When one of my business mentors became president of a struggling university, he immediately recognized the need to improve the school’s brand. So, one of the first positions he created was “Director of Wow.” This person was tasked with creating extraordinary campus experiences. For example, one of the things they implemented was free rides to and from the airport for students traveling during school breaks. To take advantage of this, all someone had to do was wear something that displayed the college name and colors.
Branding is critical for every business. Why? Because people tend to choose products and services based on it. A brand conveys a company’s identity and story.
When Ray Kroc turned McDonalds into a fast-food giant, he used the consistent delivery of hot French fries, thick milkshakes and delicious hamburgers to tell that narrative. Customers learned to expect the same great experience at each location. When people travel to a new city and want a coffee, they look for Starbucks because they know they can expect a certain type and quality of product. Wherever they go and whatever they need, consumers want a decent, reliable experience.
Now, think about the self-storage industry. A lot of properties have traded hands in recent years. Many of them have been “mom-and-pop” shops, each with their own character. But as an owner or investor grows their portfolio, it makes sense to put all locations under one brand, thereby creating a marketable entity that far exceeds any individual site. Take the industry’s real estate investment trusts, for example, and how recognizable their facilities are. Those brands carry weight. They are proof that there’s power and value in establishing brand presence and consistency.
But if you’re an independent self-storage operator, how do you begin to build and solidify a brand? Let’s look at a few strategies.
Building Your Brand
The first step in creating a new self-storage brand (or upgrading an existing one) is to review your company goals. A question most self-storage owners ask themselves is, “How do I increase the value of the business for when I’m ready to sell?” If this is important to you, then brand development should be a top priority.
When my company switched from using third-party management to running facilities in-house, the first thing we did was establish our own brand, One Stop Self Storage. We came up with the name, followed by the color scheme, logo, website, phone number, marketing material, even the sports coat I wear when representing the business. To build a brand, everything has to be directed and cohesive.
In our case, we focused on the word “Stop” as our central theme. After all, we aim to be the last stop in a customer’s search for self-storage. Our logo is the shape of a stop sign. We even included the word “stop” in our national phone number. When I speak in public, I wear a red jacket, because that’s our color. Whether the feedback is good or bad, people always comment on it.
You want your branding to illicit some kind of response, so people remember your product.
Determine what sets your company apart from the competition. It doesn’t have to be extravagant or over the top. It just needs to be distinctive.
To underscore the importance of this, my mentor once brought two kinds of chocolate into a meeting. One was a bag of Hershey’s Kisses, the other an ornamental box of Godiva chocolate tied with a ribbon. The bag cost $2, while the box was $25. Both were the same amount of product, but they were distinctly different in terms of experience. At the end of the day, you have to determine which kind of experience you’re going to create for your self-storage customers. Your brand is an essential part of that.
At its essence, it should reflect the tone and message you want your business to project. Both chocolate companies make lots of money. But while Hershey’s wants massive sales at a low price point with immediate satisfaction, Godiva wants to create a sense of luxury and buildup, which includes the joy of receiving the box, untying the bow and thinking about the chocolate for the next 15 years.
The One Stop Way
At One Stop, we want our customers to know we’re here to solve their storage-related problems. Our staff is trained to ask specific questions designed to assist our clients (not customers). For us, it isn’t about the price of a unit. We want to genuinely help.
When a potential renter calls their local self-storage facility, the first question they usually ask is about price. This reduces the product to a commodity, which isn’t bad, but is it the brand experience you want to deliver? At One Stop, we sell more than just a product. We want self-storage to be an elevated experience. This can take time, though.
The first time a prospective client asked me about price, I said, “I don’t know. I want to learn what’s best for you. We have many options. Would it be OK if I ask you some questions to get you the best solution?” So, we talked, and I noted their responses. I then asked if I’d missed anything. Finally, I said, “Based on X, Y and Z, I think this is what we can do for you.”
I knew the offer would meet the client’s needs because I used their answers to create the solution. They noted that I was the first person to ask what they needed and actually listen. That was my “wow” moment. After that, taking a consultative approach to selling became the basis for our brand.
That isn’t how everyone does it. I once heard a representative of a large self-storage operator refer to their customers as “survivors” because the company was increasing rates and expecting tenants to move out. They strategically and continually created churn to maximize revenue. Good or bad, that’s their model, and it sets the tone for their brand as well as how they approach their customer experience. They’re still an incredibly successful company.
Choosing Your Path
As you contemplate and develop your own self-storage brand, consider the following:
- What message do you want your prospects and tenants to receive?
- How does your current branding align with that expectation?
- Which areas fall short, and more important, why is that the case?
- How can you more effectively communicate your intended message through visuals, text, service and overall experience?
If you already have a self-storage brand and want to update it, it can require radical thinking and difficult choices. I say “radical” because altering a brand means doing things differently, and most people resist change. Change takes action. It boils down to whether you’re willing to do it, need to do it or should do it. To move forward, any self-doubt needs to be pushed aside.
If you have a valid reason to change your self-storage brand, start by setting a budget. What can you afford, and how can you maximize those dollars? Consider all the expenses involved, and then tackle the most critical, cost-effective items first. These will typically be anything your future and existing tenants can see, such as your logo, website and signage.
Remember: Creating an effective, memorable brand begins with understanding the experience you want to provide for customers. Hershey’s, Godiva or something entirely new? The choice is yours.
Scott Krone is founder of Coda Management Group, which specializes in managing real estate assets including self-storage as well as multi-family, retail, commercial warehouses and multi-use flex spaces. Launched in 2012, the company has more than $70 million invested in self-storage. In 2020, Krone co-founded One Stop Self Storage, which operates facilities across the Midwest. To reach him, call 847.272.7775, Ext. 1; email [email protected].