Workplace Issues

The Art of Marketing

A fast-growing realtor gets extra juice by paying sales agents to get tattoos showing the company logo. Is that a good idea?
David McCannMay 2, 2013

CFO is a publication about corporate finance.

Yesterday, I interviewed a fellow solely because he got a tattoo.

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Now, listen up: what I’m about to tell you might well be for your own good.

On its face, Rapid Realty’s offer to raise commissions for its independent sales agents who get a tattoo showing the company’s logo looks like a publicity stunt. In fact, in the past two days ­– since notifying the media of the strange policy – CEO Anthony Lolli has had TV appearances on Fox and CBS, and this morning NBC’s “Today” show covered the story.

Tattoo-based advertising, sometimes called skinvertising, is by no means a new concept. But Lolli insists that Rapid Realty’s tattoo policy didn’t originate as a marketing idea. Rather, it started two years ago when an agent rented commercial space to a tattoo artist who proposed inking him with the company logo. The agent said, “Sure,” and he called Lolli, who promptly went over to the tattoo shop, paid for the tattoo and thanked the agent for the gesture.

About a year later some other agents followed suit, and afterward Lolli got the idea to further reward those who took the plunge. (There were no human-resources concerns – Company Encourages Workers to Mutilate Their Bodies! – as the agents are not employees.)

Now that 40 of Rapid Realty’s 1,100 agents have gotten inked, Lolli acknowledges that marketing is at the heart of the matter. “Not only because of the tattoos themselves, but also with this recent press we’re getting,” he says.

But there is actually no condition that the tattoo be on a visible part of the body. One woman got a small one behind her ear, covered by hair. Joe Tighe, a new Rapid Realty agent who got inked two weeks after he started working with the company, decorated his upper left arm. “I’m a professional,” he tells me. “I wear a suit and the tattoo is under my shirt. It’s not like I walk around showing space and wearing a tank top.”

Rapid Realty agents start out earning 25 percent commission. Under the tattoo offer, their commission rate goes to 40 percent – for as long as they work for the company.

For Lolli, in addition to the marketing payoff, agents who permanently put the company’s logo on their bodies demonstrate extraordinary commitment to the brand. “If they’re committed enough to do that, they probably wouldn’t have any problem” staying at the higher commission rate (through other means) anyway, he says. 

Indeed, the commission increase is not the windfall it may sound like. Says Tighe, “To be honest with you, the incentive isn’t financial. It’s quite simple to get to 40 percent without getting the tattoo. When you start, you get three months at that level just for going to Anthony’s house” and looking through a book he created that documents the company’s history. And it’s not hard to hit the sales quota needed to stay at 40-percent commission, Tighe says.

Besides, an agent is able to increase the commission rate above 25 percent in other ways, like by taking a new agent under his or her wing or volunteering time to things like the recovery efforts after Superstorm Sandy, Lolli notes.

Rapid Realty – which doesn’t sell properties, but rather is strictly focused on the residential and commercial rental markets – is rapidly growing. The company expanded from one location to 62 in just 30 months’ time and now has 62 offices in New York City and plans to expand to other markets.

Flowing from the company’s burgeoning success is Tighe’s assurance that he’s not at all bothered by the idea that he’s got the tattoo for life ­– and in fact his is the largest any of the agents have gotten, according to Lolli. “Anthony is a guy on his way up, and who knows where he’s going to stop,” Tighe says. “Even if I leave the company, I’ll be able to say that Anthony Lolli picked me up in his Rolls Royce to go get this tattoo, which he paid for. How many people would like to look back and say they hung out with Donald Trump in the 1970s?”

I’ve been sitting at my desk, trying to come up with a sage opinion about this thing, to fashion some kind of deep statement about it. Here’s the best I can do: pay attention to what motivates your younger employees. There may well be some opportunities you’ve never considered. For example, while I find tattoos unattractive and would never consider getting one, to young folks tattoos rock. You might be able to get a lot of skinvertising for a paltry price.

Just make sure to check with HR and legal first.