The perfectionist dream of Sobha Realty

The real estate developer’s chief marketing officer, Tirthankar Ganguly, tells Austyn Allison it’s the components of projects you can’t see that make the biggest difference

Tirthankar ‘TG’ Ganguly, CMO, Sobha Realty

Sobha Realty’s brand proposition is all about quality. In the real estate market that sounds as though it could be quite a crowded nighbourhood for your messaging to hang out in, but chief marketing officer Tirthankar Ganguly says his brand’s differentiator is in the behind-the-scenes details.

Any developer’s new property is likely to look great, with gleaming white tiles, snugly fitting doors and firmly attached trim. But it is what buyers can’t see that keeps the good ones looking that way.

Sobha Realty’s flagship project is the 8-million-square-foot gated community Sobha Hartland in Dubai. It has been under development since the end of 2014 and is now coming online. Ganguly says buyers are relieved to find the apartments they are moving into are much the same quality as the ones they were shown before they first parted with their deposits.

Sobha Hartland isn’t ashamed of pushing its workmanship. Posters unveiled recently at Dubai International Airport talk about how the apartment you buy now will house future generations of your family, giving you plenty of time to appreciate the quality. Other campaigns put Sobha’s craftsmen and designers front and centre.

Craft and design are the seeds from which Sobha grew. It began in 1976 as a furniture-making business in Oman, and then expanded into furnishing government buildings, hotels and palaces before moving upstream to build iconic buildings as well.

Sobha is ‘backward-integrated’, says Ganguly, meaning that it does in-house what a lot of real estate companies would rather outsource. It has a design studio of “over 70 odd, extremely talented professionals from various fields who are continually monitoring global trends and incorporating them with thought and creativity into each of our projects”, according to its marketing collateral. It also has an in-house engineering and contracting department, and its manufacturing facilities can cover furniture, mattresses, concreting and pre-casting. Where it does bring in outside suppliers they are high-quality, and often German.

But Sobha’s quality proposition is largely about what customers will never encounter, rather than the shapes it can carve into the Dubai skyline. It is about the ball bearings, the insulation, the waterproofing.

When Ganguly came to Sobha in June 2018, he felt that the brand’s marketing didn’t measure up to the quality it delivered. The opposite is the more usual complaint in an industry that often overpromises and underdelivers.

Before coming to Dubai, Ganguly worked with the luxury hospitality business of Indian conglomerate Tata Group, then spent three years leading the luxury marketing at Lodha Group, the biggest real estate player by sales in India.

To rebrand Sobha, Ganguly brought in a Mumbai-based boutique agency, Alok Nanda & Company (ANC), which has specialised in luxury marketing for more than 20 years. ANC pitched against two other brand management firms, and those with real estate expertise. But Ganguly felt he needed a partner that could “create a new language” around luxury real estate. ANC’s founder Alok Nanda, says Ganguly, “personally comes with this very strong design aesthetic sensibility, and almost has an outside, other life, which has nothing to do with advertising communication, which is about being able to appreciate the finer pursuits of life”. Nanda is into Scandinavian stationery and Japanese design, and Ganguly felt he and his team were right to bring Sobha’s craftsmanship to light.

Sobha’s digital is handled by another Indian agency, Social Kinnect. PR has been handled by the Dubai branch of Apco for about three months now. Media is largely handled by Sobha’s in-house procurement team, especially in the domestic UAE market.

Ganguly has also built up Sobha’s in-house creative studio, which is now a team of four and can produce collateral in English, Arabic, Chinese and various Indian languages. “I can certainly say that it is one of the best investments we could have made, because it really helps us to control this entire process and still produce stuff that will stand out and be very well appreciated,” he says. Ganguly admits he micromanaged the team for 10 months, but now they can produce anything from outdoor posters that will stay up for months to quick-turnaround brochures fit for a one-day open-house event.

Sobha’s investors come from markets that include the GCC and India. But Ganguly says the bulk of buyers are Chinese. The brand’s messaging needs to change depending on who it targets, and Chinese buyers have peculiarities such as preferring to buy at around the AED 1m price point and putting education high on their priorities list. For them, Sobha will emphasise the two schools within the Hartland community: Hartland International School and North London Collegiate School. These help sway Chinese investors even if they are planning to buy to let, rather than moving in themselves.

All Sobha’s messaging needs to be high quality to reflect the brand, says Ganguly. “Take this business card,” he says, holding it up to show its embossed lettering, thick paper stock, metallic ink and textured surface. “I think the final approval was in the 10th iteration.” Even the font Sobha uses for its logo was designed especially by ANC.

When Sobha is working on outdoor collateral it will not let the out-of-home vendor adjust the files, in case it compromises their quality. And there is a lot of testing before advertising rolls out. “If it is the launch of a campaign we make sure we actually do newsprint and try it out on different papers, and then look at how the colours and the Pantone shades have come out,” says Ganguly.

No matter how perfect the advertising is, there is no substitute for hands-on experience of Sobha’s properties to show prospective buyers how good they are. Or the closest the buyers can get to hands-on, depending on time and place.

Ideally this means hard-hat tours. For investors, partners, suppliers, journalists and agencies. Basically, for anyone who will be involved with Sobha. Being able to see the site gives them the ability to better understand what it looks like now, what it will look like when it’s finished and what goes on behind the scenes in the interim. Sobha opened a ‘brand studio’ on Sheikh Zayed Road last year, which has been more accessible, particularly to buyers who are at the top of Sobha’s purchase funnel and not yet ready to tour the Hartland site. And in overseas markets Sobha uses virtual reality tours. But Ganguly admits that bulky headsets are no substitute for seeing a project in real life. Especially when buying real estate is seldom a solo operation. Spouses and children are usually involved in the process. And when dealing with South Asian customers, parents will want to see their son or daughter’s proposed home. Group viewings are much better done in-person than virtually.

To keep the sales and marketing experience consistent, Sobha has a ‘chief learning officer’. Ganguly says the CLO’s primary job is “to make sure that my frontline sales team speaks the same language and emphasises the same terms that we intend to showcase to the customers”.

Consistency of messaging is also kept on-script by ‘four pillars’ ANC built into the rebrand: ‘the legacy of craft’; ‘passion for perfection’; ‘uncompromising quality’; and ‘complete control’. Sobha Hartland, says Ganguly, “draws from the mother brand of Sobha Realty and gives it back, because what Sobha Realty stands for comes alive in the case of Hartland”.

The next project from Sobha will be a “signature tower” on Sheikh Zayed Road, so perhaps Sobha will at last make its mark on the Dubai skyline. And it will be built well. Even the bits we can’t see.