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Carmel's Melanie Flaherty on Building Your Apartment Brand

Building Your Apartment Brand

A logo alone does not make a brand. In the multifamily housing industry, neither does the style of an apartment community. Brands are bigger than most people think. They essentially sell an experience -- an experience that is typically created in a collaborative environment, involving both the development team tasked with the literal building of the brand and on-site management charged with executing the brand's policies and services. An expert in this field is Melanie Flaherty, vice president of marketing at Carmel Partners. She sat down with us recently to discuss what goes into building a brand in our business.

What follows is our chat:

NATIONAL APARTMENT ASSOCIATION: Could you please give our readers a brief bio of yourself, and we'll go from there?

MELANIE FLAHERTY: Sure.  I've been in the apartment industry for about 10 years. Prior to that, I started my career in packaged food, working for brands like Gardenburger. So, it has been a great crossover. People are passionate about food, and they're also passionate about where they live. It's been fun bringing some of the things I learned from that industry into ours.

NAA: So, from those two perspectives, what makes a brand?

MF: It's the whole experience, from the look and feel to every interaction that our customers have with us. A brand is how our customers think and feel about us. It's what makes each apartment community memorable, and it's about finding what really connects with those customers. What makes a community stand out versus the others that they visited that day? From a resident perspective, the question is: "What builds that value and makes me want to renew even after as a price increase?"

NAA: Are there common misconceptions about what a brand is, and how do operators overcome those?

MF: I think one of the biggest misconceptions is that a brand is largely about the logo, about using an existing template and tagline. It's really a lot more than that. It's about really defining what makes your proposition unique and special and able to stand out from the others. Prospects typically tour a lot of apartment communities in a day. You have to figure out what is memorable about what you have to offer at your property. If there is nothing distinctive about the message that you're telling, that means there is an opportunity to improve the brand.

NAA: How does the process of brand building work at your specific company, Carmel Partners?

MF: At Carmel, the development team and the marketing team align upfront to set the brand strategy. So, that allows us to have a really integrated approach through both the product and the messaging. We start early. We do it years before a community launches. Well before the marketing is in place, the brand is what is really inspiring the on-site touch points. The goal is to create an integrated experience. We pull in the operations team upfront to advise on the strategy. Then, as the development comes into lease-up, operations starts to play an even bigger role in customizing the service experience to fit the brand of that community.

NAA: Do you have an anecdotal story that you can share that illustrates how you have had success with this approach?

MF: One example is Pacific Ridge, a Mediterranean-style community in San Diego. It can be quite a challenge to make that style distinctive in Southern California, because pretty much everything is Mediterranean. In this case, our approach was to build the Moroccan theme from the beginning. Development and marketing worked together, and it was very prescriptive. For each of the spaces, the challenge was: "How do we bring this theme to life?" There was, of course, the decor throughout the amenity spaces. But then when we launched, from the music that we play to what we serve -- it all integrates very closely with the branding to make it more distinctive than your typical, Mediterranean, garden-style community.

NAA: Do you have another example?

MF: We launched a community called BLVD63 also in San Diego this year. That community has a SoCal beach kind of vibe. We went the whole nine yards because we have a younger, Gen Y demographic that we are targeting. So, it's very beach-y, very California car culture. From an onsite standpoint, each touch point from the time you enter the community to every sign celebrates beach culture in a really artistic way.

NAA: Carmel has categorized some of its apartment communities into different themes.  Could you elaborate and tell us how these themes play a role in developing the brand?

MF: Again, for each project, the marketer is challenged with the question, "What makes that project special, and what is going to connect with the target?" You go through the positioning strategy and figure out who you are going to target, what your competition is doing, how you are going to be distinctive, and then you pull it all together. You may leverage a combination of [factors]. Location, for example. Is there something special about the location and/or the location vibe that you really want to celebrate? From a target demographic standpoint, what are the aspirations of the target? Are there certain age profiles that are more likely to live in your community that you can speak to and connect with in the style and messaging and the overall community itself?

NAA: And from an architecture standpoint?

MF: Sometimes we are repositioning a community that has already been built. So, the question then is: "How can we celebrate the architecture? Is there something cool and special about it that really builds some personality in the community that can be essential to the branding?" You can also build value through interior design, especially in a boutique project, and craft the marketing so that it is something special that way. There are also the amenities spaces, as well. If there is a lot of retail nearby and a ton of amenities, you can create a sense of destination.

NAA: With regards to Carmel and the business, is there anything coming up at or near the end of this year or in early 2015 that has you excited?

MF: One of the projects I am really excited about for Carmel is one we are developing in downtown Los Angeles, which is growing so fast. It's changing and transforming on a monthly basis. We have a big project called 8th and Grand, and we're doing a very integrative approach in building its personality as a very, hip downtown L.A. project.

By Teddy Durgin