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Worst Work Uniforms: Century 21

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Wearing one is supposed to turn employees into "walking business cards."

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Real estate behemoth Century 21 -- a global firm with 7,800 independently owned and operated franchised broker offices and 120,000 agents in 68 countries and territories -- was started by the late Arthur Bartlett and Marshall Fisher in 1971.

Beyond co-founding a real estate company, which was sold to Trans World Corp. for $89 million in cash and stock seven years later, Bartlett was the man behind the signature (some would say "hideous") mustard (some would say "urine") colored jackets that Century 21 salespeople are encouraged (some would say "forced") to don after shelling out $179 ($199 for "plus" sizes, a pricing discrepancy sure to trigger a lawsuit at some point from a morbidly obese broker with a litigious streak).

The regretfully iconic jacket, referred to by Century 21 as "Gold" (and yes, the "g" in "gold" is capitalized in company literature), was the subject of a case study by public relations agency Burson-Marsteller, which was hired by Century 21 for a rebranding effort in 2008.

Under a taut, serious heading one might sooner expect to find on a White House intelligence briefing on Afghanistan, reading "Situation Analysis," B-M's report highlights the brand's "tired" image and says consumers have "difficulty relating to the brand's identity." It goes on to point out that "B-M was brought on to help reinvent the Century 21 brand from the inside out. To begin this transition the company targeted its front-line employees, namely brokers and agents, to keep them informed as well as generate excitement and optimism about the reformation."

Sounds about right -- a world-class branding outfit steering an organization struggling to stay relevant with today's homebuyers.

So, here's what B-M decided to do for Century 21, as described in the "Strategy/Implementation" section: "At the forefront of the reformation was the necessity to reinvent their marketing approach to better serve their consumers."

Okay, we're on board -- let's light this candle and bring Century 21 into the 21st century! What's it gonna be? A new sales strategy? A new advertising campaign? A revamped corporate structure?

You can almost picture the poor junior executive at Burson-Marsteller tasked with delivering the bold new strategy to the higher-ups at Century 21:

"Um…well, we uh, we're kinda thinking that, um…maybe, ah, it'd be a…good idea to, um, very, very slightly modify the cut and color of your brokers' jackets. Oh, and, um…it'll be done by a dead man."

Miraculously, B-M was actually paid for this idea, and it was implemented by Century 21 amid great fanfare. Geoffrey Beene Inc. was hired -- never mind the fact that Geoffrey Beene himself, whose clients once included such modern fashionplates as Lady Bird Johnson, Pat Nixon, Nancy Reagan, and Faye Dunaway, passed away four years prior -- along with "celebrity stylist" Philip Bloch to ostensibly "help reinvent the Century 21 brand from the inside out." From the looks of what they actually did, the word "reinvention" isn't exactly the first word that springs to mind.

In Burson-Marsteller's deeply insightful case study, they said:

At the forefront of the reformation was the necessity to reinvent their marketing approach to better serve their consumers. In order to do so, B-M and Century 21 wanted to make a bold statement that would resonate with employees while also remaining relevant. New Gold Jackets that allowed brokers and agents to stand out from the group served as an industry-leading brand identifier and provided the answer B-M and Century 21 were looking for.


Yes, they actually did capitalize the "j" in "jackets," too. And the fact that a company known for jackets the color of pee hired a company colloquially known as B-M is spectacular in itself. But what did B-M actually do besides making the suggestion to alter the shade of yellow in such a trivial way so as to be barely perceptible to the naked eye?

Nothing.

No, seriously. This isn't a joke. That was the extent of the "bold statement" at the "forefront of the reformation" for Century 21.

As Burson-Marsteller condescendingly explained in their white paper, "before the rebranding efforts could be announced publicly, Century 21 employees needed to be educated and undergo a bit of a makeover themselves."

Yes, the grown men and women who seemed to find their way through adult, working lives just fine without any help up to that point needed to be "educated" and made over.

To do that, a microsite was launched along with an essay contest called "Why I Wear the Century 21 Gold Jacket."

After what B-M described as "countless entries" received -- presumably saying something other than "because I have to do it" -- two people were chosen to "receive a makeover with professional stylists" and a trip to the 2008 Century 21 International Convention in Orlando, Florida, where the so-called winners were made to take what couldn't have been anything other than a spectacularly surreal walk down a fashion show-style runway "to show off the versatility of the company's new look Gold Jacket" manufactured by Lanier Clothes in a "high-performance, wrinkle-resistant poly viscose fabric." Read: polyester.

The jacket was described as "a walking business card" by current Century 21 CEO and president Tom Kunz -- great news for anyone who's ever wanted to look like, well, a walking business card. Which is perhaps why, in the "Results" section of the Burson-Marsteller report, which trumpets the flaccid "rebranding" program as having "successfully generated excitement" among the ranks of Century 21's employees and heralds the gold jacket (oops, sorry -- Gold Jacket) as the "highlight of the convention," it also boasts that "more than 1,250 of the Gold Jackets have been sold to Century 21 agents and brokers to date."

Jeez, what a rip-roaring achievement. Almost 1,300 people at a firm with offices in 58 countries and territories purchased the new jacket.

Nice work. Only 118,750 employees to go.



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