Forest for the Trees: the NAR #Logogate Edition

Look, the past 24 hour or so has been a lot of fun. I know I had a few laughs. But things are getting a little out of hand, y’all. Plus, it’s far too late, and I have real work to do and too little time to do it all. Nonetheless, this whole NAR #Logogate situation is a classic example of missing the forest for the trees.

There are hundreds, maybe thousands of REALTORS taking to the virtual streets with virtual pitchforks and torches. #Logogate is touching off what looks like a genuine rebellion, of both the smart & thoughtful variety and the wild & crazy variety. Everybody chill out; have fun with it, if you want, but try to focus on what’s important here.

Obviously, the following is just one man’s opinion and you can take it or leave it or tell me to shove it. But for those who want to make sense of what appears to be a senseless social media firestorm….

It’s Not the Logo; It’s the Brand

The first thing to point out is that the real problem here is not the logo.

Truth is, nobody cared about the first logo, and nobody will care about the second logo.

I’m sorry, but anybody who tells you otherwise is paid to tell you otherwise. Not even diehard NAR junkies who write $5,000 checks to RPAC every year and go to every single NAR meeting and make it their life ambition to be named Chair of Conference Dining and Flower Arrangement Committee cared that much about the old logo. Not one person ever posted a photo on Instagram or Facebook saying, “Just got my Golden R pin and… well, I’d wear it, but that logo is just so outdated!”

Consumers don’t care about the logo; there is no “brand recognition” and no advantage to having the Big Blue R in whatever box on your business card, and no disadvantage in not having it there.

In all honesty, NAR could have adopted my joke logo of the Rubik’s REALTOR above, and it would not have made one whit of difference to anybody anywhere who isn’t paid to care.

So, first, the logo is not the problem.

(A few people have said that removing the word “REALTOR” from the logo was bad juju, because now consumers have no idea what the big “R” stands for. Relax thyself, because….)

The real problem is the REALTOR brand itself. The anger and vitriol boiling up seemingly from nowhere are based on real frustrations with the brand, not the graphical representation of it.

Everyone who is not paid to think and say otherwise (or are so heavily invested in climbing NAR ranks that they’ll never be the first one to stop clapping) knows that the REALTOR brand doesn’t mean anything to consumers, and often doesn’t mean anything to the actual REALTORS themselves.

How could it, when 100% of the people doing the help people buy and sell thing in a given market are REALTORS? That includes all of the “part-time, untrained, unethical, and/or incompetent agents” that NAR’s own DANGER Report called out almost two years ago.

Lest you throw stones my way, allow me to remind you that it wasn’t me who wrote the DANGER Report, but your own National Association who did. It isn’t me pointing out that the brand doesn’t mean anything; it’s REALTORS themselves like Michael Biundo who are asking, “Remind me, why am I a REALTOR?“:

The problem is: being a Realtor no longer means anything. We are touted as a group of industry experts who are held to a higher code of ethics, higher levels of professionalism and higher standards of education. But if almost every agent is a Realtor, how can that possibly be the truth? Wouldn’t that just be the norm?

Let us pause here a moment and give thanks to the power of the MLS, especially if your paycheck depends upon REALTOR member dues.

A real brand, one that has some vitality and meaning, is not a logo, but a promise.

What then is the REALTOR Brand Promise? Oh, I don’t know… we might look here at the document that supposedly differentiates REALTORS from “mere licensees” for starters:

Such interests impose obligations beyond those of ordinary commerce. They impose grave social responsibility and a patriotic duty to which REALTORS® should dedicate themselves, and for which they should be diligent in preparing themselves. REALTORS®, therefore, are zealous to maintain and improve the standards of their calling and share with their fellow REALTORS® a common responsibility for its integrity and honor.

Look, if that’s the brand promise, then you’ve got maybe a couple hundred thousand people out of 1.3 million or so who carry the REALTOR name still trying to deliver on that promise.

Everybody else is dedicated to sales, not to grave social responsibility and a patriotic duty. They’re diligent in prospecting, not in preparing themselves. They’re zealous about hating on Zillow, not whatever maintain this and improve that business y’all keep yammering on about.

You can try to deny it, I guess, but really, at this stage, after lo these many years talking about the same need for increased professionalism and enforcement of ethical standards and whatnot, I won’t argue. Believe what you want.

But do me a favor and go ask your rank and file members.

The Deep Discontent of Disconnectedness

Speaking of which….

The second issue that’s worth paying attention to, however, is the other source of the anger: the feeling of disconnectedness and disempowerment.

I don’t know that I have ever seen a national organization with less support from its on-the-ground membership than NAR. Maybe all the big trade organizations are like that — I don’t know.  I’m not a member of any of them. So if you want to tell me that I’m wrong, and that member engagement is super-high at NAR, fine, have it your way.

I’ll merely observe that if NAR were to require that no one can be elected to any Association office without at least 50% of the membership voting in the election, there wouldn’t be a single volunteer leader left at any REALTOR Association, local, state, or national. Not one person who currently holds some lofty leadership position has had even 20% of the total membership vote him or her into office, as far as I know. (If you know differently, fine, fine — I guess exceptions exist. But then, I could point to leaders who have had exactly eight REALTOR members vote them into office: the eight people on the Nominating Committee, so there’s that.)

It’s a lot like the U.S., now that I think about it: a whole mess of disenchanted people who feel like a small largely unelected elite rules over them.

Just look at the brouhaha going on over the $30 dues increase from the newly announced SMART Initiatives. A small minority of people (most of whom are names I recognize, because I work with Associations quite a bit) are constantly defending the increase against an ever growing, ever larger list of names. And those are just the ones that complain!

Any business knows that for every customer complaint, there are ten others who haven’t bothered even to complain.

For whatever reason, #Logogate touched off that resentment, that frustration, that huge masses of disconnected, disenfranchised, disempowered members have had for years. Come, Reap! O, Discordia!

Bob Goldberg knows this, which is why he made communication and member outreach such priorities when he took office as CEO. I think he’s made some very astute moves, and certainly, he led NAR to victory on important legislative fronts last year on tax reform.

Seems odd that all of that work might be unraveled by a silly controversy over a logo design. But if that’s the straw that broke the camel’s back, it’s because there are a million other straws underneath it.

It would behoove Association leaders from NAR on down to think really long and hard about the depth and width and breadth of the disconnect.

Here’s a suggestion: don’t go to your usual people to figure out what members want. You know the ones… those who show up at meetings, who are on your Boards and Committees, who come to luncheons or networking meetings. Go out of your way to find the people who are pissed off at you, don’t care about you, who just pay dues every year because they need the MLS, and talk to them. Be prepared for unpleasant conversations, but… hey, isn’t that what leadership requires of you?

The Evolution Went Backwards

The third thing to note here is that Bob and Elizabeth and the Leadership Team at NAR are doing the right thing. They just did it out of sequence. In fact, they did it in reverse.

Think about these two statements from the NAR Brand Evolution page:

NAR and its members have always understood that real estate is, and always will be, a people-focused business. The evolution of the REALTOR® brand reinforces who we are as an organization – an unrivaled advocate and trusted resource in real estate, growing and adapting to the changing demographics and needs of today’s buyers, sellers and investors. It expresses the role that REALTORS® play in a meaningful and deeply emotional milestone in life, and more than simply a transaction, we are helping clients achieve their hopes and dreams.

– NAR President Elizabeth Mendenhall

Technology, shifting market conditions and consumers are reshaping the real estate industry at a breakneck pace; and when I became NAR’s CEO last fall, I vowed to lead the association into the future and ensure that our members can compete and thrive in a dynamic marketplace. The new brand embodies the association’s rich history, but better reflects our forward-thinking focus and how we’ll stay ahead of industry evolution and disruption and continue to lead the real estate industry in the years ahead.

– NAR CEO Bob Goldberg

Can anybody honestly say they disagree with either of them, at least if you read the statements as aspirational as opposed to descriptive?

Read between the lines if you have to. Hell, here, I’ll make it easy for you and rewrite them:

NAR and its members must understand that real estate is, and always will be, a people-focused business. The evolution of the REALTOR® brand has to mean evolving who we are as an organization – an unrivaled advocate and trusted resource in real estate, growing and adapting to the changing demographics and needs of today’s buyers, sellers and investors. It expresses the role that REALTORS® must play in a meaningful and deeply emotional milestone in life. We have to do more than simply mediate a transaction; we have to help clients achieve their hopes and dreams.

– NAR President Elizabeth Mendenhall

Technology, shifting market conditions and consumers are reshaping the real estate industry at a breakneck pace. When I became NAR’s CEO last fall, I vowed to lead the association into the future and ensure that our members can compete and thrive in a dynamic marketplace. The new brand should embody the association’s rich history, but we have to change how we think, what we think about, and how we’ll stay ahead of industry evolution and disruption. We have got to be forward-thinking, not backwards-looking. The old ways won’t work anymore. We have to change. Else, we won’t be leading the real estate industry in the years ahead.

– NAR CEO Bob Goldberg

If you read their statements as proud declarations of how things are today, then you can’t help but laugh… then cry. But if you read between the lines, read what they’re really trying to say, then you can see what they’re trying to do: turn a giant aircraft carrier around.

Now, I have spent time in the advertising agency world and have taken personal part in a branding session or two, so I can’t help but laugh my head off at some of the over the top brand-aspirational language used here, but… again, read between the lines:

What do the changes to the REALTOR brand signify?

The new branding retains the equity and recognition of the current bold, powerful, and trusted trademark, while modernizing it to meet the realities of today’s marketplace and digital distribution. It also signals where the organization is headed. The new branding represents NAR and REALTORS® as multi-dimensional, dynamic, active, and future-focused. In addition, this new dimension signifies that the association is a caring, human organization and brand. NAR and REALTORS® have always understood that real estate is, and always will be, a people-focused business.

A freakin’ logo can’t do all that work. No logo in history has ever made a company more multi-dimensional, dynamic, active, and future-focused. Not one. You know why? Because a logo is a bit of paint and some text; it doesn’t actually do anything.

The normal process of branding would grow out of the brand promise, the culture of the organization, and the organizational strategy. Then consultancies like the Conran Design Group (who did the NAR rebrand) spend thousands of hours doing interviews, studies, designs, focus groups, etc. etc. and so on. $250,000 seems like a lot of money (and it is) but given the work that likely went into this, it’s actually a pittance.

The problem was that Bob, Elizabeth and Co. went about this evolution backwards. They started with the logo, probably because they wanted to make a big symbolic splash, with the intent of driving the transformation afterwards.

Unfortunately, it touched off a firestorm.

Imagine if they had gone about this the correct way, in the correct order.

Imagine if NAR had spent a year interviewing hundreds of thousands of REALTOR members, even the ones who are pissed off and disengaged and disenfranchised. Imagine if Bob Goldberg dropped by various offices uninvited and unannounced to have coffee klatches with working REALTORS across the country. Hundreds of NAR staffers and consultants talk to everybody they can about NAR, its core values, its mission, etc. etc. and so on.

And then imagine if Elizabeth had announced in a major policy speech that she, the Leadership Team, Bob and the Board have all decided to “modernize” NAR to become the “unrivaled advocate and trusted resource in real estate.” That they have chosen a strategy to make NAR “multi-dimensional, dynamic, active, and future-focused” recognizing that NAR was anything but those things yesterday and today.

In order to do that, they would make several changes. Ethics enforcement would be ramped up. Political participation would be required, because “Under All is the Land” and “beyond ordinary commerce.” The Code of Ethics would be updated to reflect “the realities of today’s marketplace” which includes the fact that licensing law exists in all 50 states. Governance would be restructured.

She would warn everyone: the end result of all that would result in half of the current REALTORS losing their membership status. Accordingly, NAR would slash all budgets in all departments by 50%, and raise dues by not $30, but $120.

Elizabeth would end the speech with the cry of, “We are going to make REALTOR mean something again!”

The reaction to that would likely be delirious cheers from the rank and file, stony silence from some quarters, and stoic acceptance from others: “We don’t like it, but she’s right — we do have to change with the times….”

And then they introduce a logo that is visually blah at best. A few people would complain. But we wouldn’t have the firestorm we have today.

“It’s just a damn logo; who cares?” would be the widespread reaction. “But think about all the changes they’ve made and are making!”

That’s how a rebrand is supposed to go. The logo merely signifies and symbolizes the change. It does not and cannot drive the change. It can’t do that work. Only people can do the work.

My point is… the people want to do that work. I think they’re planning to do that work. Give them the chance to show that they mean to change more than the logo.

If they don’t… well, then, go ahead with the pitchforks and the torches and the petitions and whatever else you got going on.

In Closing…

Relax. Chill. Have fun with the new logo; I think it’s hilarious personally. But focus on things that matter, which is the forest behind the tree of this boxy-ass logo.

Now is not the time to turn it up. This is not the change you want or need. This is not the issue over which you want to fight the powers that be.

Save your energy for when you really need to bring the noise.

-rsh

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23 Comments

Join the discussion and state your opinion. Some comments may be held in moderation. I try to get to them as soon as possible, but may be traveling or unable to approve comments immediately. I do not censor comments, but reserve the right to remove anything that looks like spam, trolling, or just outright inappropriate.

  1. Great points Rob. The backlash, that has only been made so vocal this past week due to the bad timing of announcing a proposed dues increase, followed by a “new” logo, can be boiled down to ONE issue. And that ONE THING is how the relationship is formed between a member and the trade association (local, state and national).

    There is one comment you made in your post that I saw a few others also say similarly:

    “I don’t know that I have ever seen a national organization with less support from its on-the-ground membership than NAR.”

    The reason why this is the case, again, is due to the nature of how the relationship is formed between a member and the trade association. As we all know you don’t need to become a member of the American Bar Association to practice law, you don’t need to become a member of the American Medical Association to get a stethoscope and practice medicine, you don’t need to join the National Association of Home Builders to get a hammer and build homes, you don’t need to join the American Insurance Association to sell insurance policies, you don’t need to join the American Institute of Architects to access autocad software to design buildings, you don’t need to joint the National Rifle Association to buy a gun….

    …. BUT, 90% (conservative number) of licensees feel they NEED to join the Realtor associations so they can have access to the MLS. The MLS which is (for now anyway) the lifeline, tool of the trade, and heart of buying and selling residential real estate in the US. You can’t, for the most part (for now anyway), be a successful real estate professional without accessing the MLS, the inventory. You and I know, that doesn’t apply to the commercial world, so we are only talking about residential practitioners.

    So, you have new licensees who join a brokerage and are told by their broker they need to go down to the local association and sign up so they have access to the MLS. These licensees see membership as A COST OF DOING BUSINESS. They sit through orientation thinking to themselves “when will this person stop talking so I can get my MLS ID and get out of here?!” When a RELATIONSHIP is started off like this, as a requirement, not because they CHOOSE to join, you already are starting off on the wrong foot. When the only value they see in membership is MLS access, ANY change the association makes is going to be faced with backlash (quiet or vocal). This is what makes this relationship so different than ANY other industry trade association out there. To make a long, rambling story short, this relationship is like a FAMILY. Children don’t get to choose their parents, right? And in this situation, the local /state / national association of REALTORS is the DADDY, the MLS is the MOMMY, and the members are the CHILDREN. Most of these children ONLY want their MOMMY but realize in order to get MOMMY, they need to accept DADDY as well. Until Mommy and Daddy get a DIVORCE, there will always be siblings that are going to resent DADDY. So the solution – get a divorce. And then, at that point, DADDY needs to work VERY hard to show VALUE and MEANING to the children so they realize, ON THEIR OWN, that they need DADDY in their lives as well. You see, when the children see value and meaning in having Daddy in their lives, they really won’t care what t-shirt daddy puts on…even if it has a big cube on it.

    P.S. Wow, that was a weird analogy. Too much coffee this morning.

  2. In elementary school on ‘sports day,’ no one loses and everyone gets a ribbon …

  3. Well, a logo does elicit a response as evidenced by the reaction of the realtors. Worse is the reaction by NAR. To actually explain the time and money to create what a 1st year advertising or graphic design student could do in a day only shows how out of touch they are with us and our money. So much is changing in the real estate world that interferes with us as agents. Changing a logo would not be a top priority. I would like to know how much this change cost.

    Consistency is important. Look at Pepsi, Coke Ford etc. their branding has been almost the same for 100 years. We are even encouraged to create our brand for our websites, our teams and stick to it. So if so many agents seem to agree that this choice of logo is not good, must mean something.

  4. Hi Rob, this was a good read.

    Bob Goldberg has been quoted as saying, “What we’re trying to show is that with all the changes I’ve been implementing in the organization, this is an optical way to convey this new dimension of NAR. That’s the reason for the three-dimensional look.”

    And there’s the disconnect. This was an ego-based decision that reflects a myopic vision without buy-in from the membership body. Instead of symbolizing the brand identity, the new logo literally symbolizes everything that is wrong with the ‘ivory tower’ leadership Bob pledged to reform. If the executive team won’t listen to the multitude of members who object to this spend and this choice now imposed upon them, what will NAR listen to?

    Save our noise, you say? If it doesn’t matter now, why ever would it?

    1. Thank you Amanda.

      I’m saying, save your energy for when the noise matters, because….

      What you want, presumably, is real change (like my fictional ones at the end there) not a symbolic change. All this activism gets NAR to fold and change the logo — what’s really changed? Nothing.

      I’m saying that I’d wait for when the issue is really worth fighting over — something like stronger ethics enforcement, or a new Code of Ethics, or governance changes, or whatever — where winning will make a difference. I find it difficult to imagine that having this logo or that logo will make any difference whatsoever. So what’s the point of winning?

  5. Yes, thank you, Rob. Your message was well written and understood to have meant what you explained in your reply. Your communication is excellent. 🙂

    One significant pain point with the new logo is that the forced adoption will affect members financially (to become compliant with marketing collateral) and in the opinion of many, is not at all advantageous over the current mark. Change for the sake of change is irresponsible and inconsiderate.

    And as you say… what’s really changed? It’s virtually our current logo on a cube that now has degraded reproduction value in monochrome formats and will require special treatment to incorporate its use, as the whole “cube” will need to be shrunken to fit within a placeholder. The “R” alone is skewed in the new concept. It has no reverse equivalent. Weird, and trite. Maybe the designers at Conran are great — but they aren’t building social media profiles and trying to fit that cube into a google+ profile circle, or using this logo to brand their companies on yard signs, or considering what it looks like on a copy of a copy of a copy… Not sure they took the agent field implementation into account.

    Goldberg says, “Some will argue that we sit in our office buildings on Michigan Avenue and Capitol Hill completely disconnected from the practical concerns of our members and industry.”

    The new logo, and NAR’s failure to consider membership input in the design process — or listen to reactions now after the fact — isn’t a shining testimony to the promise of changing alienated totalitarian leadership culture. And that is becoming the bigger issue. It’s setting the precedent that there will be no winning on any issue where the membership body disagrees with the Association. You get what you get and you don’t throw a fit. Goldberg knows best.

    1. You wrote:

      “isn’t a shining testimony to the promise of changing alienated totalitarian leadership culture. And that is becoming the bigger issue. It’s setting the precedent that there will be no winning on any issue where the membership body disagrees with the Association.”

      And THAT is what I would bring the noise over 🙂 But then you don’t declare victory if the logo changes. You need to demand more fundamental changes.

      Small events often trigger massive movements; maybe #Logogate is that trigger, but not if y’all focus your energies on the logo itself or the trifling $250K spend. Just trying to point out the forest for the trees. 🙂

      Thanks again!

    2. Amanda Thomas, Well said! Rob Hahn makes some good points too. But the logo branding matters because REALTORS are businesspeople and entrepreneurs who use the NAR brand assets in their businesses. And although many consumers (and some practitioners, unfortunately) don’t understand what the logo represents, it’s globally recognized. This recognition has tremendous commercial value.

      REALTORS’ affiliation with the NAR brand is a form of co-branding and is actually a market penetration tool. Most REALTORS (brokerage firms and individual agents) are independents. The big firms represent only a small percentage of practitioners. This is true industry-wide for both commercial and residential. A consumer may have never heard of the individual practitioner or brokerage firm, but will definitely be familiar with the REALTOR logo. So the logo is very important.

      Regardless of industry, many independent businesspeople struggle to capture market share or mindshare. No business can generate profit without sales, and sales revenue cannot be generated without acquiring new or servicing existing customers. Implementing thought leadership strategies (e.g., speaking, books, writing, etc.) to acquire new business isn’t the best fit for every businessperson.

      So, I think it’s great that independent REALTORS (small business owners) have marketing tools through the Association that can be utilized to compete with the big, well-known firms in the marketplace. This is one of the value propositions of the REALTOR logo and brand.

  6. I think the logo is laughable but that the marketing is brilliant. It’s almost as if they sat around the room and said, “Every year our influence and relevancy is going away. What can we do to be current in this generation? …. If we could only do something meme-worthy. ” I can’t remember in my 15 years of being a Realtor that I’ve ever seen this much press and talk amongst realtors themselves over something. Mission accomplished in my book.

    Of course, to your point, it’d be nice if being a Realtor meant more than paying dues.

  7. IMO, the consumer, the one that often hires professionals to buy and sell real estate. Not only do they not know what a “Realtor” is, they don’t know what NAR is or does. If we throw in the younger set (those damn Millennials), they are not interested in any of this.

    “Just get me the best deal (period). I don’t care about anything else, much less what “club” you belong to” – my 29 year old son. 🙂

    So, if the buyers and sellers don’t assign any value to a “Realtor” (the brand) or “NAR” (the institution) why on earth should anyone else….including us brokers?

    #realworld

    Thanks,
    Brian

  8. Spot on… almost. You had me completely at the notion that the change we really need would lead to 50% reduction in membership (easily that many are not qualified or trustworthy enough to guide buyers and sellers through a transaction). However given that NAR’s sole existence relies on the fees collected I don’t foresee the truly needed change actually happening. I hope I’m wrong and they really can make the Realtor name “mean something” again. How awesome would it be if it truly was an exclusive designation for only the most ethical and highly trained in the business!

  9. Thank you, Very well Written and amazing points, great job Rob!

  10. All the pro/con REALTOR discussions are just so much arm-waving in a vacuum. No air to move. I have just ONE simple question to ask: How many Realtors would pay the NAR/StateAR/LocalAR even $10/year if it wasn’t mandated by the coalition of Broker/MLS owners? Make the question mandatory to renew membership and we’ll have the answer within 12-months. I’m betting <10%.
    Knowing that NAR will *never* do such a survey, is there *any* organization that has the database from which to ask?

    BTW, thank you Notorious for your excellent writing. Love it.

  11. TY Rob – gee, I wonder if the marketing firm should’ve read this 2010 article prior to new design. George Santayana – “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. History is a good teacher: http://www.businessinsider.com/rebranding-failures-2010-3

  12. When a brand represented by a logo represents an organization ranked as low as the Realtor organization is in the minds of the consumer, the last thing I would do is to spend $250K to enhance it. I would be working harder to figure out ways to improve what it stands for (old or new), and if not, then simply how to get rid of it.

  13. I will go out on a limb here and suggest that much of the monies spent on this effort resulted in loads of consumer and member input that will be used to guide other NAR Initiatives. The actual creative iterations and the final result likely represent a far more modest figure.

  14. OMG Rob, you just designed the perfect NAR logo: the Rubik’s Cube.
    Best of all it will cost NAR nothing, if you gift it to them.
    Your just saved NAR $250,000 🙂

  15. After paying dearly to a behemoth just to get MLS access, I now must shell out more money to change the logo on all of my printed materials and business cards. A logo that means absolutely zip.
    It really is ridiculous.

    …and ANYTIME is a good time to make your voice heard. People are tired of waiting to recognize value the behemoth might bring for the money paid over so many years.

    1. I wasn’t thinking about all the print materials the logo is on… this change is going to cost members a LOT of money (collectively).

  16. Frankly Rob logos DO illicit a response. Case in point Harley-Davidson. Members of the Harley Owners Group (HOG) will by just about anything with their beloved Harley logo on it, even underwear. So will Ferrari aficionados, Apple users, Nike enthusiasts, Patagonia purchasers, Airstream owners, NASCAR enthusiasts and the list goes on and on. Many consumers require these logos to help define their own persona, status, personal tastes and desires. Now how do we get to this level of brand loyalty? Do a better job of getting the consumer to identify themselves with our unique individualized product.

  17. I bet the new logo will really fire things up and we will all have more sales because of it. ROFLMAO

    Who cares?

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