February 27, 2003

Marketing homes during war

  • Thinking ‘community’ is the key


    The National Association of Homebuilders convention in Las Vegas last month packed in some 93,000 people, hosting builders, developers and suppliers who shared the latest innovations available to the building trades.

    On the agenda, too, was a vast array of seminars and how-to sessions, covering everything from “Home Design for Women” to “Are you ready for Wartime Marketing?”

    Wartime Marketing? Evidently it’s of real concern to real estate professionals, despite the fact that the housing industry continues to be the most robust segment of the economy, even against the gloomy backdrop of stock market volatility, corporate scandals and the continued fear of terrorist attacks.

    Still, some 700 builders filled the seminar room to hear what a panel of national marketers, including John Schleimer, MIRM, Richard Laermer, a New York public relations executive, and I might have to say on the subject.

    Photo courtesy of sgwcreative
    In the World War II era, the radio was the primary source for information. Some experts now recommend builders leave space for a big screen TV to gather around.

    My firm, sgwcreative, is a Mercer Island-based marketing communications agency that specializes in working with master planned communities all over the country.

    John Schleimer, who is a nationally recognized marketing consultant, confirmed that the modern housing industry doesn’t necessarily suffer from wartime impacts, citing Korean War and Vietnam-era statistics that showed relatively little impacts. He did, however, urge people to make adjustments to accommodate the emotional aspects of national stress.

    “Think community, not project,” he said. “Give your neighborhoods, your communities a heartbeat.” John advised that nothing radical is in the offing where home designs are concerned, but builders could do some fine tuning of their products.

    For example, houses now more than ever need adequate space for gathering, if not in the great room then certainly in the kitchen. And a wall for a big screen television should be the focal point, rather than the traditional fireplace. “When we go to war, we go to Fox and CNN,” he explained.

    Richard Laermer, author of the best-selling book “Trend Spotting: Think Forward, get Ahead, and Cash in on the Future,” urged builders to rise to a new level of handholding their new homebuyers.

    “People stay home during times of stress,” he said, “so go there. Go to the place where they feel most comfortable.” Of course, they can’t take their model houses to their buyers, but they can show floor plans, carpet samples and upgrade options, and bring contracts to sign.

    Post 9/11, homebuilder Burnsteads used this patriotic approach to marketing homes.

    My segment of the presentation focused on the historical perspective of marketing during wartime. As a public affairs specialist and a professed history buff, I concentrated on the World War II era. It’s during that time, that “marketing communications” — historians might call it “propaganda” — really came into its own.

    It is the period that gave America unforgettable icons and slogans like “Rosie the Riveter” and “Loose Lips Sink Ships.” No, “Uncle Sam Wants You” actually has its origins in World War I, with a stern faced figure pointing a gnarly finger at potential recruits for the effort “Over There.”

    I was born in Germany in 1945 and grew up during the “economic wonder” years of post-war Germany. I wanted to know more about advertising in that country during the dark years of the Third Reich.

    We’re all aware, of course, of the Nazi propaganda machine and its images of military power and racial arrogance. In doing my research, though, I was struck by the fact that right down to the end of 1944 when German cities were reduced to rubble by day-and-night bombing — consumer advertising was still prevalent. And the themes were of peace and prosperity, of human aspirations for a better life, of a benign existence in small homes and supportive communities. These were in total contrast to the propaganda hammerings about “Bolshevik Hordes,” and what not.

    In America, too, consumers took comfort in familiar brands and company names. To be sure, the themes had nationalistic overtones and stressed the commonality of purpose toward ultimate victory. Marketers recognized that they could not only keep their companies at top-of-mind for consumers — especially future consumers — but could actually contribute to a national mindset of resolve and hope for a brighter future.

    That, perhaps, is the most important lesson we can learn from history. In today’s business environment of market studies and focus groups, the advertising industry could not come up with definitive findings on how companies ought to conduct themselves post 9/11. Some respondents feel strongly that any retrenchment from business as usual means giving in to our enemies. Others feel that this is not a time for crass commercialism. Still others are adamant that any sort of gratuitous flag waving by businesses would result in a furious backlash.

    American executives, however, seem to be clear on the subject. In a Harris Poll, 86 percent agreed that it’s smart business to continue advertising even during wartime. The reasons: for top-of-mind name familiarity, to demonstrate ongoing commitments to products and services, and to communicate an unwavering faith in the future of our country and society.

    Our advice to our clients is to trust their common sense and business instincts. If it feels uncomfortable to advertise grand openings or open houses in your new-home communities while American troops battle overseas — by all means abstain.

    If you do advertise, it’s appropriate to include patriotic themes. Americans do judge companies by their values as much as by their products. But, they can tell the sincere, heartfelt patriotic spirit from the inappropriate or phony flag waving. And, finally, there are other ways to engage consumers, such as sponsoring local news broadcasts or participating in community events.

    It’s a cliché perhaps, but we’re not in the housing business. We’re in the American dream business. And keeping that dream alive for the next generation of homebuyers is the ultimate victory.

    Franz W. Gregory is a senior partner in sgwcreative, a Mercer Island-based marketing communications firm that specializes in working with real estate clients, particularly master planned communities.

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