Westfield Shoppingtown. The name says it all. At least, that's the goal of Westfield America, Inc., the Los Angeles-based company managed and advised by the North American subsidiary of Westfield Holdings Ltd., Australia's largest retail developer.

The parent company, says Randall Smith, a Westfield executive vice president, invented the concept of shopping center branding, the attempt to create the same level of identity for malls belonging to a specific landlord as found for individual retailers, such as Gap, Eddie Bauer or Armani. Now its American counterpart is attempting to create equivalent name recognition for its portfolio of acquired U.S. properties, which comprises 39 malls in nine states and totals more than 37 million sq.ft. of GLA. All bear the Westfield Shoppingtown name and logo, along with the properties' original names.

The effort is no small task. With barely 19 million people, Australia has fewer malls than the United States and fewer proportionate to the number of consumers. Consequently, securing a niche in the public consciousness is much easier there than here. Operate 30 centers Down Under, as Westfield does, and it's almost inevitable people would recognize the name.

In the United States, on the other hand, thousands of shopping centers with thousands of owners serve this country's approximately 275 million people. Standing out in such a crowded field requires enormous effort. What makes the task particularly difficult, Smith says, is the generic nature of most malls.

“Shopping centers are fairly homogeneous. They're all pretty much the same. So if you want to stand out, you need to create a personality, an extra element of differentiation. There has to be something people associate with your name whenever they see it,” he explains.

According to company chairman Frank P. Lowy, the difference for Westfield is built around three elements: quality retail, customer service and community involvement.

In regard to the first, says Smith, it is important to have known retailers with a reputation for quality and dependability as tenants. “If we don't have the right stores, the leading merchants, customers wouldn't return. That's true for most mall owners, but it's especially true in our case,” he says.

In terms of customer service, Smith openly acknowledges Westfield used Nordstrom as a model. “We consciously set out to emulate their success,” he declares.

To that end, there are customer service booths in all the malls with a customer service person in uniform, as at the concierge desk at a Marriott or a Hertz outlet. The malls provide free “Kiddie Kruzzers” with the Westfield name emblazoned on them, and customer service guides hand out Westfield balloons to children.

On a less obvious level, Westfield sends secret shoppers to its properties, much as retailers do with their individual stores. These “undercover inspectors” check out security, look for signs of lapsed maintenance, see how personnel interact with shoppers and keep an eye out for ineffective or incorrect signage and directional guides and generally take note of where improvements could be made.

The company also developed an annual community-based fund-raising campaign called Westfield Works Wonders that involves a closed evening of shopping and festivities at each Shoppingtown. Guests buy tickets from local charities, which keep all ticket sales revenue. Last year's event netted more than $1.6 million for the more than 2,500 participating charities.

On their own, the above elements still fall short of building a foundation for name recognition, Smith continues. Another key ingredient, he notes, is clustering — having a number of malls in the same general market. Westfield has eight centers in both the Los Angeles and San Diego markets, for example.

Not only does having multiple properties in a concentrated region mean people will come across the Westfield Shoppingtown name more frequently, it also means the company can combine marketing budgets from several centers.

“If the average marketing budget for a single center was $500,000,” says Smith, “we could now have $4 million, which can create a much bigger impact. Instead of several fragmented messages in local papers, we now have one big one in major regional media.”

Because of its belief in clustering, Smith says Westfield did not begin an intensive U.S. branding effort until it acquired 12 shopping centers from the TrizecHahn portfolio and four from other owners in 1998. It acquired several additional centers in 1999 and just one in 2000, concentrating instead on redeveloping, expanding or simply updating properties it had already acquired.

He says the company has announced no plans to develop centers from scratch, since it can more quickly build name recognition by acquiring and immediately rebranding existing centers, then gradually create added value through subsequent redevelopment.

Smith admits there is no sure way to measure the exact impact of branding. But given proven efficiencies, economies of scale and increased customer awareness levels, Lowy says the reception of the brand by shoppers and retailers has exceeded expectations. “We are very pleased,” he says, “with the level of brand awareness and marketing synergy the Shoppingtowns have generated, boosting market penetration, customer traffic and sales.”

John McCloud is a San Francisco-based writer.