Build-to-Rent: the brands that never stop

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7 minute read
7 minute read

Private landlords must be bricking it. Build-to-Rent (BTR) is single-handedly redefining city living, its unstoppable boom barely blighted even by Covid. Offering community, lifestyle and experience in ways matched only by members’ clubs, it’s no surprise why everyone from banks to major household brands are lining up to line their pockets with it. Time to wake up and smell what this really is: a revolution. And it deserves more revolutionary brands.

Private Sale brands are a bit like rocket boosters. Once the scheme has launched and sold, they’re jettisoned. Mission complete, they naturally fall away.

However, built to be rented (rather than sold), Build-to-Rent (BTR) schemes have found themselves in a different orbit entirely. More akin to the way hotel brands operate, the journey doesn’t end when every apartment is occupied because tenants are constantly moving in and out. Quite simply, they can’t afford to lose thrust.

And there’s another key difference. Whereas a lot of Private Sale schemes at a certain price point are appealing to investors for whom this is a more pragmatic decision, the BTR audience is fully invested in their next home.

Renting doesn’t change the fact that choosing where to live is one of the most emotionally charged decisions we make in life. And whether it’s the first time or the 51st time, the feeling’s the same: it’s not about the right square footage, or the right kitchen appliances, or even the right aspect - it’s about it feeling right. You just know, you know?

Get engaged

In very simple terms, the difference comes down to two words: where Private Sale seeks to persuade, BTR must do all it can to engage. Staying wedded to cold facts, stats and spec won’t cut it for those looking for a deeper connection before parting with their deposit.

Think of it this way: if branding a Private Sale development is a quick, one-time thing satisfying a very basic need, building a BTR brand is like nurturing a committed, wholesome relationship – one rooted in unstaged authenticity and real connection. 

Just look at other sectors. Hotel rooms must be filled and FMCG brands always have to sell more product, so they need to be skilled in the art of maintaining long distance relationships. After all, brand inertia can be a serious mood-killer. The Hoxton is one great example of a brand that’s managed to amass a vast, loyal following among London’s ‘cool crowd’ by conveying the feeling of actually being there, rather than laying it on heavy with the usual product spiel.

It’s something that’s subsequently jump-started the popularity of their co-work sub brand ‘Working from…’. Though every Starbucks, indie café and hotel lobby has sufficient WIFI and coffee provision to fuel endless hours of mac-tapping creative breakthroughs, few can match the irresistible magnetism The Hoxton have managed to drum up through cleverly broadcasted brand appeal and an environment that’s, well… just a cool place to hang out. 

“[It’s] not a complicated business. You can get jarred with the acronyms, but it’s just about making people happy.”

Sharan Pasricha, CEO of Ennismore (owner of The Hoxton brand)

Their Southwark spot feels more like a co-work space with a hotel, rather than vice versa – a testament to their savvy when it comes to identifying key trends shifting the sands of brands all over the city and, indeed, the world.

This is something we discussed in the last edition of Candid, speculating that “with traditional holidaying being edged out in favour of staying switched on, on the road, where the hotel ends and the work begins will be largely up to you.” 

(Check out Birch Community for a recent concept hotel that’s pushing the sector even further by redefining the long weekend retreat as more of a grown-up funfair centred around wellness. Definitely one to watch.)

The ripples created by brands like The Hoxton are reaching further and further. New aparthotel brand Locke spotlights all you can do in (and from) each of their now worldwide spots, with a refreshingly direct, human tone of voice urging us to order piña coladas, ignore all work calls and feel like ‘a real Londoner’. Lists of spec hardly feature, quality photography showing you all you need to know.

Locke Hotel homepage
Locke Hotel homepage

From hotels to aparthotels (and adult funfairs), this new way of thinking seems to be catching on quick. What if BTR were to now pick up this baton and run with it…?

Share your stories

What was it your English teacher used to say? “Don’t tell me, show me”. It’s the very foundation of storytelling and something every bit as applicable here as it was for your GCSE. As concepts like community and wellness lead conversations around home and lifestyle, BTR developers are going to struggle to court tenants with Private Sale-style adverts that are essentially invitations specifying starting price and location. People like to be wooed.

A recent report from HomeViews (a ratings and reviews website for residential property in the UK) unearths how important communal spaces are to movers. Those able to offer such spaces saw their average star rating increase by around 7.5% as a result, with their average design rating, facilities and management score pumped up by between 10% and 13%.

Which is why this has been such an important part of the story we’ve told working with Canary Wharf Group on their Build-to-Rent brand, Vertus, a portfolio of three buildings in Canary Wharf totalling just over 1,000 apartments for rent. Beyond the four walls of the private spaces, the buildings’ focal points are their shared spaces, a combination of lounges, terraces and even private dining, gyms and cinema rooms. And the glue that brings them all together, and to life, is the events programme – it’s the colour, music and conviviality that creates such a coveted experience. This is what grabs the attention of prospective renters, and painting a real picture is how hearts are won. Minds can be convinced later, after you’ve got bums on seats.

Something we’ve come to realise while working with Vertus is the power of social media. And not in the way you think we mean. Yes, they’ve invited influencers to stay, but there’s also something else which has arisen quite organically and in far less contrived fashion: namely, social engagement from their own community that’s actually contributing to the storytelling content of the Vertus brand. 

10 George Street, the first Vertus building to launch, has been home to a thriving renting community (Canary Wharf’s first) since late 2019. As this community quickly grew, so did their social traffic. Pretty soon, followers of each new resident were being served reels of reasons to move there, from the view from their followee’s new balcony to the selection of wines at that week’s Wine Wednesday event. People and their brands are no longer living in separate rooms - new connectivity and platforms have broken down the walls.

“For years photography was tech. But pretty soon photography was art… that’s where we are with new tech today. Clients are mystified by it, but artists are just starting to figure out how to use it to engage people”

Lee Clow, Global Director of Media Arts for TBWA

And there’s potential for more here. We see no reason why such organic brand humanisation from the inside can’t be harnessed more effectively. Its benefit for Private Sale may be limited (see our earlier rocket booster analogy), but for a BTR brand that lives on and on it’s an indispensable way of maintaining momentum. At the very least, it could take the pressure off hefty, budget-stripping campaigns and free up a little cash for exploring new ideas. And, though you can’t curate this content yourself (doing so would rid it of any authenticity), you can create opportunity for it to flourish by encouraging the lifestyle you want your newfound ambassadors to inadvertently promote.

Vertus social event at 10 George Street
Vertus social event at 10 George Street

Seize this moment

There’s never been a better time for BTR to kick things up a gear. After rapid adjustments to cope with radical changes to our lives, people’s previously tentative approach to new-fangled things like BTR will be forgotten. We’ll see a renewed desire to find adventure as everyone seeks to max out all that Covid made us miss out. Freed from a fear of change, the prospect of a new lifestyle looks appealing.

And there’s another reason for this tipping point. In 2020, cornerstone of the Great British Brandscape, John Lewis Group, announced their BTR intentions. And boy have they followed through. In July 2021 they kicked off their nation-wide audition for the part of landlord by announcing a whopping 10,000 homes. It’s part of a new strategy that will mean 40% of future profits come from activities outside retail. And, evidently, they see BTR as the new horse to back.

With one of the nation’s most trusted names now stamped on BTR’s forehead, any lingering reservations or unmade minds will quickly disappear. Rather than working hard to convince ‘Average Jane’ that BTR is something to accept and aspire to, the challenge for developers will now be to compete with household names whose reputations are etched on the national conscious. A tall order. If the battle for BTR comes down to trust and acceptance, John Lewis Group are smart to wade into the fray: they have a much bigger sword.

There’s no doubt others will be keeping a close eye on how John Lewis fare, so the more inventive current BTR brands can get the better equipped they’ll be to keep their noses out in front.

Think different

Real Estate has always felt like its hands are somewhat tied by the relatively short-lived nature of its building brands. But now that it’s finally found its ‘infinity brands’ (ones that never stop), it has the chance to shake itself loose. Why, faced with this prospect, would you ever just turn back to what worked before? After all, what we’re seeing here with BTR has never been seen before.

Things are different now. Let’s think different.