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  THE TOWN PAPER
VOL. 5, NO. 3 -- SUMMER 2003
 

Selling the New Urbanism



The new urbanism has long been marked by confident assertions and bold rhetoric that, depending on your perspective, can be taken as anything from hyperbole to good, old-fashioned hype. Thus, it was no real surprise when, in welcoming the more than 50 participants to the recent "Marketing New Urban and Smart Growth Communities" conference in Seaside, Fla., consultant Jackie Benson took to the podium and declared, without the slightest hint of irony, "We are a group that is changing the world."

But while such a pronouncement may certainly seem in character, whether or not it ever proves to be true is irrelevant. What matters is that it so evocatively captured the energy in the room at the moment it was spoken. It communicated, without the slightest question, how it feels to be a new urban marketer. It conveyed, in essence, the experience.

In doing so -- perhaps intentionally, perhaps not -- it was prophetic.



Sponsored by The Seaside Institute, a nonprofit organization promoting livability and urban form, "Marketing New Urban and Smart Growth Communities" provided an audience of developers, builders and realtors with some mental and operational tools to maximize their own initiatives.

A series of industry professionals and service providers presented their insights across all facets of community marketing over the course of three days. But despite the variety of speakers, an oft-repeated point quickly emerged as the conference's principal message and number one take-away: Conveying experience is the linchpin of successful TND marketing.

Though based in long-established and ever-evolving principles of human settlement, traditional neighborhood development is essentially a new product offering, one confronting consumers with a variety of benefits that seem, often simultaneously, both innovative and strangely familiar. Thus, selling a TND requires truly understanding what these benefits provide in the context of expressed and untapped human needs, and articulating such benefits in ways as unique as the product being sold.

Example: An oft-cited TND attribute is "walkability" but, as real estate ads in your Sunday paper continually testify, any subdivision with even the most feeble sidewalks can -- and will -- tout their "walkability." TND marketers who utilize such terminology in an attempt to compete in a conventional way are failing to play to their strengths because the term does not connote the TND experience of walking. It provides no sense of the meaningful destinations available only in a traditional setting. It does not communicate the soul-satisfying human scale, casual interactions with others, multiple route options, and increased safety. In essence, "walkability" conveys only that you can go for a walk. And that is all a conventional product is capable of offering.

As summarized by Georgia developer Joel Embry, "Conventional development sells where we live and in what we live. TND marketing must focus on how we live." That means, according to Benson, that the selling of the community -- rather than individual houses -- comes first.

This makes perfect sense. The physical design and considered aesthetic of new urban development is, after all, the ultimate differentiator, especially in these early days where competition in any given market is likely to be almost, if not exclusively, conventional in nature.

Benson can't stress this enough. "Shout your differences," she says. Positioning and market strategies; pattern books and accelerated streetscape build-out; the sales center you design and the communications that bring people there -- all must sell in what are often entirely new ways.

For the enthusiastic attendees, who ranged from idealistic newcomers to developers with a long personal history of conventional development, the response was clear: Yes. But how?



Despite its role as a traditional developer's most effective selling tool, the prospect of communicating an experience is, in execution, easier said than accomplished. Throughout the conference, presenters subtly ceded this point, focusing not so much on how to do something, but on how to get something done.

This manifested itself in such topics as "Working with Your Advertising Agency," a case study overview of successful client/agency collaboration, rather than "How to Create Advertising." "Let's Talk About Branding" provided a healthy dose of thought-starters for those with little experience in the subject, rather than "How to Develop Your Own Brand."

This is not to say that the event's tactical content was inadequate. Rather, that it attempted, in large parts successfully, to walk a very fine line -- empowering attendees while acknowledging the value of marketing professionals with experience in the new urbanism.

Overall it was suggested that, while understanding what you're selling is critical to achieving your goals, it's equally necessary to know when to bring in the requisite marketing skills of those who "get it." The challenge for developers is the relative dearth of such providers. However, just as traditional town planning and architecture firms are routinely engaged, so too should developers engage those with new urban sensibilities in other disciplines, including research, branding and advertising, legal counsel, public relations, web marketing and the arts.



Atlanta advertising icon and self-proclaimed "thinker" Joey Reiman once said that, in any organization and regardless of who's in charge, the real power always lies with the marketers. If that's true, the ultimate success of the new urbanism will come not from the architects, planners, policy makers and developers, but from those tasked with selling it.

Given such an argument, "Marketing New Urban and Smart Growth Communities" was a step in the right direction.

Scott Doyon is a principal with Civitatis, a communications and marketing group devoted exclusively to the well-conceived and lovable place. He can be reached at sdoyon@civitatis.info or by calling 404.372.5394.