Every year, as I sit through the colossally inspiring slide show that is the National Sales and Marketing Awards, I'm struck by the same thing--how often houses don't even appear in the best advertising and marketing material.

Instead, you are taken by the image of a rare piece of coral, a child barreling down a path on a bicycle, or a young Bing Crosby playing golf. In each case, the image makes an emotional connection. You yearn for a better, or at least different, lifestyle, one that's perhaps calmer and more spiritually fulfilling.

Ten years ago, of course, most builder marketing campaigns featured product, front and center. "Buy this house!" they screamed. The best consulting advice at that time was to emphasize something other than the house, to find a unique selling proposition that would lift your community into another realm. The best sales and marketing campaigns today fully embrace that notion.

Team effort

The winners we feature this month (see "Full Out") go even further to unify every project element around a central theme. Everything from the signage, to the housing design, to the sales center, to the advertisements and brochures radiates with a single premise. It may be the notion of ocean-side living, stargazing, hip urban living, or just a sense of belonging to a cool, wired community.

This kind of coordination can only be achieved through inclusive planning. I've seen the power of this process in our show home projects. When you bring all the players to the table--everyone from architects, to interior designers, to advertising agencies--and you do it early in the planning cycle, remarkable things can happen. Not only do great ideas surface but buy-in occurs.

Landscape architects suggest plants that dovetail with your marketing theme. Interior designers highlight main architectural features rather than cover them with furniture. Advertising emphasizes the lifestyle benefits that salespeople really think will sell.

Research it

If the industry understands that effective marketing transcends brick and mortar, it's equally cognizant of the importance of marketing research. Finished models, of course, used to be the most common form of marketing research. If buyers didn't like them, you'd change them until they did, a costly and time-consuming approach.

Nearly all the projects that won in this year's competition involved a marketing exercise, whether it was gap analysis, exit surveys at similar communities, a trip to Santa Barbara to explore authentic architecture, or informal focus groups with wealthy buyers to find out what would move them to buy a new home.

Science is often applied to events and sales centers as well. The best builders get strong sales results from preview parties and grand openings. They design sales centers that not only provide a respite for prospects but enable sales-people to sell effectively.

Getting prospects to your sales center is a fine art today. Internet marketing is definitely gaining in popularity. Planning a media strategy, though, needs to start with an analysis of the media habits of your target buyer.

Great marketing today is consistent at every touch point, starting with a Web page and extending to follow-through letters. But it is all designed to stimulate the imagination, to create enough desire to trigger a buying impulse--the same one I have every year at The Nationals.

Boyce Thompson
Editorial Director
e-mail: bthompson@hanleywood.com