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This is part of a series that highlights how commercial real estate’s power set is marketing itself, winning new business and building its brands to meet today’s business climate.
Nearly two decades ago, Sarah Berman, founder and president of The Berman Group, decided to strike out on her own. After spending her early career working in public relations and real estate communications, Berman knew she wanted to continue to serve construction industry clients and help them grow and develop their brands through her own agency.
Today, The Berman Group has grown to represent some of the most prominent businesses and leaders in the built environment, including Brookfield, Howard Hughes, Tishman Speyer, RXR and Rockefeller Group.
“I felt that the construction industry was very loyal and very family-oriented, and I felt very at home, despite the fact that I wasn’t from New York and I had no family in the business,” Berman said.
Berman spoke with Bisnow about some of the challenges commercial real estate firms are facing, best practices for aspiring CRE marketers and how firms can connect with their clients in a meaningful way.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Bisnow: What drove you to create your own company? What advice do you have for others hoping to do the same?
Berman: I grew up in Philadelphia, and I came to New York for school and studied urban planning, which I have both undergraduate and graduate degrees in. I then had an internship where I was doing public relations and real estate communications, and I loved it. I loved seeing real estate construction design projects up close and learning how to communicate about them, and I decided I wanted to stay on the communication side of the business. I was very fortunate to have an internship that brought me into contact with many large construction firms and some real estate development businesses, and I just really loved the people.
Once you decide you want to start a company, you need to really put your head down and work incredibly hard. You need to leverage all of your personal relationships, of course, but at the end of the day, it’s really about maintaining those very close relationships with your clients. It can be hard for some people working to balance running a business and spending time fostering and building long-term relationships. Some of the clients we had 18 years ago are still clients and close friends with the business today. Continuity is really important, as is hard work, having the ability to juggle multiple things and also being able to innovate along the way as opposed to always doing things the same way.
Bisnow: The Berman Group website states that you “identify challenges and develop creative communications programs that increase business and reach new audiences.” What are some of the most common challenges in putting together a marketing strategy?
Berman: A lot of our clients are focused on commercial office space, and there are obvious challenges in that space today, including bringing people back to work, creating a heightened tenant experience and building hospitality within commercial office space.
We also have clients who have public relations challenges. Sometimes it might be the need to amplify the noise around their business and sometimes it might be the exact opposite, keeping aspects of their business less visible or less high-profile. We’re always trying to home in on what the challenges are that the client wants to solve and then build a communications program or media program around that challenge.
We call ourselves an integrated marketing firm because we’re a full-service agency that does public relations, marketing and branding, and special events. Often, we can utilize all three of those areas to support a business, and sometimes people come to us looking for media relations only or a branding strategy. The solutions are different depending on what the challenge might be.
Bisnow: Sticking with the theme of challenges, what are some of the biggest mistakes you see people making in their marketing campaigns? And what advice do you have for avoiding them?
Berman: There’s so much media today, and you have to do things that cut through the clutter and reach your audience. Knowing your audience is the No. 1 most critical thing in developing any communications program, along with crafting a compelling story that really highlights how you are different, how a product is different or how a building is different.
It’s very important not to do what everyone else is doing, and sometimes that’s hard, especially when momentum makes you feel like you have got to do the same thing that others are doing. We work with our clients to figure out how they can do things differently and stand out in a very crowded landscape.
Bisnow: You work with everyone from Fortune 500 companies to trade associations, government agencies and nonprofits. How does your approach to marketing change when dealing with a smaller startup versus a larger company? What should newer firms keep in mind when they begin a marketing journey?
Berman: Some of our larger, more established clients may have more expansive budgets for things like branding, creative services or advertising. However, whether you are a startup or an established company, telling the right story is still the most important part of a campaign.
For some of our clients who are publicly traded companies, getting the message right is about making sure that you’re speaking not only to stakeholders but to investors as well. For smaller startup companies looking to communicate effectively, tools including social media don’t cost much and can allow you to present a really strong brand image if you do it in a cohesive way.
Also, authoring content and finding ways to distribute that content can be something that startups as well as larger established companies can do. For the most part, a lot of the same tactics can be used for organizations of all sizes. We find that people really do want to gather and network, and so regardless of whether we’re planning events at high-end venues or even smaller, more intimate gatherings, people can connect and bond in similar ways.
Bisnow: What role do you believe in-person networking plays in developing a marketing plan?
Berman: I’ve always believed that events are the way to meet the market, to actually deliver the message in person, whatever that message might be, and to really make the brand come to life.
Events really allow you to form connections and to present to your audience. So we are very committed, wherever possible, to building events into our marketing programs.
We have clients who’ve launched amenity centers or tenant experience centers, and we’ll do launch events for them. Or we’ll do broker events to bring people into unique spaces or galas and conferences for large trade associations or not-for-profits. All of these are designed to help these organizations communicate in an impactful way, meeting the audience directly where they are.