Nowadays, successful businesses understand the importance of good brand management. That is as true in the real estate services industry as anywhere else and, in a sector where competition is intense, a reputation for excellence and reliability is just about the best kind of brand you can have.
As a member of service and infrastructure conglomerate NWS Holdings (NWSH), Urban Group certainly knows that and, as winner of the Hong Kong Productivity Council's award for best brand enterprise and corporate development excellence in 2006, has received widespread recognition for its achievements.
The significance of participating in such an award is that it has created a benchmarking opportunity in Hong Kong and China, according to executive director Francis Chiu.
"Many companies mistake brand management for logo management, which is still a common misconception," Mr Chiu says. "The former is about how we differentiate, position and target our competitive advantages to specialist business niches. Having a recognisable company logo is only one part of it."
Operating under the umbrella of NWSH, Urban Group has been able to leverage the validated brand identity and service reputation of its parent company's corporate brand. Certain brand credential strategies have been used to emphasise the link between the companies and to build on the associated reputation and goodwill in the Greater China region.
"NWSH gives people confidence and the promise of quality services," Mr Chiu explains. "It makes a big difference that we are actually owned and not just trying to create a connection, in contrast to some OEM manufacturers that are just part of the supply chain of globally recognised brands."
He adds that focus on quality has always been the key part of the group's strategies. For this reason, winning the overall winner of HKMA Quality Award in 2003 really meant something. Success there was seen a direct result of the emphasis placed on having a TQM (total quality management) strategy and building the right credentials.
In many ways, Mr Chiu notes, a brand acts as a bridge between customers and the company. Therefore, every manager at Urban is made aware of this concept and expected to play an active part in building the brand. It is not enough simply to leave such responsibilities to the marketing department, which is the approach taken by some businesses.
The group has also pioneered the use of integrated marketing communications (IMC), an idea which was introduced about five years ago and quickly gained popularity among some of the bigger companies. "The aim of IMC is to send specific messages in a continuous manner via a variety of channels," Mr Chiu explains. "The ongoing communication can be seen in the form of new brand visuals, advertising, and various promotion and marketing initiatives. Premium corporate gifts like umbrellas, calendars and mouse pads are all part of our IMC media. We can also make use of our annual reports, letterheads, and thematic billing statements to get our brand message across in a way that doesn't have to be explicitly spelt out."
He emphasises that the group's basic message to be conveyed at all times is the promise that staff will deliver quality service for customers in day-to-day contacts and operations. When that happens, staff also benefit directly because they will be known to work for a well regarded and reliable employer, and will be viewed in the same positive light.
In 2000, Urban Group repositioned some of its previous management philosophies and adopted a more open and vibrant mix of western and local management styles. Subsequent awards as one of the best employers in Hong Kong and Asia proved the success of the change.
"Branding in real estate services in Hong Kong used to be rather orthodox," Mr Chiu says. "But then we went back to our roots to see what could be improved and started to focus more on the strength of Chinese culture and competitive values. For example, Chinese language is now the main medium for communication, but we also recognise the importance of English in certain settings. The aim is to align the business and the general mentality of staff with the local culture and living environment, so that they can be more engaged in what we are doing."
Results from the group's annual staff satisfaction survey show this is working. Around 94 per cent of employees indicate they are now "fully engaged" with the corporate direction. There has also been a marked increase in the number of people displaying the sort of characteristics the group most wants to see — outgoing, energetic, forward-looking and able to solve problems. "That's exactly the brand value we hope to project," says Mr Chiu. "We've come a long way. Service used to be generic, but by creating new values, we have become one of Hong Kong's premier real estate service brands."