Before Frank Perdue, people bought generic chicken. Perdue's genius was in creating a brand. Jack C. Davis, regional manager for First American Title Insurance, in St. Louis, has found that you can easily do the same thing with a commodity service. For his clients, the local real-estate agents who use First American's closing and title-insurance services, Davis created a club. It's an effective and inexpensive way of differentiating his firm from all the others that agents could use.

Last December Davis mailed a postcard to St. Louis real-estate agents. On the front, over an attractive white eagle on a silver background, the card said only, "The Eagle Is Coming!" -- with no indication of who sent the card. A second card, mailed a short time later, looked like the first and said, "The Eagle Is Coming Soon!" A third mailing, in an envelope, contained a brochure, the front of which said, "The Eagle Has Arrived!" Inside, the brochure announced First American Title's Silver Eagle Service Club and listed services and benefits that were "exclusive" to members. A letter from Davis and a reply card (postage required) that could be sent in for more information accompanied the brochure.

From the 9,000 names that Davis initially mailed to, he's signed up 380 new agents, and the St. Louis First American office did as much business during the first five months of 1991 as in the first nine months of the previous year.

Is the Silver Eagle Service Club exclusive? No. Any agent who asks can join it. "Asking to join the club," says Davis, "is the same thing as asking to be my client."

Do members receive special benefits or incentives? No, nothing more than they should expect from any company handling real-estate closings. Club literature promises members such benefits as prompt, accurate, professional service; assignment to Silver Eagle personnel (the same people who handle nonmembers' business); 24-hour voice mail; and Silver Eagle's commitment to anticipating and solving problems. Members also get a pen and a newsletter subscription.

But the heart of the service-branding gimmick is the official-looking enrollment form that clients complete. It asks them a dozen questions about how they want their closings handled: for instance, whether they want First American to contact buyers and sellers directly or to always go through the agency, and when and how they want closing statements sent to them. "Finally, somebody is asking me what I want," says Joann Britton, an agent with Gundaker Better Homes and Gardens brokerage, in St. Louis, and a new First American client and club member.

That's exactly the response Davis was hoping to get. "It's mostly what we were doing before," says Davis, "but now we've packaged these services and given them a name. When I proposed it, my boss said it was the stupidest thing he'd ever heard of. I said, 'I know. That's why it'll work.' "

-- Tom Richman