Start the fall with Inman’s Marketing and Branding Month. We dig deep into agent branding and spending best practices with Zillow, realtor.com, and others. Top marketing managers also stop by to share their latest tactics. That’s all it takes to take your branding and marketing game to the next level.
Abby Lee, RE / MAX senior vice president of marketing and communications, has been in the brokerage business for more than two decades.
The marketer has gone through the evolution of media from cable television to targeted ads to social media and beyond, evolving the brand’s strategy over time. According to Lee, the brokerage firm’s brand awareness has nearly doubled in her time with the company, which means she’s doing something very well.
Inman recently spoke to Lee about Zoom to ask her how she got into marketing, what she does all day, and what she has in store for the brand in 2022. What follows is a version of that conversation, edited for brevity and clarity.
Inman: How did you get into marketing?
Abby Lee: When I graduated from college I got a job at a media agency and it was an interesting time because I was working for the first real, real media-only agency. I learned a lot about media and marketing and worked with many clients like Home Depot, Bali [lingerie company], Walt Disney and Albertsons [grocery store company] and got in contact with many political campaigns.
I was in the agency world for five or six years, got married, wanted to start a family, and everyone who’s worked in the agency world knows that the hours you put in are not very conducive to family life and having children. So I had a good friend who introduced me to RE / MAX and I moved in August ’98. And I’ve been with RE / MAX ever since.
I took a quick detour in 2014 and became the chief marketing officer for a health and wellness franchise. I’ve been at RE / MAX for 15 years and marketing and media and everything is changing, so I wanted to get out of my comfort zone and make sure my skills were still relevant and that I was still on the ball – and I found that I was . And luckily, RE / MAX had a place to come back to. I loved everything about RE / MAX and missed it so much when I left. It was a good thing personally and professionally, but I was so happy to be back.
I am a third generation real estate agent myself. My license is currently inactive, but my grandmother owned a brokerage firm outside of New York City, my mother was a real estate agent, I’m married to a RE / MAX broker (he’s been with RE / MAX for 20 years) and then got my license I have been since 2007. I have harmonized my love for advertising and marketing with a kind of family business.
That’s great. You’ve been with RE / MAX for over 20 years, as you said, which is really impressive. What exactly was it about this brand that suited you?
What I enjoy is that there are two types of awareness: without help and with help. Funding is provided when the consumer is asked: “Have you heard of X?” And it is a simple yes or no answer. To me, the more important thing is unaided, and that’s what brands come to mind. When someone says, “Name a brand,” you want to be the top brand.
And it’s really interesting because when I started in ’98, the assisted awareness of RE / MAX was less than 50 percent. Now it’s about 90 percent, which is roughly your peak. And then we lead the way in unsupported awareness. So it was really fun to see this growth because obviously this is what attracts a lot of people to the brand, whether they are consumers or potential franchisees or potential brokers.
I think the other thing that was really cool is, as I mentioned earlier, that the media landscape has changed so much and so dramatically. I remember when I left the agency world and came to RE / MAX, the most common of every advertiser was thinking, “What is cable TV going to do with the ad format?” And now we’ve seen the evolution of over-the-top TV, especially with the pandemic, the Binge-watch streaming services and just see how that has changed and then how the digital space has changed too.
At RE / MAX I have so much autonomy for the branding strategy and the marketing strategy. It has allowed us to become a lot smarter, be it digital or now things like addressable television where you can literally walk down a street and address a particular home based on its online behavior. It just makes everything a lot smarter. It used to be spots and dots [short on-air ads] and you bought according to demographic criteria. But now it’s really people-centered based on certain things like their intentions online, what they show online, what life triggers are happening.
It allowed us to get smarter in the media, but it is too [allowed us to get] much smarter and more targeted with the content so that we’re not just sending the same message to every person within that demographic.
What does a typical working day look like for you?
For me an overall strategy. We are in the middle of planning for 2022. So many meetings with [RE/MAX President] Nick Bailey and the Head of Regional Operations to find out what their goals are and what they are thinking for 2022. And their focus is more on the agents, recruiting and retention, franchise sales to increase agent productivity. I think about how that will affect what we’re going to develop and adjust our strategy.
I also meet with my management team. I have a Vice President of Marketing, someone directly responsible for advertising and the media, and a VP of Luxury who oversees the RE / MAX Collection and then everything related to communications. Much of my day is talking to the team.
It’s a lot of brainstorming where we can put things, like megaphone [the brokerage’s social marketing tool for agents]what is the one-, three-, five-year plan for it and what can we really do out of the box and for the next generation. And then look for other providers that we can connect.
I [also] make a lot of office presentations. Many brokers will ask if I can come into their office or Zoom with them and give a presentation explaining where [the agents’] Marketing fund dollars go what the strategy is. Because over time, of course, it’s funny if we see spots and dots on ABC, CBS, NBC, [the agents] everyone saw the ads or the billboards or whatever.
But now that we’re very focused on who we’re targeting, it’s hard for them to say, “I don’t see the ads.” That is by design. If they’re not the ideal RE / MAX client, they probably won’t. We still do traditionally [ads], but since we’ve made this adjustment, it just takes a little education. As soon as I go through it with them, they kind of have that “aha” moment.
It seems like a lot of your recent ad campaigns have been very focused on the agent and the importance of the human connection. Are you building on this in 2022 or are you starting over?
We take a slightly different approach. I do think that home has a slightly different meaning for everyone in terms of connection during the pandemic. So there will be a more emotional thread across the board for 2022 [and] lovely storytelling.
Our digital will still be fun and keep your fingers crossed. I think the digital side will be a little different than the broadcast and long-form video side. It’s going to have that emotional connection, but something people can relate to, and not something to get the Kleenex box out with.
We’ve had a bit of fun with humor in the past, which has done us good, but we just thought it was time to create it. There will be a little bit of that, but there will definitely be some emotion in it too.
Do you have any main goals for your marketing strategy for the year ahead?
The main goals are, of course, to continue to maintain our strength and awareness, but also to accept the tools we have and to teach agents how to help them with their business and make it easier.
We always say that we are a company building business and all of these tools can help you get more transactions. The real estate industry is a little slow at adopting technology at times, and I understand that [agents are] busy, but if we can make it really easy for them to take it over, see the value in it, and then grow their business, that’s a big goal.
What is the approximate agent acceptance rate of RE / MAX’s marketing tools?
We just launched megaphones in early 2020 [and it’s] got a 20 percent acceptance. We don’t have every region with us yet – we have independent regions, so not all of them are there.
After the takeover of RE / MAX Integra [which was completed at the end of July 2021], we’re bringing this group this fall. That will of course increase our acceptance there, but I think we will exceed this target of 20 percent by the end of the year.
Usually, as with anything else, we see an adoption rate of around 30 or 35 percent for each tool. If we can get over this, we will make great strides in the next year.
Is there anything else of interest at RE / MAX that you would like to share?
We all have our fall retreats with our brokers / owners so now is the time to go over these things with them and talk to them about successes and get the feedback, what they hear from their agents, what they wished they would have.
Because sometimes something occurs to them when they are [working] in these tools, and we love that feedback because usually they’re really simple things we can do that we just didn’t think of. I’m really looking forward to the start in October.
The best ideas come from practice and we always try to see how we can implement them.
Email to Lillian Dickerson