December 7, 2007

CBA Insights speaker profile: Linda Berman


Firm: Team I-Sight

Position: President

Linda Berman is not your conventional “brand consultant,” although Disney, AT&T, Coca Cola, MTV, FedEx and the NFL, among others, have called upon her to explore new opportunities for their brands. She has mastered the approach of finding points of intersection between cultural shifts, consumer trends and a company’s own uniqueness to explore new business. Her philosophy is that the future of real estate development is about building more than just places — it’s about building places in the heart of the guest.

When do “brands” work?

Hugely successful brands such as Apple, Nike and countless others really work because they offer their customers emotional connections. There is something in those brands that actually transcends the very products they sell. When a brand really understands who they are and the emotional real estate they own in the heart and mind of their consumer, they create a personal, “this is who we are” brand.

Brands are like people. They need a rich, resonant voice that speaks to people in an intimate way, forming the kind of trust that is implicit in any personal relationship. That’s when a brand can make the leap to the next level.

Getting personal
with Linda Berman
Q: What’s the biggest mistake companies make in identifying their brand? '
A: Confusing their brand with their product or service. You wouldn’t describe yourself by listing the car you drive or even the job you go to every day. You would use personal terms — what you care about, what your passions are, what moves you, inspires you. When brands can, in subtle ways, speak in this kind of personal language, they can begin the process of building followers rather than customers. We don’t just buy brands — we join them.

Q: If you ran into a 22-year-old Linda Berman today, what two pieces of advice would you give her?
A: What makes you think I’m not 22 now?! ! Seriously, though, I would tell her to trust her gut more and over-think everything less. Sounds a lot easier from the perspective of my age now than it did then.

Q: What are you reading?
A: I’m reading J. Walker Smith’s “Generation Ageless: How Baby Boomers are Changing the way we Live Today” and also re-reading Bob Thomas’ biography “Walt Disney — An American Original.” It continues to fascinate me how Walt Disney had such a simple, unerring understanding of popular preferences and tastes, and how he entertained, delighted and influenced the world and transformed the culture in so many ways.

Q: Looking back on your career, what business project makes you smile?
A: Making a big presentation to a boardroom full of executive men in suits and seeing that they clearly didn’t “get it.” I asked them to reserve judgment until they took the presentation home and shared it with their wives and their 14-year-olds. A few days later I not only got the green light on the project — they expanded my scope and fees! Always trust the wives and children.

What traits do successful brands share?

They share the knowledge that their “meaning” looms larger than their products. They represent something to their audiences and have touched them. Once a brand reaches that kind of stature then they have permission to develop new products and experiment and command premium pricing. They even have permission to misstep occasionally, whereas a more fledgling brand can’t do these things without great risk.

Successful companies don’t abandon the roots of their philosophical positions and they craft something so distinct that it creates, and maintains, its own standard.

How does this translate in the real estate business?

In the context of real estate, it isn’t embarrassing anymore to speak about emotions. Before you can expect people to buy, you have to get people to buy in — to your philosophy and point of view. This applies in building places as well.

Typically, developers, especially retail developers, draft off the brands of their tenants and don’t feel the responsibility of building their own brand. They think branding is naming their property or doing advertising. It’s much more than that. Branding of places, when done in the right way, is creating value separate from tenants. However, it may attract better ones, creating a certain magic. But it’s in the details — the design, programming, events, etc. All the details.

In creating successful places, be it retail, commercial or residential, there needs to be an understanding of what’s meaningful to people. Go beyond bricks and mortar and beyond architecture and crack the code of creating places of meaning.

Tell us about your new company, Team I-Sight.

We’re a special kind of branding agency focusing on creating strategies for communicating the meaning and message of products and places. We seem to be doing a lot of work in the area of “place-based branding” — working with developers and their teams to ensure that the projects they are building will be differentiated and embraced in a new way. And, working with brands who want to touch their customers in a more visceral way through experiences, exhibitions, pop-up stores, retail, etc.

We strive for places that have personal qualities — touching people and inviting them to connect, stay longer, and come back again and again.

What is “place-based branding?”

It’s making the experience of a place positive and exceptional. Differentiating you from other places. Making people, once they get there, feel as if you’ve crawled inside their heads and hearts. Showing sensitivity to what they desire and care about. Details. Big ideas, little executions.

In real estate, branding has typically been perceived to be the same as marketing. It’s not. Branding is about staging experiences and making sure the brand and its philosophy is orchestrated across everything that touches the audience. It’s an all-inclusive process, and it can impact everything from the government and community relations process to design, marketing, events, communications and the physical environment.

How does a company tap into its property’s “place branding?”

Authenticity is at the heart of all of this. We identify what the authentic story is — not a made-up contrivance or silly narrative, that’s just a veneer. I come from the consumer products world, where you can’t just pass a product off as being valuable just because you say it is — it has to deliver.

The consumer has always been in control and we take that into the real estate world. People can detect manufactured messages. A brand is like a rubber band — you can stretch it so far before it breaks. You have to keep it real. A brand’s elasticity only goes so far — and if you go beyond that, there will be a disconnect. People feel that.

It’s a competitive sport getting people to come to your “place.” They may come once, they may even come often, but if you want them to choose you above all others and make your place their own, you need to make that happen. You have to offer a place of excitement, vibrancy, as well as intimacy and respite. It’s achievable — and the great places in the world always pull it off. They create places that feel like the people they intended to attract had a hand in the process.

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