Marketing a scheme goes beyond a burst of activity around the launch; it’s about creating a brand that endures. By Liz Morrell

A blue screen, soothing music and a gentle voiceover boasting that nothing like this has ever been built before. A water drop rippling through the blue as it hits the ground. And, finally, the word Bluewater itself.

The imagery was not obvious, but it did its job. This was the TV ad campaign that marked the launch of Bluewater shopping centre in Kent in March 1999. Many believe it was these tactics that changed the way in which shopping centre openings were promoted. “Bluewater spurred people on to be a bit more adventurous with their marketing. A lot of shopping centre marketing is very tedious and the next person who says we are a centre with shops and a car park should be shot,” says Stephen Fox, managing partner of destination marketing agency Fox Kalomaski.

For Bluewater, it was about building a brand, rather than a shopping centre. “The idea was to treat Bluewater as a brand and not let other brands in that didn’t meet its brand values,” says Jeff Klein, former consultant marketing and brand director at Bluewater and now managing director of brand and communications agency Klein O’Rorke.

But the campaign didn’t start with the TV ads that kicked off a few weeks before opening. Rather, it began as a successful launch campaign ought to begin, according to many – with the launch of the Bluewater concept. “The marketing campaign began three or four years before at a local level, where it was about creating local ownership,” says Klein. This was accompanied by trade marketing – comprising PR, trade events and speaker campaigns – to create excitement, he says.

The final strand was the£3 million-plus TV ad campaign closer to launch. Although important, it was the earlier, longer-term PR that proved the most successful component of the strategy, according to Klein. “What supported it was an enormous amount of PR coverage in the 18 months before it opened. We tried to get the media to work with us and, by the time it opened, there was a real frenzy,” he says.

Research showed that the centre had 10 million people within a 60-minute journey from it, but, to be successful, centre owner Lend Lease had to be brave. “The research told Lend Lease that, if it wanted to be successful and not be seen as another Lakeside, it had to raise the bar,” says Klein. “A lot of work was done to understand how people shop, which informed the marketing and how it should be positioned.”

Klein believes the approach to marketing a shopping centre opening should be a cohesive one. “For some developers, there is a leasing campaign and, closer to the opening, there is an opening campaign. We connected the two so that there was one seamless brand,” he says.


A brand manual was produced to convey the brand story to both the Lend Lease board and its employees. “We never allowed the word shopping centre to be discussed at Bluewater,” says Klein. “There was a swear box if it was mentioned.”

However, maintaining such a brand story is no easy task. “It’s bloody hard work to stay loyal to the brand. It’s got to look and talk like the brand,” says Klein.

The similar nature of today’s retail offers means that creating a successful, individual brand is more important to a shopping centre opening than ever. Klein says that the philosophy isn’t always applied. “Many shopping centres understand the principles of it, but don’t always follow it through. There have to be brand guardians within the centre,” he says.

However, brand-building takes time. “I had a client yesterday who said: ‘I want you to build a brand like you did at Bluewater.’ But the centre opens in seven months and you can’t do that in seven months,” Klein says.

“Marketing a shopping centre used to be left to the last minute,” agrees Fox. “It was like someone would wake up and say: ‘We haven’t got a marketing campaign’ and run around compiling one without a lot of thought put into it. Over the past five years, we have seen more sophistication and marketing now starts when the first hole is dug. Developers give a lot more time, energy and commitment to getting the marketing right than they used to.”


Fox has just completed the marketing campaign for the launch of Princesshay in Exeter. “We were marketing that a year before it opened, so there was opportunity to think about how we would market it and who we would market it to,” he says. “We discussed what the positioning would be. Exeter is a very traditional town, so we looked at how it was going to sit. Land Securities spent much effort to ensure that Exeter was not damaged by the development, so when we did the advertising we wanted to promote that. The phrase that we put forward was ‘2,000 years new’, which reflected the historic values of Exeter, but also said that life moves on.”

An initial launch campaign for Princesshay began with local press and radio – “to give a taste of things to come”, explains Fox. That was followed by a targeted door drop to 150,000 local households comprising an eight-page magazine about the new centre. Fox says that this allowed a bigger story to be told than through advertising alone. “It featured the stores that we felt represented the personality of Princesshay and went down very well,” he says.

Each drive has to be as individual as the shopping centre brand it supports – and consideration has to be given to the peculiarities of each centre. For a town or city centre shopping centre development, for example, marketing of the town or city as a whole is as important as promoting the centre itself. After all, if the consumer doesn’t like the area, they won’t go there, however persuasively the brand has been pushed.

This was the problem faced by Tim Walley, general manager of Bullring in Birmingham, when the scheme launched in 2003. “The negative perception of Birmingham was the hardest challenge,” he says. The centre also had to deal with a refusal by the city council to rebrand the area, so it had to contend with the old perceptions of the Bullring area. For Walley and his team, the emphasis was on promoting both Bullring and Birmingham together. “It was about enjoying the retailing, but also all that the city has to offer,” he explains.

A TV, poster and print advertising campaign that accompanied the launch focused on promoting Bullring and Birmingham as “Europe’s new shopping capital” and showed women distraught at the realisation that Europe’s newest shopping capital wasn’t actually in mainland Europe. It was supported by a radio campaign and local regional and trade press.

Because of the negative connotations, PR was again vital – here, Bullring was aided by the immense interest surrounding the iconic Selfridges building within the development. “We got masses of PR just on the back of the Selfridges building,” admits Walley.

Local events, such as a parade and street performances that reflected the cultural diversity of Birmingham, helped promote not only the launch of Bullring’s shopping centre, but also the wider area. “It was also about ensuring the local community felt a part of what we were doing,” Walley adds.

Klein O’Rorke, which is handling the trade PR for the launch of Liverpool One next year, is facing a similar challenge. “There, the approach is that there is a role to pay in educating the industry about the centre and turning it into a must-have location. Part of the role is also to educate about the value of Liverpool itself as a destination,” says Klein O’Rorke director Nick Thornton.

The size and importance of developments will also dictate the budget and effort that is put into opening marketing campaigns. Lend Lease Retail head of marketing and communications Shams Maladwala says that each campaign should be tailored to the market. At different ends of the spectrum, Lend Lease owns both Bluewater and Golden Square in Warrington. The latter opened in May and combined traditional media such as TV and magazine advertising with experiential elements such as retailer events, which aimed at driving local visitors as well as those within a 30- to 45-minute drive. The campaign led to a 92 per cent rise in footfall and triple expenditure levels, according to Maladwala.

“It’s about presenting creative that gets noticed and avoiding the generic and obvious,” he says. “It depends on the objectives. For instance, Bluewater was about creating an iconic centre that was very different, so our choice of agency and media was all about breaking the mould and doing something very different. With Golden Square, it was about the local community, so our choice of agency was more local.”

Developers are becoming more creative about how they market their shopping centre launches, but as important as building the brand is maintaining it. Eight years on from its opening, Bluewater’s continued success is testament to this, according to Klein. “The Bluewater brand has been gently massaged, but they have stayed very loyal to the brand. As a result, there are many brands that still choose Bluewater for their first or second store,” he says.

With this in mind, developers would do well to remember that marketing a shopping centre launch is not just about opening day.