IF TIGER WOODS CAN SELL Buicks, can he and fellow professional golfer Annika Sorenstam peddle houses? History has proved that celebrity tie-ins, especially in the real estate world, can either help or hurt you.
Shea Homes' active-adult division hopes that using tie-ins will bring positive results. The developer of six high-end Trilogy residential resort communities in the West signed on to host the annual Skins Game golf match in 2003 and again this year at its newest community at LaQuinta in the Southern California desert. Last year, Sorenstam was the first woman to ever play in the event, and Woods is on board for this year.
“Guilt by association,” Jeff Hinkle, vice president of community development for the Walnut, Calif.-based company, says of Shea's connection to one of golf's major events and two of the sport's major attractions.
“We're a young community, a young golf course,” Hinkle explains of the 1,200-home, 527-acre development where the homes are priced from the mid-$200,000s. “So hosting the Skins Game gives us an opportunity to show off to a national television audience. The tournament carries a certain panache, and we're trying to position ourselves as a golf experience equal to that.”
Argent Mortgage, which works with independent mortgage brokers throughout the country to originate “non-prime” loans, is using golfer Jim Furyk, race car driver Danica Patrick, and swimming sensation Michael Phelps as a platform to build brand awareness and establish its position as a leader in the home-loan market.
“Our goal is to partner with athletes who have demonstrated superior skills and leadership to mirror the customer service Argent provides,” says Adam Bass, senior executive vice president of the Irvine, Calif.-based lender. “We believe this program embraces those goals.”
Some Success Argent isn't the first lender to hire sports celebrities to hawk mortgages, either. Jim Palmer, the hall-of-fame Baltimore Orioles pitcher, speaks for the Money Store, a finance company. He replaced another hall-of-famer, New York Yankees shortstop and sportscaster Phil Rizutto.
Mostly, though, affiliations with jocks and movie stars are used to sell real estate, not loans. It's a tactic that has been used repeatedly, if not always successfully.
“We used Red Buttons to make those who knew his name feel comfortable in moving to West Palm when it was still the boonies,” marketing specialist Bernie Schreft explained years ago. “He never lived there, but he was closely related to our buyers' demographics. For a very reasonable fee, he came down twice a year to tape commercials and meet the people.”
One of the great celebrity promotions of all time also was in South Florida, where the developers of Inverrary, a garden condominium property on what was then the far western edge of Fort Lauderdale, linked up with Jackie Gleason, who at the time was the star of his own Saturday night variety show.
Gleason had moved his entire production to Miami Beach and quickly became a national symbol for the then resort city. And when he moved to Inverrary, he became its voice and image, with his own PGA golf tournament.
Make The Connection At one time or another, according to the now retired Schreft, nearly every developer in South Florida tried to copy these successes. But most of the time, they failed. Broschtbelt comedian Henny Youngman couldn't sell real estate and neither could Mr. Television, Milton Berle.
To use a movie or sports personality properly, Schreft said, the star has to have “a real tie, either to the community or the audience he is trying to reach.”
Sometimes the celebrity tie-in is a bit of a stretch. For example, crooner Bing Crosby never actually lived at The Crosby Estate at Rancho Santa Fe, a 722-acre golf course development in Southern California that opened in the spring of 2001. But he “had a real relationship with the area,” which was good enough for Starwood Development to pay his widow Katherine handsomely to use the family name.
“Bing Crosby was synonymous with so many things that make this area unique,” marketing director Christine Newman points out. He owned one of the area's original adobe ranch houses, helped build the nearby Del Mar race track, which still plays Crosby's starting song every day in the season, and often brought Bob Hope, Dean Martin, Ben Hogan, Dinah Shire, and other golfing buddies to town.
Developers often hire a name personality as a huckster when they don't have much to show, say, for example, early in the project or even during pre-construction. In return, the star receives anything from a big payday to a piece of the action.
In the early 1980s, marketing guru Jack Studnicky offered Sylvester Stallone a hefty discount to buy an apartment at the first new major condominium in years in Atlantic City. The place wasn't out of the ground yet, and it needed some spark.
Rocky didn't accept the Ocean Club's generous offer, but not because Studnicky—who had already sold an apartment to Rod McKuen, also known as “America's Poet”—didn't try.
“We were calling the Ocean Club the richest piece of real estate between New York and Miami, and these people answered the question, ‘Who says so?' ” the marketing man explained.
“We were going after affluent people from throughout the world, the glamorous people, the Jet Set, people who can go wherever they want. So celebrities helped position the property as the place to be,” Studnicky said.
“An Excuse” Richard Elkman of Group Two Advertising in Philadelphia isn't particularly fond of celebrity tie-ins, which he labels “an excuse” for having nothing else to promote. “It's like having to put a big black border around an ad to make it stand out,” says the real estate advertising executive, who has more than 70 builder clients in 35 states.
The cost to hire a big-name huckster is generally “too great” for the typical builder, says Elkman, who has written five books on marketing. “Properties with large marketing budgets can make it work, but I personally don't believe it's necessary. If the project is positioned to be different from the competition and offers real or even perceived value, you should promote that and put the extra money into media.”
Advertising executive Barbara Koenig of Ten United “wasn't sold on the idea” of using actor Robert Urich as the spokesman for Solivita when her Orlando agency took over the advertising for the age-qualified community in nearby Poinciana. But the Coral Gables-based developer, publicly owned Avatar Holdings, had used the tie-in with Buttons to sell condos at Century Village years earlier and was adamant about Urich.
Now Koenig sings a different tune. “In hindsight, it was a brilliant move,” she says. “The credibility and name recognition he brought to the project was incredible. The awareness he helped build in just one year would have taken four or five years otherwise.”
Ironically, Urich, who was paid in the “mid-six figures” for his troubles, died of cancer in April 2002 at age 55, the minium age allowed for a Solivita resident. And though he never lived there, the folks who did insisted his photograph be placed on the sales office wall, where it remains to this day.