Q&A with Ron Simoncini, Axiom Communications on Marketing Multi-Family: Your Amenities and Location Are Not Your Brand
by Josh Anderson
SECAUCUS, NJ — Axiom Communications is a full-service marketing and public relations firm that was founded in 1999 by Ron Simoncini and is located in Secaucus, NJ. Axiom specializes in place-based marketing, providing a broad spectrum of services to clients in the real estate, economic development and travel and tourism spaces. Through its Axiom Media Service, Axiom delivers turnkey online marketing that leverages each client’s content into increased Internet traffic. Below, we caught up with Simoncini to learn about the key to successfully market multi-family.
CapRE: Thanks for speaking with us today, Ron. Let’s start with what you’ve been active with recently.
Simoncini: Relative to the real estate industry, we have been working on the introduction of a number of new apartment communities for established developers. And that activity has ranged from web development to online marketing to branding. I think what’s most interesting about what we’re seeing now is that there has been a commoditization of a certain set of marketing activities that everyone seems to be following. There is now a rule book for marketing. And that leads a lot of room for a company like ours that does custom programming to succeed on behalf of our clients.
One of the most interesting stories I can tell about that is that we were brought into a couple of situations where the conventional set of online marketing services had been provided to a client, not unprofessionally, but without any passion. Without any spark. And the thing is, even though it’s ‘only apartments’ – and I think that’s some people’s perspective, that it’s only apartments – well apartments have as important of a branded function in the eyes of a consume as any other product.
CapRE: Tell us more about that.
Simoncini: In other words, you’re consuming an experience as much as you are the real estate. Just like when you buy a car. You’re consuming that value system of the auto manufacturer. And I think that developers have been seduced into thinking that everything is about figuring out how to get your AdWords campaign to deliver you new clicks. And I don’t think they’re doing enough work to differentiate their product. They’ve cloned a lot of product.
Everyone thinks they need to look for a new amenity that’s not present in the market, versus creating a personality for your product. The personality for a product is just as important in the middle range as it is in the long-term range. And a lot of developers have lost that. So the two thing we are seeing is the believe that marketing is just marketing and we want a certain number of clicks and then all of our apartments will be leased. But nothing could be further from the truth.
CapRE: What is the second thing?
Simoncini: The second is that an apartment community has a persona. Just like any other product. A lot of people focus on attributes in real estate. They do that because location drives the business. And so the theory there, and I may be interpreting this a bit too broadly, but it’s that, if I locate my property where people want to live and I have the attributes people are looking for, that’s my brand. I have a nice logo and an interesting name and that’s my brand. But your attributes and your location and your visual identity do not constitute a brand.
A brand is the sum of many experiences that a prospective customer and resident have while they’re on their property and while they’re encountering your property virtually. That has to do with everything from vocabulary to setting expectations to nuance in terms of styling
And then there’s the personal aspect of it. People want to trust. So how do you create that trust with a prospective resident, before they ever meet your leasing agent, before they step foot on the property? And then when they do step foot on the property how do you avoid just selling the attributes? How do you create a relationship that has perceived value to the customer? I think other industries do that much, much better than real estate.
CapRE: Why is that?
Simoncini: One of the reasons for that is that real estate is a very project-oriented industry. I build something, I lease it up, I refinance it and I move on to the next one. Whereas other businesses see themselves as having a lifetime relationship with a customer. That customer needs to keep buying that from them. And real estate people fail to understand that every single day their tenant buys something from them. They buy that day, every single day.
So I espouse this theory of how to create a relationship with your customer. Let’s look at our communications as the basis for the relationship with the customer and make that customer relationship part of the brand experience.
CapRE: And what makes New Jersey a special place to do business?
Simoncini: Density is the key to everything in New Jersey. A lot is going on in a small area. I look out my window, I see Upper Manhattan, Lower Manhattan, The Meadowlands, Midtown, and between me and my eyeline, are at least 2 million people. Maybe more. Those 2 million live in 1.2 million homes. And that gives me a lot to do. It’s about finding the right customers. because there is plenty of business. We have a sort of boutique approach to business. We want to represent fewer clients doing more substantial work for them. We’re in the fortunate position of being able to choose and take on projects that we really want to work on.
I’ve been marketing apartments for thirty-three years. I’ve seen enormous transformation, multiple cycles, and in particular in New Jersey, you are seeing now places where you never thought would be centers of development. that are now robust and rich cultural destinations. And that’s been exciting to see. Seeing the development community at its most creative, giving places things that weren’t there before.
And that’s kind of the juxtaposition of what is going on right now. The real estate developers are fantastically creative at envisioning uses that transform under-utilized real estate. But then once they get it up, they forget to give it a personality. So that’s where we are most successful.
CapRE: What else does your firm specialize in?
Simoncini: We do a lot of public affairs work. It’s not conventional marketing or branding. It’s influence-building within communities who may be resistant to certain uses of real estate, and helping developers create their own brand to set up an argument that is persuasive with local officials about their vision for the use of a site. You would think that after all of this time, that business would have worn away. But it’s more active than ever. People need to communicate with communities about what their intentions are as early in the development process as possible, without undermining the economics of their deal.
So as soon as the economics of your deal are set and you know you’re going to do it, you’ve got to start talking about it. Because otherwise everyone else starts happening it. And if someone else talks about it your development before you do, then you give them the opportunity to bran your product. So I’m a big proponent of engaging communities as soon as you can in your process and developing what is most rewarding to your community.
And you know, those whom we make a lot of money off of, are often those who come out of town. They don’t understand the culture here and they need introductions that the local guys don’t need. They also need to establish themselves in a way that local guys don’t. because people in new jersey are very well connected to the existing entities. And again, it’s a small place. It’s very dense. You see a lot. There’s a lot of stimulation. And if someone is new, then they need to create that same presence that is equal to people who have been here for a long time. You don’t want to seem like an outsider, even if you are.
CapRE: Do other industries do this better than real estate as well?
Simoncini: Well, one illustrative example can be found by looking at the Cannabis industry. All of those people coming in from out of state, when they know the state is looking for a local feel, how do they create a local feel? Some of those companies have done a tremendous job of integrating themselves into New Jersey and some have not. You can see the difference. The development community is the same. There are a bunch of people in it, who are very well-known throughout the state and then mew people come in who want to compete with them and those people are in a deficient position unless they focus on creating a brand here. That work is fun because I love meeting new people from different places with new perspectives.
CapRE: So what’s the last word on the New Jersey market and broader arena?
Simoncini: Ten years ago, we were a national firm with clients over ten states. But we’ve gotten smaller and smaller because of our love for New Jersey. It’s a fascinating, rewarding place to work. And some of the frustration of doing business here make it a big puzzle in some cases. The more that you know about this environment and who is playing here and why, and all of the different centers of influence, and how things get done, the more fun that it is.
I’m actually the Chairman of the Meadowlands YMCA and we recently built a new structure for it – and that provided new, otherwise unavailable, insight into the construction process. And it’s helped a lot with my clients in marketing. I’ve been through it. people who haven’t given birth probably shouldn’t be talking about what it’s like to have a baby. And at this point I’ve had a big baby, and I’m appreciative of that. It’s interesting to look at a career that’s as long as mine, and was national in scope at times, and I don’t need to go very far anymore. And I like that. That’s been a very positive thing for me, to be smaller in terms of geographical scope. I believe that New Jersey is a great place and let’s do as much as possible here.