A STRONG BRAND IS PURE MARKETING gold, the El Dorado of business today. But achieving that objective—especially for home builders—can be just as elusive as finding that mythical city of gold. “Branding in the home building business may not be a long-term thing like we generally think of it in consumer goods,” says Bill Probert. As executive vice president of sales and marketing at Newport Beach, Calif.-based John Laing Homes, Probert is responsible for shepherding what is arguably one of the most distinctive brands in the business.

People only buy homes once or twice a decade, not weekly like soap or orange juice, he points out. But many home buyers “are in the market for up to a couple of years,” Probert adds. “If we can create a relationship and great experiences while they're going through that long period, hopefully when they are ready [to buy again] they'll think of us.”

Builders report solid evidence of strong brands working in the industry. Doug Yearly, senior vice president at Toll Brothers in Horsham, Pa., says that competitive pricing analysis of Toll Brothers' homes and comparable competitive products reveal differences that “we can only attribute to the brand because everything else is the same.”

IT'S NOT ABOUT YOU A brand equity study in 20 markets showed the influence of the Pulte Homes brand, according to Keith Burke, national director of marketing for the company. Pulte was a leader in “awareness” and the highest among all builders in those markets in “purchase consideration,” Burke says. In the same study, the Del Webb brand—generally acknowledged to be one of the most recognizable names in home building—ranked higher in “purchase consideration” than any other among active adults, he added.

BRAND DOCTOR: Tasked with managing the brand for John Laing Homes, Bill Probert realizes builders have to make a lasting impression. “Branding in the home building business may not be a long-term thing like we generally think of it in consumer goods,” he says.

But whether and to what degree home builders can forge a meaningful national brand given the essentially local nature of the business is an open question in the minds of some who are immersed in the brand-building process. Part of the problem is the subjective nature of branding itself.

“Brand is something that has the ability to shift demand,” says Suzanne Hogan, senior partner of Lippincott Mercer, a brand strategy and design consultancy in New York. “Brand is held in the minds of purchasers, and it is in their perceptions of that offering's understanding of them and the experience they have of it,” she adds. In economic terms, a good brand means that “all other things being equal, you can probably charge a premium for your brand or you will have greater share of market based on the brand being stronger,” Hogan explains.

More simply, “brand image is basically what your customers think of you,” says Probert. Or it's that “automatic preconceived notion” that comes to mind when someone hears your name, says John Landon, co-CEO and co-chairman of Meritage Homes in Scottsdale, Ariz. Because so much of the notion of brand lives in other people's minds, perhaps the toughest part about brand is that you aren't the only one that's shaping it. “You either brand yourself or people brand you,” Landon adds.

MISSION CRITICAL Another problem is the complexity of home building. Construction is subject to the vagaries of weather and buyer whims. Even among production homes, any two are rarely identical. Home buying is a stressful, emotional process. It goes on for a long time and features many “touch-points” between buyer and seller, every one of which has the potential to help or hurt the buyer's brand perception.

“In an industry like home building, people play a tremendous role in the overall brand and brand image,” Hogan says. It's not only the product but “the process buyers go through and the interface they have with the process that also drives their preference and experience of the brand.”

But strong, successful home builder brands tend to share a number of traits that counter these problems. First, they arise and flow from the company's values and mission. That means formulating brand identity “can't be a quick decision that can be made on a Monday morning in an hour with a bunch of people sitting in a room,” says Sandra Kulli, a marketing consultant who works with a number of big builders. Kulli says home builders face a “nuanced challenge” to shape brands that “are impressive to the customer” and, for public builders, “impressive to Wall Street at the same time.”