful and entertaining CBC radio documentary series Under the Influence. REM caught up with the multi-award-winning radio host for an email interview.

You’ve covered many topics in Under the Influence, from gender marketing to the “crazy world of trademarks” and brands that go political. What prompted you to explore real estate advertising for one of your episodes? (The episode is called Selling the Dream: Real Estate Advertising.)

O’Reilly:  I have always thought that real estate marketing is a world unto itself. It involves personalities, lots of advertising and the biggest purchases in our lives. There are a lot of staples in the real estate world – like using agent’s faces in lawn signage, billboards and print ads, employing the MLS, evaluating pricing, judging neighbourhoods…It is also an industry with intense competition. All of this was interesting to me and I wanted to go back in history to see how it all started – and why.

Why do real estate agents, perhaps more than people in any other service industry, so often use their photos on business cards and other advertisements?

O’Reilly: My research told me that this practice started in the late 1800s/early 1900s. People were moving to cities from the country and unscrupulous conmen would meet these people at train stations and sell them non-existent property. These land sellers were called “land sharks” and took advantage of good people looking to start a new life. The term “swampland in Florida” was coined in this period.

Legitimate real estate agents wanted to distance themselves from these scam artists, so they began to organize by creating real estate boards and they established standards of practice. Using a face in their marketing and opening offices with fixed addresses suggested accountability. No conman would ever advertise his face and they certainly didn’t want offices where they could be tracked down. In other words, the use of a face in real estate marketing was the ultimate sign of trust.

You say that real estate has its own rules, techniques and own breed of salespeople. How so? How is it different than other industries in terms of advertising and marketing?

O’Reilly: Generally speaking, a real estate transaction is the biggest purchase a person makes in their lifetime. So, the price tag is great. Real estate agents try to bring two parties together: a willing seller and a willing buyer. That middleman position is somewhat unique in marketing. Agents must be power listeners to understand what a client really wants. Virtually every transaction is a negotiation, and negotiating is an art. Agents love to use their faces in their marketing, as I mentioned earlier. Not many service industries do that. The advertising industry – which is to say, my industry – is a service business but we never use our faces to win clients. Real estate agents are not selling houses, they are selling homes. That makes it an extremely emotional purchase. Navigating that much emotion requires a unique skill set.

In your show you mention a fascinating study done by three American universities that looked at physical attractiveness as it relates to a real estate professional’s success. Could you elaborate?

O’Reilly: It was an interesting study because this is an industry that relies on faces. Essentially, it said that attractive agents had listings with higher selling prices and higher commissions. The study confirmed that physical attractiveness is an asset. But, there was an interesting side note: Less attractive agents had lower selling prices but more listings and more sales. Which I interpret to mean, they worked harder. Attractive people use their beauty in place of other work skills. Less attractive people must work harder and they do.

You discovered that real estate played an important role in the evolution of the advertising business. How so?

O’Reilly: To begin with, the very first advertising agency in North America was started by a Philadelphia real estate agent named Volney Palmer around 1837. Second, the very first radio commercial ever aired was for a real estate development. It was broadcast in 1922 on radio station WEAF in New York. Close to $14 billion is spent on real estate advertising in North America annually, so it is a powerful marketing sector.

What are some offbeat ways real estate agents or homeowners have used to gain attention, and do any of them work?

O’Reilly: I was very interested to see what novel techniques real estate agents are using these days. Many are employing humour. Signs that say, “Free pizza with house” and “zombie free” are examples of that. Remember, attention is the oxygen of any business, and more so in real estate marketing.

Some home sellers are offering potential buyers an Airbnb night in their home to give buyers a real sense of what it would be like to live in the house. That’s a smart insight – we sometimes spend more time buying socks than we spend in the homes we’re buying. Some Realtors are producing very creative videos. Some are creating songs! I have to say I like the fact agents are starting to break the traditional rules of real estate selling. Do all of these ideas work? Hard to say but standing out is job one in marketing. Fortune favours the bold.

You say that few real estate companies have readily identifiable logos, but Re/Max is a notable exception. How did it get a hot air balloon as its logo, which on the face of it doesn’t have much of a connection to real estate?

O’Reilly: Brokers sell agents. Agents sell property. I believe that real estate companies should be doing more branding to distinguish their businesses in the marketplace. When they do, they give their agents a powerful calling card. Most real estate companies have weak brand personalities.

Re/Max is an exception because it is one of the few companies that has a powerful brand and a memorable brand icon. The Re/Max balloon is instantly recognizable, as is their slogan, “Above the Crowd.” Many years ago, two Re/Max franchisees in New Mexico approached head office with a drawing of a red, white and blue hot air balloon and said, “This should be our logo.” Management said a hot air balloon had nothing to do with real estate and turned them down. A year later, those same two franchisees came back with an 8mm film of a Re/Max hot air balloon they had flown the day before at a hot air balloon festival and said, “This should be our logo!” Again, management gave them a hard pass.

A year after that, Re/Max hired a consultant to gauge how well-known the company was in its hometown of Denver. The survey showed they ranked number eight. Clearly, they were in desperate need of some branding. Then somebody remembered the Re/Max balloon. So, they hired a plane, got some footage of the balloon floating in sky and created a TV commercial with it.

At the end of the eight-week campaign, the consultant came in with his annual survey and told Re/Max they were now the number one real estate company in the city. Re/Max said that’s great. Wait, the consultant said, you don’t understand, 66 per cent of the people surveyed said Re/Max has a red, white and blue balloon, and 36 per cent said your theme is “Above the Crowd.” After only eight weeks, this kind of feedback is unheard of. This balloon should be your logo! So, Re/Max took another vote and this time the unanimous response was… yes! And that’s how one of the most recognized logos in the real estate business took flight over 40 years ago.

As someone with extensive experience in the advertising business, what would you do today if you were a real estate agent in a tough market?

O’Reilly: Stand out. Amateurs think marketing is all about selling stuff. But the pros know marketing is all about differentiating your business. Once you can do that, once you become top-of-mind in your town or your industry, the real selling starts. I would analyze what other smart agents are doing in other markets. Other countries. I would look beyond real estate and see how other smart service-based industries are marketing themselves.

There is a reason most real estate advertising all looks the same – Realtors are inhaling their own fumes. But those boundaries are artificial. Push the guardrails back. Deliver above and beyond the services that your competitors aren’t offering. Identify the friction points in real estate transactions and eliminate them. Think big. When was the last time you wowed your clients?