Hallmarks Of A Good Brand
When first and second generation self-storage companies established their brands, they borrowed heavily from Public Storage, the industry leader. Many facilities featured orange doors, while others borrowed the REIT’s purple color for use on their properties.
It made sense, since Public Storage set the standard for self-storage and consumers associated those colors with the fledgling product.
Now, as the industry matures and the competition includes over 50,000 facilities, self-storage companies need to have distinctive brands to stand above a crowded field.
What Is A Brand?
According to Tempo Strategic, a New York marketing technology firm, a brand is a distinct message to the consumer that communicates who you are, what you stand for, and how you differ from your competitors. That brand message is conveyed through images, color, language, and by the customer experience.
It’s difficult to build a distinctive brand in self-storage, because it is such a fragmented industry with numerous competitors of all sizes. And, unlike shoes or cell phones, storage is not something people use every day. Most consumers have never used self-storage and some only need it every five years.
“It’s very hard if not impossible to drive business to get people to rush out and buy it,” says Ken Nitzberg, CEO of Devon Self Storage in Emeryville, Calif. “They will rent it when they determine they have a need.”
Nike, Coca-Cola, and Apple are easily recognized brands, because these companies have spent millions of dollars skillfully crafting, managing, and protecting their brands.
“If you’re driving down the street, you recognize an Apple billboard from a mile away.That’s how good their branding is,” says Kate Bell, senior marketing manager, of Utah-based Extra Space Storage. “That is the ideal that everyone is trying to reach. With one image and one line of text, you know what your brand is.”
In the self-storage arena, the REITs and several regional companies are generally recognized brands. “Public Storage does a great job,” Nitzberg says. “They’re consistent, they’re all over the internet, their signage is the same everywhere, and their colors are the same everywhere. They have a consistent message and theme.”
Public Storage had a head start in establishing its brand to become the industry trend setter. But smaller operators—even single-facility entrepreneurs—can learn from leaders like Public Storage to create a brand within their three-mile radius.
After all, it’s said that all storage is local.
Branding A Building
Along Highway 595 in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., sits an imposing five-story building offering a state-of-the-art automated retrieval system for self-storage, exotic car storage, wine storage, and safe deposit boxes. The steel-reinforced concrete construction is able to withstand a category-5 hurricane with winds up to 200 mph.
Appropriately called RoboVault, the facility is unique in that instead of having tenants wander along hallways to find their units, customers use wall-mounted controls to call their unit down to ground level.
The problem with RoboVault, according to M. Anne Ballard, president of marketing, training, and developmental services for Universal Storage Group (USG) in Atlanta, was that most people didn’t know what kind of business went on inside the building.
“There was no identity on the building and nobody in the marketplace knew what it was,” Ballard recalls. “It wasn’t a brand that was known around town and the building did not do anything to promote the brand.”
Universal took over management of RoboVault last year and immediately set out to establish a recognizable brand in Florida. “The first thing we did was we put signage up on the outside of the building, we outlined the roof in white light, and we took down the bulletproof glass so it’s more retail-like in front,” Ballard says.
Then USG unleashed its marketing machine. “We’re out marketing all the time,” Ballard says. “We’re holding all kinds of events at the store to build the brand and participating in events all over the region.”
For example, USG sent five representatives to the prestigious Barrett-Jackson Auto Auction in West Palm Beach, which attracted over 100,000 visitors. “We carried out the theme of the brand and took a television with videos about the store to the booth and made people aware that we store exotic and collector cars in our building,” Ballard says.
RoboVault also hosts lunches at exotic car dealerships and started a networking club called Robo Connect. USG sends press releases to the local media about RoboVault and also does social media posts and ads. “All of those things are so important for brand development in the local market,” she says.
Branding Building Blocks
A sampling of recommendations from marketing professionals reveals a number of building blocks for brand development.
The most obvious symbols of a brand are the logo and signage. For companies developing a logo, a rough drawing from the CEO on a napkin is probably not the best way to start this endeavor. Hire a professional marketing company or graphic designer to start the process.
A good logo is one that is recognized and remembered but also fits the business and perhaps the personality of the owner. It can simply be the store name incorporated into the graphic, or a trademarked image or symbol.
Signage is an important part of a facility’s curb appeal. Signage usually is the first place a customer sees your brand, especially if they drive by your store.
Enlist a local sign company for input on signage composition and municipal regulations. The sign company often will do the legwork needed to win approvals and secure permits.
Existing facilities should make sure their signs are in good repair and lit at night. Burned out lettering on a sign can be a source of embarrassment for the owner.
Signage can be a challenge in many communities that strictly regulate business signs. Many cities restrict main signs to monuments, which are positioned much lower than traditional high-rise signs from the last century.
“These monuments are low to the ground and hard to see,” observes Rachel Parham, an executive with the Parham Group in Bulverde, Texas, which operates several companies including Noah’s Ark Development. “I would make sure ‘storage’ is the most important word you see on a sign. On these monuments, I may remove the logo and make ‘storage’ the biggest thing you see.”
Developing A Brand New Idea
When defining the company brand, companies can use a variety of resources, depending on their wherewithal. Larger companies may invest in data mining to determine what motivates their customers to rent from a particular facility and how to keep them renting longer. They may also conduct surveys and even focus groups to solicit opinions on a variety of topics. Sometimes it comes down to old-fashioned legwork, literally.
“We send managers out to visit every competitor and see the difference between yourself and what you’re competing against,” Ballard reports. “This is important for managers because they don’t know what to sell or talk about that makes them special until they go out and see the competition.”
Competing managers are invited to visit the USG facility so they can confidently refer overflow customers to the property. Referrals usually earn competing managers $100 for new customers.
In addition to shopping the competition in person, another way to gain valuable information is by visiting competing websites to get a feel for how facilities differ from one another.
From the information gained in the process, operators can determine their competitive advantages and vulnerabilities. What do you have that they don’t have? Is your facility newer or cleaner? Is your staff friendlier or better trained? Are your rates lower, do you have a superior location, or do you offer better security? Conversely, what do they have that you don’t?
From these comparisons, you can determine your differentiators and develop a value proposition that helps your facility stand out. Then your brand can emerge. This brand is ultimately communicated on a website, in marketing and promotional materials, and through employees.
Your website should illustrate what differentiates your facility from competitors within seconds, or consumers may abandon your site. The company website should communicate a primary message not only on the homepage but also across every page of the website. Use photos or videos to depict your differentiators, such as the facility’s cleanliness, security features, and amenities.
The hallmark of a good brand is consistency. “The first thing people should be concerned about with their brand is consistency,” Bell says. “Once you have your logo and website, it needs to be consistent from touch point to touch point. It needs to look and feel the same. Whether they’re on the digital sphere or physical sphere, people need to recognize this company. Do you look and sound the same on your website, on social media, at your facility, and are your store managers saying what you’re saying online?”
Ballard advises carrying out brand identity on all property signage, including unit numbers, gate signs, keypads, and merchandise signs. “Everything should have that brand identity incorporated to reinforce that brand on the property,” she says.
Ballard says a cardinal sin of branding is to walk into a store that is devoid of any brand identification on the walls or countertops. “At our developments, we try to put a three-dimensional logo behind the service desk on the wall surrounded by flat screen televisions to reinforce that brand.”
For brand recognition, it’s critical that the company colors be identical in any marketing materials, promotional items, banners, email, and social media. Operators need to guard their logo and colors the way Coke does when it mandates that a particular red be used in all its promotions and ads the world around.
Competing With REITs
With all this attention on brand building, just how much does it move the needle when an operator is competing with a REIT down the street? That may depend on where you’re located and how well you build the brand.
“It’s very hard to establish a brand if you’re anybody less than Public or Extra Space because you’re just too small,” Nitzberg says. “You can’t spend any money on the amount of advertising that needs to be spent to develop brand awareness. The bottom line, to me, in the self-storage industry there are no brands with the possible exception of Public and Extra Space and then only in markets where they have a huge penetration.”
But other operators pay particular attention to branding, since all self-storage is local. “The one thing we can do that REITs don’t do is we can participate in the local community every week. They do some of that in community support but not nearly what we do,” Ballard says. “Often we get customers who pass by competitors to store with us because we’re partners with them in the community.”
USG’s facilities employ email marketing campaigns that feature community businesses each month. The facility’s brand is printed on Little League T-shirts while company banners hang in the outfield at the ball park. Sometimes a moving truck featuring the brand is on hand at the ball game providing free water bottles. “Those are great ways to reinforce your brand,” Ballard says.
Noah’s Ark facilities have a double-edged approach with technology tools on one side and human interaction on the other. “It’s that online presence, having a good website, and being customer friendly on that website,” Parham says. “The other part of branding is the managers. That’s what keeps us different than the REITs. We’re community stores. People want us face-to-face.”
Parham believes regional operators like Noah’s Ark can build brand awareness in local markets that helps to compete with REITs. “How do you compete with a $26 million budget for Google AdWords? Well, you don’t; that’s the problem,” Parham says. “So, branding became incredibly important. If you want to be effective, you need to stick with a brand that’s already present. In order to compete with these, we offer the Noah’s Ark line. We have an online presence to compete with these big companies.”
Parham’s strategy is to provide such a positive experience at the store level that customers will want to spread the gospel of Noah’s Ark. After a new tenant signs a lease, Noah’s manager sends a push notification to the customer’s smart device requesting an immediate review.
“My plan is that they have such a good experience at that moment that they want to write a review,” Parham says. “They’re reviewing their space, the facilities, the coffee, and how nice the manager was to them.”
Parham hopes to generate five-star reviews that will help boost Noah’s Ark to the top of Google’s first page for the facility’s local area.
“We focus on our areas,” she says. “Instead of the entire city of San Antonio, we’re doing a two- or three-mile radius of our area where our customers normally pull from. That helps a lot with branding because now I’m not spending so much money on the entire city of San Antonio. If you’re in my area and you’re on your iPhone, I’ll come up first if we have those five stars because of my reviews. That’s going to differentiate our smaller, privately owned company versus REITs in the long run. It’s important online now to interact with your customers, because it helps your brand.”
Rebranding The REITs
The REITs may dominate the self-storage landscape in many markets, yet, they are not afraid to tweak their brand image when evidence indicates change is needed. For example, Sovran Self Storage, a New York REIT, operated hundreds of stores under the Uncle Bob’s brand for decades. Yet, when surveys and other data showed that Uncle Bob’s may have been too stodgy for 21st century customers, Sovran made the bold move last year to take on the new identity of Life Storage.
Extra Space Storage, the industry’s second largest REIT, also decided it needed to make some changes to its brand. During the past three years, Extra Space altered its iconic green color scheme to make it more retail friendly.
“We recently decided to rebrand our stores to bring retail service to a real estate product,” Bell says. “This is not just a location that you bought; you’ve got customers you have to keep satisfied. Doing things to the facility so it’s more appealing to customers has been a shift. That’s why we decided to change our color scheme and to become more focused on the retail side and become more customer centric.”
While branding is obviously important for a REIT with 1,500 stores across the nation, Bell says it is equally important for smaller operators competing with large companies such as Extra Space. “For a one-off storage facility, it’s still important because customers are looking for price and location,” she says. “So, if they know something is nearby and has a competitive price point, what’s going to tip the scale on them choosing you versus choosing someone who is a mile away? That differentiator is the brand.”
Virtually all brands started small and some grew into readily recognizable companies that dominate their markets. In this fast-paced, ever-changing business world, it might not be a big surprise if one smaller operator grows into self-storage’s next trend-setting multinational entity through good ideas, dedicated employees, and a cultivated brand that stands out from a mile away.
David Lucas is a freelance writer in Phoenix, Arizona. He is a frequent contributor to all of MiniCo’s publications.