Housingcamp, London – talking about brand

I went along to the second HousingCamp  unconference in London this weekend, and was very glad I did. I’ve never enjoyed any conference as much as I enjoy HousingCamp.

This time around, I plucked up the courage to pitch a session. And I had a hankering to talk to other housing people about brand.

Here’s my transcript of the discussion. Feel free to add to it in the comments, as my memory is far from perfect.

UK Housing associations brands

Brand is a subject that keeps coming up again and again in my digital housing work. The questions that we keep returning to are:

  • Do housing association brands work for all our customers?
  • What about the customers in the new areas of the housing market that we’re moving into (private rent and private sale)?
  • Do some customers get put off housing association properties because of our brands?
  • Is social housing a broken brand?

It was a really lively discussion which loads of people chipped into. I wrote most of this on the train home, so I’ll recount as much of the discussion as I can without attributing quotes to any particular person (with the exception of Rachel, who I hope doesn’t mind). If you want to claim an idea as your own then feel free to comment below.

Brand recognition

We began with discussion about how a Thames Valley Housing brand, Fizzy Living, had been really successful in the private rent market, and how that had worked well for customers in the private rent market.

Though this brand has met with relative success, it was agreed that, outside of the housing sector, our brands are not well recognised. In London, lots of people may be able to name Peabody as a housing association, but that’s about it.

But most people have a clear idea of what a housing association does, and many strongly associate that with council housing. This is clearly an issue when customers from the private housing market come into contact with housing association brands – many of these customers may assume that housing associations are “not for them”.

And yet, increasingly, housing associations are for those customers, as we enter into new markets and provide products and services that private landlord and developers have provided for years.

Private rent – can we set the gold standard?

One chap agreed that he’d never heard of his housing association before he rented a house from them, but became intensely interested in and familiar with their brand once he became a customer.

For him, after years of renting privately it was revolutionary for him to be offered a 3 year secure tenancy. He was able to buy his own furniture for the first time.

He suggested a really interesting tag line for the housing association brand as a way of communicating our social purpose and long-term commitment to residents and neighbourhoods: “we’re not trying to screw you over”.

Rachel Fisher put it more politely, like this:

“We need to harness the power of the tenant voice in selling the housing association brand as the gold standard in renting”

Why haven’t we got our brand sorted?

So with all these organisations involved, and all these people, and all this money, why haven’t we got the brand proposition right for the sector?

Many private sector companies have a thoroughly considered brand proposition and architecture, and have had for years.

Perhaps housing associations don’t have this because we’ve never needed to in the past – most of our customers had little choice, so brand wasn’t important. Which means we’re inexperienced when it comes to brand (maybe?).

Also: the internet. Customers’ ability to self-publish and self-organise online to debate and express dissatisfaction has made us think more about how our brands are perceived.

How do we position ourselves in the housing market?

Do we sell ourselves as professional organisations that are commercially driven, as organisations that are customer focused, or somewhere in-between these two (which is potentially a fudge that customers can’t relate to).

Maybe we need to focus less on the traditional things that we like to talk about like resident involvement and ASB and talking (lots) to each other within the sector, and actually focus on our customers, potential customers and the things that our customers most often talk to us about – property maintenance and finding a nice place to live.

But one thing that we really must do is to stop squabbling amongst ourselves, especially in the run up to a general election.

There’s lots that we agree on, and we have a very good proposition to offer to a lot of people. Let’s get out there and shout it to the world.

Today’s tune

It seems fitting to have a tune fro my favourite artist for this first blog post. So here’s a few fitting words from Neil Young.

Neil Young & Crazy Horse: Walk Like A Giant

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