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Business Observer Friday, Nov. 29, 2019 1 week ago

Well-respected real estate firm refreshes brand to prepare for years ahead, enhance current edge

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Sarasota-based Michael Saunders & Co. honed in on the company’s key attributes and added more vibrant colors and patterns to the firm’s look.
by: Grier Ferguson Sarasota-Manatee Editor

Real estate entrepreneur Michael Saunders is known for wearing vibrant scarves.

Now her widely known company and brand is taking a page from its founder and putting a scarf on, too, so to speak.

Sarasota-based Michael Saunders & Co. has 24 offices and about 700 agents throughout the Sarasota-Manatee region and Southwest Florida. The firm did $79 million in revenue in 2018 off sales volume of $2.79 billion. This year, more than 40 years after Saunders founded the company, it has embarked on a refresh that has lent new life, energy and color to the firm, with clients and contacts worldwide.  

But for a company with a lot working well already, a complete rebrand wouldn’t have made sense — a key decision in the process. 

Instead, Michael Saunders & Co. chose to do a “brand refresh,” a process that involved honing in on the company’s key messages and attributes and adding more vibrant colors and patterns to the firm’s look. The changes aim to position the company for a future that could include disruptions on several fronts, from new types of real estate players to technology shifts to changes in the economy.

“The goal of the refresh was to help us tell our story with more heart and flair,” Saunders writes in an email response to questions. “Real estate is a very competitive industry today, so differentiation of a brand is very important. This was more of a brand enhancement to make very clear who we are, how we are different and unique and what our value is to all the stakeholders we serve.”

Enhanced Identity

Saunders founded Michael Saunders & Co. in 1976. The firm is now known in Sarasota and the surrounding area as a leading real estate agency with listings that range from downtown condo units to waterfront luxury estates.

“When you’re a 40-year company, you have some great things going for you,” Michael Saunders & Co. Chief Marketing Officer Jennifer Horvat says. The company, Horvat says, wanted to make sure it was telling its message well as it prepares for the next 40 years.

“You can never rest on your laurels. What got us here is not going to get us there.” — Jennifer Horvat, chief marketing officer, Michael Saunders & Co.  

Part of the consideration behind the refresh was disruption in the real estate industry in the form of iBuyers — entities such as Opendoor, Offerpad and Zillow that purchase homes directly from homeowners, as well as companies such as national real estate brokerage Redfin. “Every industry is going through some disruption,” Horvat says in an interview, citing Uber’s transformation of the taxi industry. “This is the current disruption." She points out past real estate industry disruptions have come in other forms in recent years, from recessions to the multiple listing service transitioning from a print book to online.

But to combat disruption, Horvat says the Michael Saunders & Co. refresh process wasn’t focused on figuring out who the company is competing with; it was about the firm itself. That's another integral element of the process. “Forget about the competition,” she says. “You have to be who you are and own it. I think a lot of companies forget that sometimes.”

For companies in trouble, a major overhaul of a brand might be in order, but that wasn’t the case with Michael Saunders & Co. “It’s about refreshing the pillars of what we have,” Horvat says. “We didn’t need to reimagine what we do. We just need to rearticulate it because what we’re doing is working.”

Saunders agrees. “Brands should never be stagnant,” she says. “You have to share your story and inspire those who interact with it — which is what we did by enhancing our identity, our design style and updating our positioning.”

Bright Ideas

Several years ago the firm revamped its website, MichaelSaunders.com, and when it did, it got the help of real estate marketing firm 1000watt, with offices in Portland, Ore., and Oakland, Calif. Horvat says the firm’s previous experience with 1000watt made it an easy decision to go back to them for the refresh.

A 1000watt team spent five days in Sarasota doing research for the assignment. 

Courtesy. The Michael Saunders marketing team has gradually launched the new elements, incorporating them into materials from print advertisements to annual meeting invitations to luxury reports.

One key to the refresh, and a roadmap for other companies taking on a similar challenge: It helped to have outsiders come in and examine the brand because Horvat says the team of 11 people on the in-house Michael Saunders & Co. marketing team can be too close to it. The people at 1000watt took an objective view, she says, and were able to give Michael Saunders & Co. the big picture after going through a discovery phase that involved interviewing agents, staff, leadership and people in the community.

Michael Saunders and her son, Drayton Saunders, president of the company, were involved each step of the way, sitting in every meeting with 1000watt.

Throughout the process, 1000watt collaborated with the in-house Michael Saunders marketing team. After 1000watt spent four to five months on the refresh process, the marketing team spent six to seven months turning the results into production elements that could be used for advertisements, reports and more. Company officials declined to disclose the total cost of the rebrand refresh, which is ongoing. 

Saunders says one of the most important parts of the process was the firm narrowing its story to focus on its unique attributes. She writes, “We had to distill our differentiators and then creatively and artistically bring them out not only by adjusting our messaging but also through the use of distinct colors, patterns and textures from our own backyard.”

True Colors

One result of the refresh is a campaign dubbed “Nowhere but here.”

Saunders says the campaign highlights what makes Michael Saunders & Co. different. For instance, she writes, “Nowhere but here … will you find peak performing agents who collaborate” and “Nowhere but here … will you find deep community roots with strong international reach.”

The creation of a microsite was also part of the refresh. The site, NowhereButHere.net, tells the story of Michael Saunders & Co. and emphasizes the “Nowhere But Here” theme.

Courtesy. The refresh process includes branding elements that combine more colors and patterns than the firm previously used.

The firm decided to create a microsite because it knew people visited the main Michael Saunders website specifically to look at properties. A separate microsite, the team thought, could better illustrate the history and background of the company. Horvat describes the microsite as the modern day version of a book that tells a company’s history. She says the firm has two customers — people buying and selling homes and the firm’s agents — and for both groups, the message is the same. “It’s great to have a place to tell the story succinctly to everyone,” she says.

Some of the more visible results of the refresh are branding elements that combine more colors and patterns than previously used. The color palette brings out the spirit of Sarasota, Horvat says — bright, vibrant and full of patterns and textures that evoke natural elements, such as water, sand, sky and grass. The company is also employing more whimsical patterns, dubbed coral, ocean and hibiscus, that up the firm’s color game. “The beautiful and stunning landscape that surrounds us is what led to the saturation of colors, textures and patterns that reflect our beaches, sunsets and lush landscape,” Saunders says.

The process of adapting the concepts to production — incorporating them into materials from print advertisements to annual meeting invitations to luxury reports — wasn’t simple, and its time-consuming nature is one of the lessons learned during the refresh. Horvat says it would have been better to allocate more time to that part of the process. “We were so excited with the elements, and we hit the ‘go’ button,” she says. “Looking back, we probably should have slowed down.”

Courtesy. The refreshed branding is bright, vibrant and full of patterns and textures that evoke natural elements, such as water, sand, sky and grass.

Because Saunders is known around the region for her scarves, the company added another key element to the refresh — scarves themselves. By early 2020, Michael Saunders agents can purchase custom scarves in the company’s new vibrant colors and patterns from an online store. There will be other custom items available too, including ties, socks, beach umbrellas and bags.

The scarves are a physical embodiment of a metaphor that speaks to the company’s secret sauce. “Put a scarf on whatever you’re doing,” Horvat says. “Put a scarf on it — take it up a notch.”

That can translate to anything from staff members taking notes on Michael Saunders & Co. branded notebooks to receiving a hearty hello from the receptionist when you walk into a Michael Saunders office, she says. Another way to look at it? “Everything we do," Horvat says, "has to have that shimmer and shine to it."

The work isn’t finished on the refresh — the marketing team is still incorporating the new elements into production materials and Horvat is traveling to each Michael Saunders & Co. office to train agents on how to best communicate the brand.

“You can never rest on your laurels,” Horvat says. “What got us here is not going to get us there. We wanted to make sure we had our eyes on the future.”

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