Designer Dream Homes
Greg and Carol Booth decided to move house in 2005. They had been living in Dallas's upscale Highland Park neighborhood in a 4,400-square-foot home they built in the early '80s. One day, they walked into the sales center for a set of condominium-style residences attached to a W hotel. After one look at the center's model apartment, with its modern styling and Bang & Olufsen sound system, they were hooked. "We said, 'Wow, that's us!'," Greg recalls. "We have contemporary art and furniture—Eames chairs—and we could see it in that showroom." Twenty minutes and a $10,000 down payment later, they owned an apartment on the 27th floor, overlooking downtown Dallas. More accurately, they owned a portion of a well crafted, deeply branded marketing campaign two years in the making—the building itself was still no more than "a hole in the ground," Booth says.
The W Dallas Victory residences is just one of hundreds of so-called luxury condominium and "condotel" buildings that have sprouted in recent years in cities across the nation, transforming the contemporary urban landscape with looming cranes and skeletal steel-and-glass cylinders. According to the National Association of Home Builders, the number of all new condominium and other for-sale units rose from 20 percent to 50 percent of the overall multi-family building market in 2006. Even now, as the real estate market cools, the more expensive condo developments continue to thrive. Aside from the mere force of their popularity among those who can afford them, these developments are buoyed by efforts to revive American downtowns. Bringing in a raft of moneyed inhabitants is one way to jump-start the kind of urban rejuvenation that spawns restaurants, galleries, and boutiques.
Some of the new structures are designed by hot architects (Daniel Libeskind, Richard Meier) and decorated by cool, or at least renowned, designers (Philippe Starck, David Rockwell). All are costly: In 2005, the median price for one of Manhattan's new batch of condos was $770,000; more recently, according to real estate services and appraisal firm Brown Harris Stevens, that figure climbed to $970,250; and units at the W Dallas went for $500-plus per square foot. Those numbers may represent a certain quality of life to condo buyers—rooftop pools, room service, breathtaking views—but even more certainly, they guarantee something else: a new strain of marketing.
These flourishing real estate campaigns go far beyond floor plans, models, and newspaper ads. They span a range of media that includes outdoor banners, full-page ads in lifestyle magazines, lush websites, and even short films. Gallery-like off-site sales centers have become a must, presenting buyers with entire environments devoted to a building's ethos, and perfect-bound coffee-table books are de rigueur. On a philosophical level, what all the new high-end condo campaigns share is a totality of vision. The focus has broadened from the building itself to what that building means for the potential buyer. "Originally, real estate marketing was very descriptive: two bed, two bath, etcetera," says Michel Mein, a partner at marketing firm The 7th Art, devoted to promoting high-end developments. "Now we try to give the property a soul."
Giving a soul to a condo high-rise entails starting very early and having a vastly expanded role in the development process. "We only work with developers from the beginning, and usually select the architect, interior designer, and brand partners," explains Michael Shvo, a New York broker-cum-marketer whose offical slogan is "Let's Shvo." He goes on, "It's the only way for us to create what we know will sell." Debbie Vicchiarelli, chief marketing officer for Corporex, the development and investment group that built Daniel Libeskind's Cincinnati condo tower, The Ascent, puts it succinctly: "The actual form [of the building] is the tangible expression of the brand." Instead of simply advertising buildings, marketers are inventing them.
It wasn't always like this. "In the past, most buildings were put up by developers who saw it as a pile of bricks and mortar," says hotelier André Balazs, who has made his own entry into the residential development business. Mein agrees: "Developers used to say, 'Just give us a website.' Now, every single project wants to be branded."
Branding a building means selling it much like any other luxury product. "I'm marketing real estate the same way that Gucci is marketing its sunglasses, [and] Chanel is marketing its perfume," said Shvo in an interview with real estate website The Real Deal. But, he added later in an interview with PRINT, "Of course it's more difficult to brand real estate. Real estate has a lot of moving parts and is the big luxury purchase." Jasmine Mir, vice president of marketing for industry power-house Corcoran Sunshine Marketing Group, concurs: "A perfume can have a PRINT campaign, and so can a building. But to say a building offers a lifestyle is actually a promise that will be fulfilled."
The branded building's origins lie, at least in part, in the "condotel." Like the W Dallas Victory and the converted Plaza Hotel in New York (a 7th Art project), these buildings combine the amenities of hotel living with home ownership, and leverage preexisting brands to attract buyers. Now, marketers for new buildings are conjuring brands from scratch, imitating what people like Balazs had been doing for years at the likes of L.A.'s Chateau Marmont. He now has two residential buildings in New York, 40 Mercer Residences and One Kenmare Square, to his credit; his newest project, William Beaver House, a yellow needle of a high-rise near Wall Street, has a website that targets young buyers with manga-like illustrations of urban lovelies and a cocktail-raising cartoon beaver as a mascot. Balazs says that his company approaches residential marketing "from the point of view of being in the hotel business, where the need to create a persona is important." For 40 Mercer, Balazs produced a "children's book" featuring insouciant illustrations of two city-dwelling Chihuahuas. "You have to use every possible means to create something unique," he says.
Undoubtedly, most others in his line of work would agree with him. A firm conviction of a project's originality isn't just something marketers want to project—it's one of the key tenets of their own belief system. They all emphasize that selling one gleaming 30-story edifice is not at all like selling another. David Williams, also a partner at The 7th Art, says, "There's no singular process—there's no formula—for how we make a brand." According to Mir, branding a new building is "the opposite of having a formula."
And yet most campaigns do have certain steps, and many key ingredients, in common. Researching potential buyers generally comes first. Some, like The 7th Art, go into the new property's neighborhood, pose as potential buyers, and chat with people on the street to get a feel for local color. Others prefer the tried-and-true focus group. Still others, like Balazs, make sure they communicate with the broker community. One way or another, the potential buyer's profile is shaped; based on that, a marketer might show certain kinds of people in the ads—a successful single, say, or a cozy nuclear family. If, at some point in the sales process, your target audience ceases to respond to cute babies, you might shift to another demographic: single young men, perhaps. As Williams states, "During the life of a campaign, you can change the demographic focus."
Then there are the names. A popular choice is a simple address, with a whiff of understated, vaguely British refinement: 110 Livingston, One York, One Brooklyn Bridge Park. Precious metals and jewels also have currency in condo-naming. Thus two buildings called The Platinum, in Miami and New York, and Diamond House, also in Manhattan. Names of a grandly conceptual nature, such as the Ascent and Cynergi—a development in Miami—are also dear to the marketing heart. "Either you have a famous architect, a semi-invented address, or a real address," says Mein. If you have none of those things, there's always sex appeal. Cynergi's site presents a shirtless, paint-brush-brandishing male artist as "your new neighbor at Cynergi."
While wealth and power are implied across the board, the one word explicitly used at every turn is "luxury." Marketers may be intent on creating individual brands, but ultimately, they are all working on the same one—the brand of the luxe life.
Perhaps it is this fact that makes these campaigns become, together, a boilerplate oddly reminiscent of another time. With their uniform message of a better lifestyle and almost touchingly simple iconography, they evoke the '40s and '50s, when "model homes" were promoted in magazines as the pinnacle of modern living. Then, too, new homes were sold based on any number of unrelated ideas. Dolores Hayden, a professor of architecture, urbanism, and American studies at Yale University, says of those ads, "The promises often had nothing to do with the property. One ad from the '40s advertised the great radio reception!" One difference between those ads and the new ones is that the former, in many cases, targeted the growing middle class. Today's condo campaigns, in contrast, are engines of exclusivity, aimed at the rich. And the rich are buying a template—a vision whose particulars (loft living, modern, urban chic) repeat ad nauseam.
The 33-story W Dallas Victory tower was completed last year, and the Booths have settled in nicely. They like the building's amenities, and they're happy to be in living quarters more tailored to their needs. "We loved our home, but we weren't using a quarter of the house," Greg says.
This is apparently a problem for thousands of other people. But as the real estate bubble deflates, it seems the end of the luxury-housing boom can't be far off. Some marketers admit to this. "The days of 'build it and they will come' are over," says Shvo. But most others see no sign of their prospects dimming. "The stakes have improved—the prices have gone higher and higher," says Williams, whose business has practically doubled every year for the past three years. Of the overall real estate market slowdown, Mir says, "We don't see that kind of decline either in sales or new properties. I think a lot of the statistics don't apply to the top."
From their floor-to-ceiling hallway windows, the Booths can watch the construction of The Residences Mandarin Oriental Dallas, another condotel. In March, Greg said that the workers were still "on the basement." The 7th Art is marketing the building. They say reservations are at 300 percent.