Life is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you’re gonna get. Multifamily properties can be the same. Whether it’s condos on Urban Street or apartments on Suburban Drive, a property is just a property unless its developer, owner, broker or manager can craft that property into a brand that can be, well, branded into the minds of the public.Even during economic freefall—where the masses feverishly reach for their own piece of a much smaller box of chocolates—you can gain market share and strengthen your competitive position by identifying what makes your property unique—and then telling that story. In tight economic times, this undertaking doesn’t have to be expensive, but it does have to be creative, strategic and relentless.Whether your flavor is raspberry, coconut or caramel, there is an audience of renters or investors who will like what you’re serving up. So keep LoopNet listings active. Apartment Guides guiding. Roadside banners waving. Then get really savvy. Plan, Forrest, planIn the last 12 months, Reis Inc. reports that average U.S. multifamily vacancy rates have increased by 110 basis points, to 7.2 percent, and total apartment sales transaction volume has fallen 82 percent. While a slowdown in completed multifamily space is expected to rear its head in 2010, current construction—largely financed prior to the economic slump—has stayed relatively uniform at between 22,000 and 30,000 units per quarter. The result: renters and investors being bombarded with well-priced multifamily opportunities. To capture the attention of this oversaturated audience, a property must stand out. And standing out requires a plan.Whether you tackle this plan yourself or secure help from a consultant who specializes in the multifamily industry, make sure to include a few key elements:• Who you are (your major project or sales messages)• Who your audience is (your target market)• How your audience receives their information (newspaper, radio, Internet, etc.)• How to use those avenues to reach your listeners (your marketing tactics)• What you want to achieve (your benchmarks of success)All properties—from Class A to Class C—can be branded. To determine the existing strong points of your property, ask your leadership team and residents for input. Start with the big-ticket items: amenities, location and facilities. Then delve into the details that could create a story: Green protocols? Community outreach? Annual events?In any market, the “tell everyone you know” strategy has merit, but in this market, it’s a virtual requirement. So once you’ve documented your property’s competitive attributes, list the publicity avenues that can best spread the word about these points of differentiation. Invest the time and cover all of your bases: media, colleagues, residents, friends. You never know who’s listening or what doors they’ll open.To advance your efforts, make sure to capture new contact information at every opportunity and organize that data in a useable way. This is a vital starting point for any email blast, postcard campaign, guest list or press release. Unless you have prospects to sell to, your brand is useless.Savvy is as savvy doesIf your evaluation uncovers that your property is a bit vanilla, it’s time to add flavor. Weekly cooking classes? A Fourth of July barbeque? A residents-only Facebook page? Consider what speaks to the needs of your residents and your community. Then develop your story and determine how you can sell that story to the media, on your Website or through outreach efforts like a newsletter.In North Hollywood, Calif., apartment owner Redwood Partners Inc. joined forces with the Cella Gallery to keep the arts alive in the NoHo Arts District. To begin, Redwood transformed a large work/live space at its Lofts at NoHo Commons into a temporary home for artists visiting the Los Angeles area. Completed in 2007, NoHo Commons includes 14 work/live spaces, 278 open-floor plan lofts, a resort-style pool and spa, a business center, conference room, professional fitness center, clubhouse and lounge. The developer then committed to sponsor key gallery events, including an annual “Art in Review,” which was held in June. Through the event and media outreach via their identified target media (local papers), NoHo Commons is building its local brand image, spreading word of mouth about its product and successfully attracting a host of unique visitors to the lofts. The development created a story and told it in a way that improves the brand and creates priceless emotional ties with the community. “The donation of the loft allows Cella Gallery to start booking international artists and could lead to the exchange of talent with galleries around the world,” says Shannon Currie Holmes of Cella Gallery.That’s all I have to say about thatToday’s commercial real estate market is fervently watching to see who will survive. But amid the gloom is a desperate desire to hear good news. Units that are being built at the right place, at the right time and with a positive rental outlook are not just good news, they’re great news. Leasing success is uplifting. A sale hinting at a market recovery is inspiring. Mix creative marketing with these fundamental benchmarks and you’ll create a brand.At the least, your marketing efforts will help retain occupancy in a volatile environment. At the most, they’ll catapult your competitive position to new heights. So think critically about who you are (or who you can become) and tell your story. You’ll foster an emotional connection with your listeners and create opportunities that can improve the bottom line on any balance sheet.David Ebeling is owner of Orange County, Calif.-based Ebeling Communications. Stacey Hershauer is co-owner of Phoenix-based focusAZ. Together, they have more than 30 years of public relations and marketing experience in commercial and multifamily real estate.