Room for improvement

Estate agents, not known for selling short, have long overlooked the advantages of using good design. Clare Dowdy examines some promising developments on the property market

Estate agents must boast some of the most visual branding of any sector. Not only do they take out full-colour ads in print media, their shop windows are full of property descriptions, each bordered by more branding. That is topped by the For Sale, Sold and To Let signs standing in front gardens, each jostling for attention.

Why, then, is the sector so seemingly un-brand aware? While a host of organisations offering pretty much the same product are competing in a crowded market, brand differentiation is minimal. The themes of heritage and tradition are rife, and many of the identities do not look as if they have been touched for years.

Within this mishmash of neglected logos, a few styles prevail. Estate agents are fond of capital letters encased in smart borders. Coats of arms and other heraldic symbols are also popular.

Perhaps this type of imagery is intended to inspire trust – in the belief that a straightforward authoritative symbol will allay the punters’ scepticism which still dogs the industry’s reputation.

Research company Mintel outlined these problems in its report, Estate Agents – How to Improve Their Image: “In the selling of houses, estate agents present ambivalence, ambiguity and conflict of interests, which inevitably stimulate criticisms.”

The design industry is yet to really sink its teeth into estate agents, unlike property development, where well-designed brochures are common. A few consultancies have made some inroads into estate agency, but there is still plenty of room for others. And with interest rates slowing the market down, competition is hotting up.

This competition “may become more serious”, says Mintel. “The success of Scottish solicitor property centres may be repeated in England and Wales; direct sales may become more common… but the biggest impact could come from Direct Line initiatives or Branson-type intervention using the Internet imaginatively.”

Chard is one of the few to break the mould. SEA has brought in a simple, clean approach which makes some of its competitors look fussy and outmoded. Its advertising features life-style images la Wallpaper, shot by Lee Funnel.

Company founder Andrew Chard wanted the interiors to reflect the new graphics – “not knee-deep carpets and old fashioned desks”. Mintel estimates there are about 13 000 estate agency outlets in the UK – many of them ripe for a design job.

But it’s not just the threat of increased competition which should wake the sector up. Chard thinks the “Cool Britannia” hype has also played a part. It remains to be seen whether the design industry will take up the challenge.

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