A Chat with Summer Austin, Director of Strategic Marketing
An enduring rebrand: over 10 years strong
On June 26th, Gabe Cohen, chief marketing officer at Monigle, and Summer Austin, director of strategic marketing at Camden Property Trust will be speaking together at a branding panel discussion at the National Apartment Association Conference in Las Vegas.
The two recently caught up to discuss the status of the rebrand Monigle did for Camden more than 10 years ago, from the initial engagement that led to Monigle creating the Camden brand that still endures today. They talked about the demands of branding in the property management industry, how marketing stays connected to other areas of the business to deliver a brand experience, and what has allowed the work to endure.
GABE COHEN: When you came in, what were your first 60-90 days like? What were you looking to accomplish?
SUMMER AUSTIN: A lot of my time at the beginning was learning the culture, getting to know the new team, assessing their skills, etc. My responsibilities included managing a team based remotely, and it was important to figure out early on how to unify them as a team in order to move the group forward. I was new to multi-family―real estate is not an industry I had been in before, so there was a lot of learning in the first three months.
GC: How is your team structured today?
SA: In my group, specifically, we have six regional marketing directors, so those are people based out in the field in our different divisions. They’re the boots-on-the-ground marketing support, and they help communities on a daily basis, as well as roll out more national initiatives. And, in Houston, we have three folks responsible for our digital advertising, social media and content marketing.
GC: How did the brand work that Monigle did for Camden 10 years ago fit into your onboarding?
SA: The work was done before I arrived, but it still stands the test of time. We use the original brand guidelines to inform application and usage, and it still works well. I’m responsible for making sure that everything we’re doing is within the guidelines and that we are doing the right thing, but we don’t want to come across as being the logo police. Camden is unique in the sense that even though we’re a big company (We have almost 2,000 employees.), it’s still very entrepreneurial as opposed to a “you must do this or else” culture. It took me a while to get the individual apartment communities to see the importance and value of using “official” Camden-branded materials, but the team has really done a good job over the past couple years of making that happen, so that’s been good.
GC: Interesting. Who are your key internal stakeholders that you really need buy-in from?
SA: Definitely our onsite teams ― the community managers, the leasing consultants, really everyone that interacts with our customers. These are the people running the properties, and they have to be bought in and have to understand the why behind what we’re doing as a company. The better job we do explaining the value of brand and the importance of adhering to it and promoting it the right way, the easier our jobs are. My team acts essentially as an internal agency.
GC: What do you think has been the key to getting buy-in?
SA: It was getting the regional marketing directors who were based remotely on board, and really charging them with owning the brand. Change happened when they assumed responsibility for educating the community managers on why it matters to deliver brand consistency and to be viewed as a resource instead of somebody just to work around. So a lot of change had to happen within our own team before we could execute it at the communities.
GC: You mentioned that it’s important to be viewed by others internally as a brand concierge instead of a brand cop. I think we agree that brand guidelines shouldn’t have to account for absolutely everything. Instead, brand owners need to establish clear boundaries around the essentials and then provide freedom within this framework for others to stimulate creativity. How do you drive this idea in practice?
SA: Yeah, for sure, and it’s a hard process. It takes a lot of time, and not every organization has the resources available to do this on their own. Or they may have the passion but not the expertise, so it’s a good thing that companies like you exist that can help them with that!
GC: Many brand owners struggle with making the case with other executives for the strategic role that brand can have in their organization. What advice do you have for these people?
SA: I am very big into measurability and results, which has always sort of been the joke about marketing. How do you know if what you’re doing is delivering results? We’re always looking at new ways to figure out how we measure the results of what we’re doing, whether it’s working or not working.
GC: And how do you do that today?
SA: Our key measurement on brand recognition is asking our prospects if they were aware of our brand before they started their search for an apartment, which we capture through surveys. Right now, over a third of our prospects are aware of Camden as a brand, and almost half of those people said our brand influenced their decision to choose us. This lets us correlate our investments in branding with a clear revenue outcome.
GC: Do you conduct your own surveys or hire a third party to help you?
SA: We use a company to send out the surveys and gather the data. But we customize the survey questions and how frequently we send them out. This gives Camden the flexibility we need to customize the research and also ensures that we have full access to the results for further analysis.
GC: Sure, and does the research also inform actions in terms of what you’re going to be doing next, or is it more just to report on the metrics?
SA: For sure. Customer research is an important part of our decision-making process. We just finished a focus group and we’re typing up the findings right now focusing on the residents, their living experience and what drives the renewal process. It will definitely impact what we do going forward as we continually work to deliver “Living Excellence” to our residents.
GC: Thanks, Summer! Look forward to seeing you in Vegas on the 25th!
Gabe and Summer will be joined by Jamie S. Gorski, CMO at The Bozzuto Group, and Joseph Batdorf at J. Turner Research for a panel discussion on “Branding Challenges and Lessons” at the 2015 NAA Education Conference & Exposition, Mandalay Bay Resort in Las Vegas on June 25, 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.
Want to learn more?
Check out Summer Austin’s recent post on the importance of thinking of “People as Your Brand.”