Building your brand with Ivan Estrada
This article was written by Benjamin Davison.
Ivan Estrada is a man of many talents. Not only is he one of the top-ranked real estate entrepreneurs in California, but Estrada is also an inspirational figure, a man with vast expertise in marketing, real estate, and personal branding. Not only does he use his impressive knowledge of the real estate market to help clients find the perfect place to live, but he is also a living example of the power of skillful personal branding. Estrada earned a bachelor’s degree in finance and accounting from the University of Southern California, which helped him hone his financial expertise. He engages the public through various channels, including his Instagram feed and YouTube channel. Estrada has also appeared on professionally produced television series such as House Hunters, Million Dollar Listing, and NBC’s Open House. He has been featured in publications such as Forbes, The Hollywood Reporter, Dwell Magazine, and the Los Angeles Times — and he literally wrote the book on branding. He serves as a member of the Advisory Council on the national history Museum of Los Angeles and served as president of the Los Angeles LGBT Chamber of Commerce president. Estrada is, in a nutshell, an entrepreneurial dynamo.
Mexican roots, American success
Ivan Estrada is a first-generation American whose parents hail from Mexico. During his youth, Estrada developed a passion for music. When he was just a baby, his parents brought him to a family event, where he was seated next to a loudspeaker. Estrada likes to joke that his proximity to the speaker caused a passion for music to build in him; ever since he can remember, Estrada has been a lover of music. At age 12, he began working as a recording artist, a career he continued until age 17. After primary school, Estrada felt the weight of expectations upon him. As the first-generation prodigal son of immigrants, he felt driven to attend college, work hard, and obtain the American dream that had brought his family to the United States. He enrolled at the USC Marshall School of Business and earned an accounting and finance degree. Subsequently, he passed the CPA exam and found work at an enormous accounting firm. Materially successful, Estrada nevertheless felt unfulfilled. Working in corporate America did not seem to be compatible with his vision of how he should be living his life. After spending a few years in the cubicle farms, Estrada decided that there was more to life and handed in his resignation. Eventually, he found his way into real estate, building a thriving career.
Indeed, Estrada enjoys enviable success. He lives the life of his dreams and has actualized the American Dream of successful, profitable entrepreneurship. His work in real estate allows him to flex his analytical muscles, use his personable nature, and run his show as he sees fit. Success like Estrada’s cannot be obtained by following a specific series of steps. It does not come from a formulaic approach. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. However, much of Estrada’s success stems from his expertise in branding. Not only has he built a professional brand that attracts high-end customers to his business, but he has also built a personal brand that allows him to engage with people on a human level.
The term branding is frequently bandied about in business discussions, but what is it really? We are all familiar with brands. Even people who live in the most remote parts of the world can identify logos from companies like Coca-Cola. Most Americans can name several brands with which they are loyally affiliated. But what does branding mean? Is there a more rigorous way to define it than via brand recognition?
In the early days of his career, Estrada viewed branding in a very simplistic way as a mechanism through which he could separate himself from his competition. This was primarily expressed through visual means such as the design and appearance of his website, business cards, and letterheads. Estrada describes this viewpoint as “external.” But branding is more than just the surface-level external appearance that a person or company puts forth. “Branding, for me, it’s not just the color of your website and your logo and your newsletters. That’s advertising to me,” says Estrada.
Proper branding is not just about logos and personas. It is about projecting an accurate image of who you are to cultivate relationships with your audience. Estrada explains, “The external is a manifestation of the internal. The internal was how I projected myself to the world. Who was I as a person? What was my voice? What did I believe in? What was my mission, my values, my principles?… in my 20s, I had no idea what these things were.” He continues, “I was the kid who wanted to fit in with the status quo. Growing up LGBT and Mexican, a lot of shame was attached to that for a very long time. So I was, let’s just say, branding myself inauthentically in my 20s.” Estrada spent much time in his early career trying to create an image and a story that he thought people would appreciate or want to hear, not necessarily creating an image or a story that accurately reflected his journey. The true essence of branding is explaining who you are as a person, not explaining who you want to be. Estrada asks, “What is your intention? What is your purpose?” Though they may be abstract, philosophical questions like these are more relevant to branding than your logo design or color palette.
Branding: the customer’s viewpoint
Branding is not just about telling the world who you are. It is about allowing customers to forge a connection with your brand. Customers prefer to associate with brands with which they feel a sense of personal connection. Does the brand believe in what the customer believes in? Does it do the things they like to do? Estrada uses the example of the footwear brand Tom’s. His sister is a huge fan of Tom’s, not so much because she likes the style of the shoes, but because she is a philanthropist. When she makes a purchase, she knows that the company will donate a pair of shoes to someone in need. She connects to the brand on a philosophical level more than a material level. This is illustrative of the power of proper branding. Customers who identify with what a brand does will build a more loyal relationship with it than with competitors because they have an emotional connection with the brand’s activities.
In many ways, branding is about the customer experience. Brands are like modern tribes: customers seek to connect with a tribe that represents some element of their personality. To capture customers in this way, brands will use emotional experiences. Some brands will host events: consider the Red Bull Air Races, which attract a specific thrill-seeking audience that Red Bull seeks to capture. Athletic brands may sponsor races or competitions. Bringing the customer into a physical space and providing the audience with a tangible experience or event is an excellent way to actualize the brand’s personality. When brands engage in behavior that crosses into real-life experiences, “They grab you by the emotions. You are emotionally drawn into that brand. That’s what makes you remember them,” Estrada explains.
Crafting your brand
Many of the brands we think of today are long-established industry players. Netflix has been around since the turn of the century. Coca-Cola has been around since…forever. American Airlines has been plying the skies since before many of us were alive. So how does one go about starting a brand from scratch? How do you craft your brand from the ground up? It’s one thing to define yourself by what you believe in or your specific attributes, but what extra steps must you take to forge that emotional bond with your customers?
It all goes back to that first day of business school: you need to establish a mission statement that will guide your actions and operations. It’s not the sexiest thing about running a business, but it is a process that adds value when you’re crafting your brand. Estrada says, “I had to come up with a mission statement. Like, what is the mission of my brand? And then I came up with the values and principles of what my brand stood for.”
Formulating your mission statement is a very abstract exercise. Sometimes, reading a corporate mission statement brings to mind images of geriatric executives sipping gin and spewing out buzz words to create a collection of words that looks good but is completely meaningless. This is not the proper way to approach building a mission statement. A well-crafted mission statement should begin by defining your purpose. Why does your company exist? What do you do, and why is it valuable? Your mission statement also needs to be specific and focused. Buzzwords, jargon, and other linguistic bullshit have no place in a good mission statement. It should be short, sweet, to the point – and if possible, at least a little bit inspiring.
Estrada shares that he likes to think in terms of brand pillars, an idea that a coach taught him when he was still finding his way. The five pillars of branding are generally described as purpose, personality, positioning, perception, and promotion. “Give me five brand pillars for your business that you will stick to no matter what,” Estrada says. “This includes social media, and how you treat your audiences and your clients, and you have to build out those brand pillars and get as granular as you possibly can without [losing sight] of where you’re going.” Thinking about the brand pillars helps you answer questions like: why does your business exist? What do you want to accomplish? What are the behaviors that define your brand? Who is your audience? How do people perceive you? Taking the time to put serious thought into questions like these will help you refine your brand’s image and build it in a direction that will help you succeed.
Be believably sincere
The essence of tools like the brand pillars is to help you align your perception of your brand with your audience’s perception. The core idea is to be believably sincere. Believability and sincerity are similar but different. Most politicians try very hard to look sincere but are not very believable. Salespeople sometimes seem believable but are not usually sincere. And while you might be able to fool customers sometimes, people are generally pretty good at figuring out when a brand is not who they say they are. Your brand needs to be fundamentally compatible with who you are if you want it to connect with audiences.
But people are not static. We all change over time. How does that affect a brand? Brands, says Estrada, should be plastic. As the people in charge of a brand change, as the environment the brand operates in shifts, the brand may begin to take on a life of its own and evolve and change. This is not a bad thing. Change is crucial to ongoing success. Indeed, the last decade or so of American history is full of examples of rapid, unexpected change and examples of brands that are pivoting to try and keep up. Both you and your brand must be capable of changing in meaningful ways as you learn new information or as circumstances evolve.
Change, however, can be difficult. Especially during turbulent periods of history, companies who change are liable to piss off or alienate at least a small part of their customer base. As beings that are programmed with loss aversion, we tend to put an irrational amount of focus on potential losses. But it’s important to remember that you will never be able to make everybody happy no matter what you do. For every customer you offend with a change, you might attract new customers who are delighted that you are evolving in a more modern direction. Are those few curmudgeonly customers worth it? Wouldn’t you rather be the brand that can build a stronger rapport with its customers by making choices that further refine your image and personality? Estrada talks about his love for Nike, which has only grown because of the brand’s choices over the years. “I’ve become more of a diehard Nike fan because of some of the things they’ve done because I was like ‘wow, that’s ballsy. I like them even more now.’” If you are willing to take a bold stance for your own authenticity, you will attract the right clientele to your brand.
Beware the bandwagon
Embracing change is one thing, but how do you know which changes to embrace? Some things are just transient bandwagons. A brand that decides to jump onto a cause that will lose attention in a day or two may look silly. Or, worse still, a brand might roll out a change in a way that makes them look slimy, like they’re just trying to score easy points. Consider the many companies who emblazon rainbows upon their logos during the month of June but do very little of substance to support the LGBTQ community. Companies like AT&T, Home Depot, FedEx, and Pfizer have donated millions and millions of dollars to rabidly homophobic politicians, yet their advertising teams gladly embrace pride and diversity. This kind of disingenuous behavior is not endearing to customers.
So how can your brand embrace change without seeming like it’s just trying to jump on the bandwagon? Estrada says that from a branding perspective, the critical point is messaging. A change made without any kind of story or narrative to support it shows a lot about a company’s intent. Ideally, the narrative will be fact-based. Estrada uses the example of brands that wish to appear friendly to disabled persons. Target, for example, prominently features disabled people in much of its advertising. Is this backed up with any real, meaningful actions? Estrada says, “I want to know that the company is being inclusive with their hiring process and that I’m going to go to their stores and I’m going to see…that they’re wheelchair accessible. It’s spelled out through the whole brand, not just the advertisement side.” When Target says they care about disabled people, there’s evidence to support that claim. On the other hand, if a company like DeBeers tells you they are very concerned about indigenous people or child labor, you should be skeptical of their claim. Your brand’s behavior needs to match its rhetoric.
It’s not enough to look good
Unfortunately, the operational behavior of many brands seems to reflect a philosophy that things don’t have actually to be good as long as they look good. Greenwashing is an excellent example of this phenomenon in action. But consumers are savvier than ever. When you are building your brand, you need to be sure that you and your brand are engaging in behavior that matches the things you say you believe. You must be authentic and sincere. There should be a mirror image between the inside of the company and its outer image. Superficial tactics might give you a short-term benefit, but your brand will suffer once consumers figure out your true colors. It’s not enough to just say that you will act with integrity. You have to do it.
Integrity is especially critical for young brands. Estrada explains, “if I know someone for ten years and all of a sudden they fucked up, because of the goodwill they built over the last ten years… OK. They messed up. We all mess up. You messed up. How are you going to fix it? You can fix it, but it’s going to take time for me to trust you again.” When brands break their relationship with their customers, it takes time to heal and rebuild trust. A brand that has been around for 200 years and has a track record of improving after making mistakes is more likely to be forgiven by the market than a company that has only existed for six months and has no meaningful track record. In mathematical terms, there are many more data points to make up the average of an established brand than there are for a new brand. So as a young brand, it is imperative that you generate the right data points to establish your track record. Your brand should be on its best behavior and demonstrate, from the beginning, that it means what it says.
In the case of large brands, demonstrating commitment often means throwing money at a problem. Committing real resources such as human beings, materials, or cash to solving a problem is an excellent way to demonstrate that a brand is committed to a particular cause. In the case of small, nascent brands, this might mean engaging in direct action and socializing it with your audience. If you are building a brand that ostensibly cares about ecological causes, spend a couple of hours on the weekend picking up garbage and make a TikTok or an Instagram reel about it. If your brand is deeply concerned with the quality of education, spend time volunteering with your local school board, library, or an afterschool program. Putting your money where your mouth is doesn’t necessarily mean flinging cash at a problem, but it does mean demonstrating a sincere commitment in a meaningful way.
After all, branding is a relational exercise. We’ve all had that experience where the salesman says they want to get you a good deal, but later, they screwed you over in the fine print. We’ve all worked for companies that say one thing and then do another. Don’t be that brand. Allocate resources to the things you say you care about. Estrada cares about helping young people find their way, and he backs this up by acting as a mentor with community organizations like the Youth Business Alliance and the Social Justice Learning Institute. He is not a gigantic corporation or an enormous conglomerate, but his actions demonstrate that he cares about the things he says he cares about. That level of sincerity is essential to building a successful personal or professional brand.
When brands go bad: avoiding the pitfalls of branding
Building your brand is not necessarily foolproof. It’s one thing to sit back and have an academic discussion about branding and how people should engage in it, and it’s a very different thing to try and build your brand personally. At some point, most everyone who seeks to engage in entrepreneurship will try to develop their brand. Most people will not be as successful in this endeavor as Estrada is. What are some of the most common ways entrepreneurs fail to launch their brand successfully? Are there specific behaviors that people and entities should avoid when cultivating their brand image? Are there particular activities that brands engage in that distract or even alienate their customers?
Estrada tells us that the best brands do things because the things they are doing are reflective of who they are, not because they are riding a trend. There are countless examples of real estate agents trying to develop a personal brand by following social media trends in the real estate space where Estrada’s brand functions. Estrada’s social feeds are full of agents performing variations on the same exact skits. Agents try to do funny bits about the differences between their perspectives and their customers’, funny things customers say, funny things that happen on the job, and so on. For some agents, this works really well, but for others, it seems a little offputting. If someone is not naturally funny, or not naturally predisposed to do those kinds of things, that kind of content doesn’t add any value to the agent’s relationship with their customers.
Estrada says that this is easily one of the biggest pitfalls in branding. When brands lose focus on what they are supposed to be doing to capitalize on something happening in the zeitgeist, it ends up being a meaningless exercise. Describing some of the things he has seen in the real estate space, Estrada asks, “what are we doing here? Is this valuable for the consumer? Are we providing value for someone looking to buy and sell a house or are we trying to be amusing?”
More to the point, such behavior can become a distraction. Spending a vast amount of time and resources trying to follow the latest trend on Instagram or TikTok can be fun and engaging, but does it add any value to your brand? If you are a funeral director, do your clients really want to see you doing a TikTok dance in a casket? If that’s the kind of wacky and zany person you truly are, and your brand is striving to put “fun” back into the funeral industry, such behavior may well be conducive to the development of your brand. But if you are engaging in traditional, somber funerary practices, you may find that trying to jump on the trend is not especially valuable for you or your customers. That’s not to say you should never engage in trends or try anything new or different, but whatever you do, you should be yourself — not a facsimile of someone else. The essence of good brand behavior, according to Estrada, is “sticking to who you are and what you believe in and not trying to just follow the noise.”
What is the audience’s intent?
A big part of this concept is remembering to consider the audience’s intent. Your brand’s behavior will lead you to success only if it is aligned with your audience’s intentions. Why are people engaging with your brand? They are probably not looking for humor and a quick laugh if you are in real estate. They are most likely looking for a place to stay or do business. A funny real estate agent who is incapable of getting their customers a good deal is not a very good real estate agent. You might be the most comical donut maker on Twitter, but if your donuts taste like recycled cardboard, you are not doing your brand any favors. Crafting your brand is about figuring out what will add value to you and your audience.
Consider your relationship with brands. Why do you like the brands you like? What do they give you that other brands can’t give you? What is their persona like? You can find inspiration in your relationship with the brands you enjoy and use that information to develop your brand. Just remember that you can’t copy someone else’s success. You have to be yourself and play to your competencies, skills, and interests while finding ways to make those overlap with the needs of your desired audience. Blindly doing whatever the other brand does won’t make you any more interesting or unique than them. You’re just adding noise and proving to the public that your brand is not one for out-of-the-box thinking.
As an entrepreneur crafting a brand from the ground up, you are likely broadcasting a specific, tailored version of yourself through social media channels, your website, and other platforms. Chances are you use many of those channels for personal business as well. This raises the question of whether one should blend their personal brand and their enterprise brand. If customers know you and trust you for one specific thing, is it confusing for them to see other sides of you? We know brands want to be built to be relatable and personable, but at what point should one cease blending their personal brand with their entrepreneurial brand? What if one is working in a professional capacity, as an attorney or a dentist?
“There’s a front side and the backside to a business card,” Estrada says. “My business is personal. I sell homes. It’s a very emotional business, and a big part of why people hire me is not just my qualifications, but who I am as a person.” In Estrada’s case, his personal and professional brands are highly compatible. His family is a big part of how he builds his brand, so including them in his various channels makes sense. The relational nature of branding means that exposing your vulnerable, human side to your audience from time to time may help it connect with you or resonate with you on a more emotional level. In turn, this helps them feel a stronger relationship with your brand.
However, a candid version of your personal brand might not be for everybody. If you are building a personal brand like a family law attorney, posting photos of yourself doing body shots in Cabo might not be the best branding move. People might be concerned if they saw Instagram posts of their doctor or accountant drinking half a bottle of Jack at a dance club. Depending on the nature of your business, the nature of the relationship you want to have with your audience, and your tolerance for sharing your personal life in public, you may want to establish clear boundaries around brand behavior.
On the other hand, in the Internet age, “there’s an audience for everything,” says Estrada. Thanks to the power of the algorithm, your tribe will find you. Authentic behavior is a powerful attractant. If being your authentic self means being a little weird, go ahead and be a little weird. If it means being straight-laced and buttoned-up, be straight-laced and buttoned-up. You’re doing it right as long as your brand can build a good relationship with your audience.
It might sound like pat advice, but it is essential to be real when building your brand. In the age of Instagram and digital photo production, it is tempting to overproduce every single post. Successful influencers often have feeds full of exceptionally manicured images, where every single thing is perfect for capturing the moment in precisely the way they want you to see it. And while it is a feat of photo production and an artistic accomplishment, it doesn’t necessarily help your audience connect to you. Being a little real is OK. If audiences perceive you as being overproduced, you may begin to appear fake or inauthentic. Modern audiences want to see a mix of raw humanity and professionalism from their brands. Suppose your brand is built on highly manicured images and perfectionism. In that case, a fun way to demonstrate a more natural side to your audience is to release raw images or even clips of you being spontaneous and authentic. People are especially fond of brands that can poke a little fun of themselves and take a joke, so finding a way to show that side of yourself is likely to win people over. A lighthearted reel about how much work goes into producing your beautiful images may be a fun way to connect with your audience.
Vulnerability in branding
Sometimes, being yourself and showing the more human side of your brand seems like an invitation to cruelty. The Internet is full of trolls. It often brings out the absolute worst in people. People can be prejudiced, nasty, insulting, rude, and condescending, especially when the vast distance of the web separates them. You’re sure to attract your share of haters, but why would you change yourself based on the advice of some random internet asshat? Why does some surly teenager’s comment on your Instagram post matter? Don’t change your brand’s personality because of a stranger behind a screen. What do they know about you and your business? Plenty of internet people spew bile at Kim Kardashian, but she seems pretty unbothered by it — love her or hate her, she’s a very wealthy and successful person.
Trolls aside, a significant obstacle to being truly vulnerable and authentic online is that many of us are just not ready to be that person yet. We are uncomfortable with people picking apart our identities or brands because we are not 100% comfortable in that skin. To truly open up and be who you are takes “a ton of work,” says Estrada. “Life is great, but also life is really screwed up. And I want to see everything, not just the tip of the iceberg and the beauty. I want to go all the way down and I want to see the rawness. I personally appreciate that.” If you’re not comfortable with yourself or your brand, there is no shame in working on building your self-confidence. It’s okay to get help to become comfortable with who you really are.
Change, partnership, and authenticity
Change is the only constant in life. As time ceaselessly marches on, brands change. This is only natural: brands must change to keep up with evolving conditions as with any entity. Sometimes, life events or new perspectives cause us to alter some fundamental aspect of who we are, which will affect our brand. Imagine an influencer who rose to fame on body positivity who abruptly decides to partner with a company that sold control garments or diet supplements. What happens when the brand suddenly changes its relationship with the audience in that way? How does that affect the relationship if people come to your brand expecting to see body positivity but instead see someone altering their appearance and promoting supplements?
Estrada says that it depends on the particulars. “I think that depends on the audience because there could be a part of the audience who is like, ‘oh that’s awesome, I’ve always wanted to try that.’ But there will always be naysayers.” How your audience receives potential partnerships or changes depends almost entirely on the alignment of those partnerships and changes. Audiences can tell whether you’re behaving in a way that’s aligned with your brand. “People are not dumb,” says Estrada. Your audience can tell if your partnership is disingenuous, phony, or just a naked cash grab, or whether it’s something that you are truly interested in because it adds value to your life and theirs.
Estrada uses this primary metric when deciding whether or not it makes sense for his brand to partner with another. Does the partnership make sense in terms of adding value to the audience? Does working together bring the audience more value than if you were working separately? Does entering into a partnership provide opportunities or experiences that either of the partners would be able to do on their own? Asking questions like these help you evaluate whether or not a partnership makes sense for your brand. If a partnership is not going to add value, it is likely to become nothing more than a distraction that will confuse your audience as to the intentions and purpose of your brand.
Sometimes a partnership might seem like it would make sense, but the actual results of the partnership experience may prove otherwise. Estrada once partnered with a friend who runs a company that fills seats on private jets. Clients who purchased high-end homes from Estrada would get a voucher for a trip to Vegas with his friends’ company. It intuitively makes sense that people purchasing high-end real estate would be interested in private jet travel. Still, reality showed that most of the clients purchasing high-end homes were not interested in being part of the jet-set in that specific way. However, the partnership was a valuable learning experience for both Estrada and his partners. The lessons learned will likely bring more valuable partnerships to bear in the future. If a partnership doesn’t make sense or isn’t working out, don’t try to cram a square peg into a round hole: put it on the shelf and consider trying something else.
Go forth and brand
You’ll want to build your brand in whatever kind of entrepreneurial venture you’re jumping into. Branding is about building an emotional connection with your audience. Whether you are consciously making an effort to build a brand or not, your audience will view their experience with you through the lens of interacting with a brand. It makes sense to consciously manage the evolution of your brand so that you can tell your audience the story you want to tell them. Why should they engage with you? Why should they connect with you? Who are you, and what are you all about? Building your brand is about answering these questions for your audience. Success in branding requires being honest, authentic, and sincere. Trying to be something you’re not, pandering to trendiness, or lying outright about your intentions will never help you resonate with an audience in the long term. Building your brand on a foundation of authenticity, thoughtful engagement, and sincerity will connect you with your tribe and help your venture go the distance.