Leaving the picket fence behind
First steps in shifting neighborhood preferences
Asked how he would approach advertising urban places to people who are current suburban residents, Dan Goldstein, executive director of planning at TBWA\Chiat\Day in Los Angeles, an advertising agency that is one arm of the global advertising giant Omnicom Group, said that he would first “look at people who live in the suburbs…people who are basically using your competitor, if you like,” and find out, “what are the barriers for them moving to a city?”
Invisible suburban costs
Shyam Kannan, of the real estate advisory firm RCLCO, argued that some of the costs associated with living in a drivable suburban neighborhood are underestimated. “The fixed costs of a housing arrangement, meaning your primary mortgage,” he suggested, are well understood because “require extraordinary amounts of paperwork and sweat, because you have to go and apply for a mortgage.” By contrast the “variable costs” — utilities, maintenance, and transportation — aren’t as well understood because “you don’t necessarily need to go and get a bank to approve you” on those expenses.
Kannan argued that if a “mortgage application…moved to a system where you also had to factor in utilities, maintenance, and transportation,” consumers would have the opportunity see exactly what their long commutes cost. If that change were made, he told Remapping Debate, “I’d bet you dollars to donuts…that we’d have a lot more people making financially sound decisions and a lot more walkability.”
According to Leinberger, who in addition to his work as a scholar at Brookings is also a founding partner of Arcadia Land Company, a development company committed to building walkable, urban developments, there are barriers — or what he called “bogeymen” — among consumers that inhibit their interest in urban living. These issues, which he asserts are “almost all perception…not reality,” include things from a sense that “you can’t raise children in the city,” to the fear that “oh my God, I’m going to get mugged.”
Daniel Levitan, the principal of Levitan and Associates, a real estate marketing consulting firm, and another former chair of the National Sales and Marketing Council at the NAHB, pointed to another central potential barrier to shifting consumers to more urban neighborhoods: “If you have children, school becomes one of the dominant buying influences…If you can afford private school, that opens up the ability to live anywhere. If you can’t, you buy where the best schools are,” a situation often leading middle-class families to auto-dependent suburbs and exurbs.
Identifying the range and the relative importance of those barriers, or “bogeymen,” to consumers constitutes a major first step in determining how to overcome them. Goldstein explained that, “You have to talk to them [consumers] to find out what they love and value about suburban life, and what it is they don’t like about cities, what they feel like they [would] sacrifice when they move to a city.”
Such a strategy is a variation on what real estate marketers already do when they work with homebuilders on a new development. “The first topic of any marketing,” Levitan said, is to identify the different market segments, and then “through research determine what would be a suitable product for those people: location, price, design, type of product, monthly payment.”
A focus group can be one tool used by advertisers to understand these preferences. Herrmann of BBDO San Francisco pointed out that, while they are “not really science,” they do provide insight from “people who are highly sensitized [an] issue.” They also provide an opportunity to “test out your pet theories and hypotheses going into a problem with people who are actually living through it,” he explained.
From these interactions with consumers, advertisers would prepare a set of what Herrmann calls “concept statements” and that might in turn “lead to a more nuanced understanding of what they are really missing.” Then, he added, “you could either modify or toss out [each] hypothesis.”
Specific marketing possibilities
With education, for example, Herrmann speculated that he might try both to uncover research that worked against perception that all urban schools are subpar and also play up the “strong argument to be made that cities have more enriching cultural environments that are just as critical to education…as what you learn in school.”
If consumers seemed hesitant about housing choices that offered higher densities and less space than the single-family homes and lawns of the suburbs, Herrmann suggested he “might create a campaign that talks about…how many acres Golden Gate Park [in San Francisco] is and compare that to the average backyard.” Cities can, in fact, provide substantial space, he pointed out. “They just do it in a different sort of shared context.”
Commuting time, an issue that people tend to “discount in the sacrifices they make…when they move to the suburbs and the impact that has on their family,” Herrmann said, could be addressed simply. “That would be easiest to just have a billboard on an on-ramp in a city to a highway that says, average commute times to whatever the suburban or exurban environments are, and then some variation of, ‘if you lived here you’d be home by now.’”