House of style

Property developers are the chic alternative to the estate agent, says Oliver Bennett, offering a package to design-conscious buyers

Forget clubs and bars: it is the living space; the domestic environment – or the “home”, to use the quaint old word – that is the true style forum of our times. As a population we are keen purchasers of “shelter” magazines such as Wallpaper and Elle Decoration, and we seem to care ever more deeply about iconic domestic accessories such as Dualit toasters, Gaggia espresso machines and Philippe Starck lemon squeezers.

It comes as little surprise, then, to find that homes are now bought and sold as if they are fashion purchases, and that urban buyers – rather than being hustled by shiny-suited shysters in Peugeot 205s (also known as estate agents) – are instead being seduced by witty brochures with high-end production values, sophisticated graphics and architect/ designer namedrops.

Such is the lifestyle mêlée that is millennial Britain, you might say. But such an approach can also be helpful to customers.

“Traditionally, with residential property, there’s been a lot of different businesses along the purchasing chain, so it has long been a confusing presentation to customers,” says Jonathan Blakeney of First Partnership, which designed the store and branding for Metropolis One, a direct sales multimedia property centre in London for property developer Metropolis. “Metropolis One aims to provide a pre-sales environment, selling off-plan, with a strong brand holding the buying process together.”

“We’re trying to change the culture of property buying by having a central site which gives people everything they need without having to go to an old-fashioned agent or a Portakabin in the mud beside a development,” says Blakeney.

This is the latest manifestation of a process which has been growing since the late 1980s. George Kozlowski of Hadley Cooper Associates, who has been an estate agent, a designer and a property developer, has been instrumental in the repositioning of home sales. “I may have been the first to apply the marketing principles of fast moving consumer goods to the homes trade,” he says.

In the mid-1980s, he recalls, the marketing efforts for developer homes were not good. “The creativity was negligible and often boiled down to lineage classified ads,” he says.

Then Kozlowski’s company became involved with schemes for the Kentish Property Group and London Docklands, including Piers Gough’s Expressionist block, Cascades. “That sold fast because creative marketing techniques were used that were not normally associated with property,” he says. “As a high-rise residential block, it had to be positioned with the idea of making height desirable, by evoking the high life of Hong Kong, Rio de Janeiro and New York.”

Along came the Bow Quarter, in the old Bryant & May match factory in London’s East End. Kozlowski once again pitched the idea of a slice of New York in London; then came the first Manhattan Loft Corporation building in Clerkenwell’s Summer Street, which established the London loft phenomenon, helping to revitalise post-industrial swathes of London.

Kozlowski has remained in the sector all the way through to today’s Greenwich Peninsula: an unknown area until a couple of years ago.

“Infrastructure and investment can create a new area from scratch,” he says. “Look at Greenwich Peninsula – it has become an established name in its own right in [just] two years.”

Yet Kozlowski warns that such an approach can only work if it is holistic – the brand has to take in all the aspects of a development: the name, the sales context, the publicity, the interior decor. “People are more aware that when they buy a product, they buy into a brand in tune with their aspirations,” he says. “This sophisticated buyer may even specify certain architects and interior designers: take Yoo in London’s St John’s Wood, for instance.”(This is the development designed by Starck). The Sir Richard Rogers’ development in London’s Battersea, Montevetro, has “show-homes” by “name” interior designers Jonathan Reed and David Collins.

Kozlowski says that home builders often remain conservative in their marketing: “The frilly knicker appearance is still a common ploy, or they might bolt on a couple of images to make their publicity look branded, such as a photograph of a woman eating a croissant. But it is often not a fully integrated approach.”

However, there are signs that conventional developers are taking the design-and-brand route. With its Clapham development in south west London, 130 Ferndale’s developer Charles Church – better known for Home Counties house building – offers buyers a package that includes listings for a range of local amenities. “It’s more sophisticated now, with a big emphasis on design,” says Charles Church’s Sian Allen. “But each development has to be marketed differently. It’s no longer ‘one size fits all’.”

Of course, a big marketing spend can be prohibitive to smaller developers and agents. “You do need a critical mass to be able to do it, such as 30 to 40 high priced units,” says Kozlowski. “When the volume is smaller, the money isn’t [always] there.” Paul Davis of Agenda Design has undertaken a lot of work in the property sector since the late 1980s, often working alongside Kozlowski on schemes in London, from the Bow Quarter through to Ice Wharf in King’s Cross, Greenwich Millennium Village and the Paddington Basin. “We’ve been involved from recession to boom,” he says.

He has found that many of the newer urban buyers want to feel like pioneers, trying out a new area or building. “They don’t want stodgy, two-up, two-down places to live in, and so we communicate that they are stretching their boundaries,” he says. “But we also have to offer them a comfort zone.” A little bit of light hand-holding doesn’t hurt, he says, as long as you maintain the idea that there is a challenge in their purchase. “Above all, they need to be confident, particularly older age groups, who need more safety signals,” says Davis.

A residential property decision is one of the largest we make. Therefore, any publicity material needs to communicate excitement, while playing down any risk. “The core home-buying decision is based on two criteria: what is my budget, and where do I want to live?” says Davis. “From then on, it tends to be advertising and marketing driven, which involves everything from informing people about the size of the rooms, to changing their perceptions of certain locations.”

In Agenda’s work for Ice Wharf in London’s King’s Cross – an area known nationally for its negative image – the positive side had to be talked-up, without losing sight of reality. “The area has great benefits: it is a great communications centre, a gateway to Europe, and is close to many retail areas,” says Davis. “But King’s Cross is still a rough area.” Therefore, in the brochure the accent is on the “revitalisation”, centrality and potential of the area, without skipping the fact that it is a grimy urban neighbourhood with an enormous mainline station in its centre. Indeed, the development itself usually becomes part of the regeneration plan: currently the case at Paddington Basin as well as King’s Cross. “Think about what happened in an area like Tribeca in New York, and you’ve got the idea,” says Kozlowski. “Geographical sensitivity is there, but financial sensitivity is greater. And estate agents always try to reposition locations, to add value to certain postcodes.”

Equally, marketing often focuses upon the origins of the building – Agenda has worked on the Spectacle Works in Plaistow, a spectacle factory in Plaistow in the far East End of London. And Sunlight Square in Bethnal Green is a converted 18th century soap factory. Both have maximised the interest in the buildings’ earlier uses, to interesting graphic effect.

Alas, estate agents remain a slight hitch. “They’ve had to refresh their presentation to the marketplace, too,” says Kozlowski. “But while they are quite happy to see others do the marketing job, agents will always follow rather than lead the market.”

But even they are catching up with the marketing of houses. “Right now, the residential market is very competitive,” says Tim Lewis, client services manager of design consultancy The Small Back Room, which has many developers as clients. “If you walk down Upper Street in Islington, there are about 15 estate agents; so how do you separate them? By branding.”

There is often little difference between the products – indeed, often agents will handle the same flats and houses as their competitors.

“It’s a case of creating differentiation [between brands], and the agents and developers have embraced that need, whereas five years ago that wasn’t the case. They are highly aware of it now,” says Lewis.

As well as offering more modish graphic design, adds Lewis, there is also an appeal to the new, brand-aware generation of customers with lifestyle publicity. “That’s when you roll out the moody black and white photography, interiors and people shots,” says Lewis. “The perception is that the customers see themselves in that place. Lifestyle theatre can be a good way to communicate the value of a property, by creating a shared language.” The Small Back Room put this theory into practice for a Galliard Homes development in London’s Marylebone.

Lest this all seem so much blarney, remember that one of the biggest word recognitions in the world was given to us by property developers, marketing a difficult area of Los Angeles: Hollywood Land, later contracted to become merely Hollywood. Do not underestimate the power of marketing, which can turn a scrubby patch of wasteland into a palace of desire.

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