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 firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 404.372.5394.