“Sex Sells. No, Wait, Maybe It Doesn’t…”


5 minute read

July 23, 2010

For years, developers have used sex and lifestyle images to sell real estate, but some industry insiders say it doesn’t work and are calling for a more genuine approach.

This article first appeared in last Friday’s Globe & Mail


By: Simon Houpt
Marketing Reporter

Globe & Mail
Friday, July 16th, 2010 

The woman’s legs seemed to go on forever. It was hard to tell exactly whom they belonged to, or what she was thinking, but their purpose was clear, dominating a billboard for a new condo development in Calgary and drawing the eyes of admirers and critics alike. “Look up,” implored a line of text floating across her toned thighs, just below the bottom hem of her black mini-dress. And then, in case we didn’t get the message: “Way up!”

Last March, we had some fun on this page when we reported on a flap over another set of icky Cowtown condo ads. Posters placed above urinals in bar washrooms cooed that a down payment on a Midtown Calgary apartment was “as easy as 25-year-old scotch [sic], or a 25-year-old blonde on 25-year-old scotch.” A Facebook campaign cried foul, and the ads were pulled down. But when Travis Gertz, a 28-year-old Calgary Web designer, tweeted a pic last week of the “Way Up” poster advertising the Montana condo, its developer Procura revelled in the publicity and suggested that some people were just too sensitive.

Almost 1,000 kilometres away, David Allison shook his head in exasperation. “I really wish those kinds of developers who are thinking so short-term would realize the damage they’re doing to the development industry, and to the reputation of all of us who are trying to do a good job,” said Mr. Allison, a partner in the 12-person Vancouver real estate marketing company Braun/Allison Inc. “It kind of drags us all down.”

To be fair, Calgary isn’t the only city afflicted by developers with an evident affinity for Maxim magazine. But sexism is just one of the industry’s problems in appealing to potential customers. Marketing experts say too many developers are hidebound, unwilling or unable to adopt approaches that reflect the media-savvy consumers they’re trying to attract. They haven’t paid attention to branding. In Canada, except for a sharp dip when the recession hit, they haven’t really been challenged.

“What consumers are expecting is still inconsistent with what’s being offered,” said Hanson Lok, a senior research manager with Ipsos Reid, who publishes the semi-annual B.C. Home Buyers Report. “Consumers are coming in to sales centres now very much more educated than before.”

There’s little doubt about the lack of branding. In Toronto, the identities of big developers bleed into one another. Their taglines are either insipid – Minto’s “Be Inspired,” Cresmore’s “Your Life, Your Style” – or interchangeable. Tridel’s “Built for Life” is also used by Stanley tools, the Body Solid line of exercise equipment, and a smattering of other home builders around the world.

For the most part, builders haven’t had to be very good at marketing. “In Canada – Vancouver and Toronto, where the market’s been super hot – it’s easy to sell things, it’s easy to market,” said Bob Macdonald, head of Macdonald Development Corp. in Vancouver.

“But when it’s real hand-to-hand combat, when the market’s extremely difficult, that’s when you find out who are the great marketers and who are the great sales people. That sweeps away 90 per cent of all the pretenders that are just order-takers.”

Mr. Macdonald knows about hand-to-hand combat. Last February, he took control of a 17-storey condo building in midtown Phoenix that had been reclaimed by the bank after its original developer defaulted. He brought in Mr. Allison, who insisted on a no-nonsense marketing approach that fully acknowledged the project’s troubled history. While Mr. Macdonald admits he was wary about overwhelming buyers with information, he said sales have strongly outpaced similar offerings in the market.

“I think a more fool-proof, recession-proof, boom-proof, bust-proof approach is to just be straightforward and honest with people and stop it with all the hype and jive, stop it with the bombastic nonsense,” Mr. Allison said. He preaches something he calls “marketing journalism,” which entails the creation of like-minded virtual communities around developments.

In early 2009, Braun/Allison had the challenging task of marketing a development of 32 townhouses in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, called The Block. Timing was poor: Prices in the Greater Vancouver market were off more than 10 per cent, and sales volumes were plummeting.

An Ipsos Reid study had just found that potential home buyers tend to learn about developments through traditional print ads or billboards and then head straight for Google.

So Braun/Allison had the developer. ParkLane Homes, place ads in the Georgia Straight and elsewhere that drove people to a Website teeming with information. They attracted eyeballs on social media sites such as Twitter, Flickr and Facebook, which they used to drive people to the main website for The Block. Putting Braun/Allison’s “marketing journalism” ethos into practice, a blog on the main Block site kept prospective buyers updated about news affecting the area. And they developed a guided tour of the neighbourhood that could be accessed via text message.

Like marketers in other industries, Mr. Allison said his clients need to “be the media” – that is, take the place of traditional media outlets by creating communities around issues and things that people care about. The approach is gaining admirers: The Greater Vancouver Home Builder Association recently named Braun/Allison its marketer of the year.

Not everyone in the industry thinks the need to adapt is so urgent. A few months ago, Mr. Allison gave a presentation to a handful of developers in Toronto who, he reported later, were polite but skeptical.

“Many of the companies were thinking in a very short-sighted way,” he said, declining to name names. “The old boys want things to be the way they always were. The new guard understands that things have changed and that people don’t want to be treated the same way they were in the past. So I think there are internal struggles going on at many development companies. People are saying, ‘This has worked for 20, 30 years, why do we think it’s any different now?’”

With even hot markets starting to show fatigue for the first time in more than a year – on Thursday the Canadian Real Estate Association said sales were off in 70 per cent of Canadian markets – Mr. Allison’s point of view may find more favour. He speculated that there might even be reason to hope for fewer antediluvian come-ons featuring female body parts.

“I think it’s the dying gasp of the dinosaurs as they try to figure out why the things that always worked for them before aren’t working any more,” he said. “They’re going to get more and more provocative, and scream louder and louder as they sink into the tar pits.”

Haven’t I been saying this for years?

Remember this post here?  I wrote this post about “Festival Tower” in September of 2009 as I tried to comprehend the marketing techniques used in today’s condominium industry.

Their 25-page brochure was filled with images of the bold and the beautiful; the sexy and the chic.

The one image worth sharing is this:


This photo appeared in the brochure for “Festival Tower” as it tried to demonstrate what demographic will inhabit the posh, upscale building located at King & John.

I can tell you that as a man, I will buy whatever product this advertisement is selling.

But as a cynical, sarcastic man who is always on the lookout for shrewd marketing from financial service companies, banks, and companies that buy your “broken and unwanted” gold and diamonds, I have to laugh at the attempt to sell condos via a very shapely woman’s behind on a rather pointy bicycle seat and another woman’s low-cut dress revealing almost-too-much as Dr. McDreamy teaches her how to play pool…

I wonder what will truly sell condos as we move into the later stages of 2010 and forge ahead into 2011.

Perhaps a return to things like value, quality, and the developer’s reputation?


…..the condo market needs more chiseled abs, yoga pants, and hot ass!

Written By David Fleming

David Fleming is the author of Toronto Realty Blog, founded in 2007. He combined his passion for writing and real estate to create a space for honest information and two-way communication in a complex and dynamic market. David is a licensed Broker and the Broker of Record for Bosley – Toronto Realty Group

Find Out More About David Read More Posts

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  1. LC

    at 12:32 pm

    I listened to three different marketing presentations this week for a project we will be launching later this year, and it’s interesting to see which ad firms are moving with the times, and which are digging their heels in their tried and true ways.

    Fact is, buying a condo is harder now for the average person – tougher mortgage approvals, higher interest rates, and thanks to us evil developers, no savings on buying from plan. They have to really believe in the project and it’s potential to put money down- and I don’t think photoshopped images of hot people is going to do it anymore.

    People need to see the current value and be convinced of future value.

  2. karim kanji

    at 12:48 pm

    I wonder if sex will help the Toronto real estate market come out of this recent slump we’re experiencing?

  3. David Allison

    at 4:12 pm

    Hey there Toronto Realty Blog! Thanks for reposting this article. The good news is that smart developers are starting to realize that the old ways are not working so well anymore, and that a better, more long-term, credibility-based approach will serve them better through all the ups and downs of the real estate economy. Appreciate your reposting this!

    Best regards,

    David Allison

  4. David Allison

    at 4:16 pm

    Oh, and one more thing. If anyone reading this is interested, I blather on about real estate development marketing in the new economy weekly for http://www.renx.ca, in a column called Sell The Truth. I’m always looking for new stories to write about great marketing campaigns and techniques in the real estate sector — so consider this an open call for ideas!

    Thanks again

    David Allison
    Braun/Allison Inc.

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