Out with the old, in with the rebrand. Changing the name, appearance and atmosphere of a community is a strategy that demands renewed attention at a time when both new development and renovation are ratcheting up competition. Whether it follows on the heels of an acquisition or results from a need to shake up an on-site management team, rebranding can dramatically revitalize a community.
“The end goal is twofold: Generate the highest possible revenue and provide the best living experience to residents,” noted Scott Schaeffer, chairman & CEO of Independence Realty Trust. Rebranding might be the best option if ownership wants to improve a community’s reputation, cater to a different demographic, differentiate the property from those nearby, or secure a significant infusion of capital for an upgrade.
Research and Assessment
Step one in rebranding is research, because it provides insight into what the property needs to be competitive, contends Robert Gasteiger, vice president for marketing and communications at Steadfast Cos. “We begin by studying the submarket and the types of amenities that other communities offer,” he said. “Managing different product types over the years and seeing trends in the market have allowed us to develop a sense of the finishes, amenities or experiences residents and prospects are looking for in their next apartment home.”
Property owners and managers need to assess the surrounding location and determine how the community stacks up against the competition. If a number of comparable local properties have been recently rebranded or renovated, a rebranding may be in order so the community can keep up with the improvements and increased value of those local assets. In order to remain competitive, the community needs to be inviting, offer what potential residents are looking for and, of course, generate a healthy revenue stream.
Dawn Miller, vice president of marketing for ROSS Management Services, notes that assessing the individual community as well as the neighborhood is vital. If the property hasn’t been upgraded in 20 years, it has a negative reputation, or if other owners are improving comparable communities nearby, rebranding is likely the best decision. “If you’re still sitting on a Class C property while others are remaining competitive in your market, it’s time for a rebrand,” she said. “You have to change your footprint in the neighborhood and improve the quality and experience for the residents.”
After thorough research, the next phase in rebranding is creating a budget. Owners and managers should identify priorities, which can include renovations, system upgrades, landscaping, staff changes and implementing new rules. “Initially, the changes most operators look to make are upgrades to the kitchens, bathrooms, flooring, lighting and hardware,” said Schaeffer. “Our designers work with our construction and asset management staff to ensure we deliver the most desirable unit at the lowest possible cost.”
Data can be a valuable tool in nailing down the cost of rebranding. Steadfast Cos. uses data from digital inspection software to count the number of fixtures and other items and estimate the cost per unit. “We also review resident data, financial data and market surveys to estimate amenity premiums, develop construction schedules, incorporate the timing of revenues and expense cash flows into property budgets,” Gasteiger said.
When deciding how much to invest in rebranding, owners should look at the types of features residents expect to find in comparable local properties. Amenities such as pools, pet parks, fitness centers and Wi-Fi are always popular with current and potential residents. On the inside, the community should offer curb appeal, updated appliances and fixtures, and a bright, clean appearance. “You can’t rename a property without doing anything else,” Miller said. “It has to be done in conjunction with adding new features, upgrading and making the community different from what it was.”
Resident feedback was central to the rebranding of Coronado Bay Club in San Diego, acquired by Alliance Residential Co. in late 2013 for $160 million. As part of the process, Alliance’s Kristina Brown hosted brainstorming sessions and workshops to allow residents to share their thoughts on the community’s needs. She then incorporated their feedback into the redesign of the property.
That resident input contributed to the strategy for Coronado Bay Club, which was reintroduced in January 2015 as Coronado on the Bay. Highlights included an 18,000-square-foot clubhouse, which offers billiards tables and games, a kitchen for entertaining and a screening room with a high-definition projection screen and tiered lounge seating. New outdoor amenities include poolside cabanas with flat-screen TVs and heaters, an open-air cinema with professional-quality speakers, landscaped alcoves and barbecue grills.
“We believe that the sessions truly provided insight as to what renters really wanted and allowed us to tailor our vision of what the property could be with what our residents would find the most value in,” said Brown, who is now business manager for Broadstone Cavora, an Alliance property in Laguna Niguel, Calif.
What’s in a name?
Even while undergoing a rebranding, a community should continue to recruit new residents and market the upgrades in progress. Miller suggests renovating the exterior first, because it is the first element to catch the eye of a prospective resident. Signage with messages touting the changes, such as “Coming Soon” or “79 Days and Counting,” help drum up interest from passersby, prospects and current residents.
After a rebranding is launched, the community’s management team plays a crucial role in its success. “To truly make a community different than it once was requires a shift not only in the product but also the service,” said Gasteiger. “It requires creating and executing on exceptional customer service and providing the tools and resources apartment renters and shoppers demand in today’s connected world.”
Cooperation between management and residents is vital if rebranding is to meet its potential. If a community doesn’t already have rules restricting residents from hanging items on balconies, for instance, management should consider establishing them. Attention to such small details makes a big difference in maintaining the property’s newly refreshed appearance. As with most other best practices, communication and teamwork enhance the quality of the resident experience, and ultimately, the value of the asset.
Last but by no means least in the rebranding process is the selection of the new name, which signals the community’s new identity to the market. If renaming the community is desirable, the new choice should be memorable, relevant to the neighborhood, and distinct from the names of nearby communities. Another priority: providing SEO value so the property shows up higher in searches.
ROSS Management weighed all those considerations in rebranding a 1,065-unit community in Annandale, Va. The property shared a name, the Avant, with three other nearby properties, thereby disrupting SEO and raising the chances that prospective residents would go to the wrong location. Moreover, the community has a large Hispanic contingent, and ROSS sought a name that would embrace its residents’ culture. Seeking to also appeal to a diverse pool of potential residents, ROSS rebranded the property Vistas at Annandale.
You’ll find more on this topic in the April 2018 issue of MHN.