Take your average shopper at your average American mall. He or she knows the stores, and may even have the floor plan memorized — Looking for the Macy's? Hang a left after the food court and it'll be on your right, just past the Gap. But do they know who owns the mall itself?

Not always. But some developers want to change that with branding. They're hoping to sear their names in consumers' brains with striking architecture, the “right” mix of retailers, ramped-up customer service and celebrity-powered events. The idea: Next time Joe Smith needs to go to the mall, he doesn't choose just any old one. He drives the extra mile to [insert name here].

Marketing experts and even some developers are skeptical about whether shoppers care who owns the mall. But mall proprietors are pursuing a variety of strategies designed to raise their profile among retailers and consumers alike. Westfield America adds its name to newly acquired properties and hopes to distinguish them with consistent features and customer service. Simon Property Group doesn't rename its malls, but aims to build brand equity nationwide through star-studded events and creative programming and, locally, by promoting individual malls. And The Mills Corp. has developed its branded centers around inventive shopping and entertainment concepts.

Not every big mall operator is on the branding bandwagon. For General Growth Properties, which owns more than 210 malls, branding is mostly a business-to-business message, says Wally Brewster, senior vice president of corporate marketing. Except for gift cards and some national programming, the company focuses on promoting each property in its own market.

“Consumers are proud of their mall and their community.” Brewster says. “They don't care if it's a General Growth mall, a Simon mall or a Westfield mall,”

Jean-Pierre Dube, associate professor of marketing at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business, agrees. For example, he says, when Westfield moved into the Chicago market in 2002, one of its acquisitions was the Old Orchard Mall, a mainstay of the city' near northern suburbs. Now, to the dismay of many locals, the quaint old signs are gone, replaced by new ones bearing the Westfield Shoppingtown Old Orchard name.

“Suddenly it's part of a chain, and we don't think of chains as being luxury,” Dube says. “Why would you want to rebrand anyhow when you've got a well-known and distinctive brand to begin with? It's a dangerous strategy.”

The retail industry is grappling with similar questions. As Federated Department Stores expands Macy's to 730 stores nationwide, a process that will eliminate at least 11 regional names, including Filene's, Strawbridge's, Hecht's and Marshall Fields — another brand to which Chicagoans are attached.

Westfield doesn't expect immediate acceptance.“We almost always find a backlash, to be truthful and honest,” says Todd Putman. Westfield executive vice president of marketing. “People are quite emotional about the mall they grew up with.” But once shoppers see improvements, acceptance of the new name usually grows, he says.

In Australia, the Westfield name is synonymous with shopping, in the way Americans equate Xerox with copying and Kleenex with sneezing. First opened in the 1950s, Westfield Shoppingtowns quickly penetrated the largest markets Down Under while making use of economies of scale in everything from advertising to maintenance. The company exported this clustering strategy, along with its name, to the U. S. in the mid-1990s.

Putman, who has worked at Princess Cruises, Walt Disney Co. and Procter & Gamble, was hired to help take Westfield's U.S. branding effort to the next level in 2002. The way he sees it, it's not too big a mental leap between cruise ships and malls. “A ship is a ship, a mall is a mall,” he says. “Unless you fill it with great people who provide exceptional service and offerings, you're just a ship going from one place to the next.”

Simon, the nation's largest mall operator with 295 shopping centers, including 172 enclosed malls, also recruited its top marketing executive from the world of consumer products and services. Stewart Stockdale, president of Simon Brand Ventures, the company's business-to-consumer arm, held positions with P&G, Mastercard and Conseco before assuming his current post in 2002.

Rather than giving all its properties a corporate label, Simon uses its name as an umbrella brand for national efforts, such as the Simon Visa gift card, which was sold to 6.3 million people last year, and events held in cooperation with retailers and corporate partners.

“Consumers are exposed to a lot of brands when they come to a shopping center,” Stockdale says. “When we formulated our strategy, part of the analogy I quoted from Mastercard was, in the world of Mastercard, the Mastercard brand coexists with many banks … Simon can coexist with all of our mall brands and all of our retail brands very well.”

Still, the branding of malls remains a relatively new idea in the United States, and one that may need time to evolve, says retail consultant Stan Eichelbaum, president of Marketing Developments Inc. in Cincinnati. If customer satisfaction is not consistent in all the entities involved, attempts at branding could be “a catalyst for disappointment,” he says.

“There have been admirable efforts at branding around the world. Westfield's efforts in Australia were of great maturity,” Eichelbaum says, noting Westfield mostly built their shopping centers in Australia, while their U.S. portfolio has been largely acquired. “In the United States, branding came in late and I think it's not a yes or no answer, but it's a matter of it's got to move to a new maturity plane.”

And while some individual properties — such as the massive Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn. — or a collection of similar properties may lend themselves to branding because they are unusual, it doesn't necessarily make sense to plunk a diverse group of sites under the same name, he says.

“You can be a product or a media. Products have branding potential. Media, which I think is more what a mall is, are a matter of programming,” Eichelbaum says. “There is nobody who can tell me what the last Random House book is that they read, or the last EMI disc they listened to. People come to shop our stores. Our stores are our brands.”

If mall operators can bridge that divide and distinguish themselves enough to formulate brands, it would be “the ultimate coup,” he says.

Hoping to do just that, mall marketers are using more subtle strategies to further refine their brands for consumers. Westfield offers services to make the shopping experience easier, like distinctive “kiddie kruzzer” strollers, free balloons for children, family-friendly restrooms, a concierge center and complimentary package carryout.

“Most malls in America are very homogeneous, with national tenants everyone recognizes,” says Randall Smith, Westfield's executive vice president of new business development, who joined the company 12 years ago from May Department Stores. “We want to put a personality in that center, so people recognize it as a Westfield, just as you might recognize a Marriott or a Westin hotel.”

For Simon, the focus has been on special programming efforts at its malls across the country, such as Simon's Kidgits Club for children, the DTour Live music series targeted at teens and the Super Chefs Live tour, featuring celebrity chefs. Other national events may be sponsored by corporate partners. One recent example: Coca-Cola's presentation of past American Idol finalists, appearing at a Simon-owned mall near you.

The company's brand and massive national footprint play to its advantage when dealing with partners and advertisers, Stockdale says. To underscore the potential impact, Simon commissioned a study by marketing researcher Arbitron, which found 2.2 billion visits to its properties annually. With memorable programming, Stockdale says, “We're building loyalty, and we're differentiating ourselves on the marketing side.”

Media as a brand?

The efforts have proven the validity of Simon's network, Eichelbaum says, but whether they'll help build the brand remains to be seen. “They're trying to transfer that media into a brand and I think the verdict is still out on that,” he says.

Of U.S. mall operators, Eichelbaum says, Mills has been reasonably successful in developing a distinctive product, in part by incorporating more entertainment. They've also made a point to give each center an identity that allowed the Mills brand to “become part of the industry and consumer vernacular,” he says.

In addition to traditional retailers, Mills properties are often home to unusual stores and businesses that may be destinations in themselves, such as Bass Pro Shops, a NASCAR retail store with auto racing simulators, Medieval Times restaurants or a Wannado City theme park for children. A Mills development in Madrid has a Snowdome indoor ski area. This has helped the company stand out as it developed its 17 Mills-brand properties over the last two decades.

“We bring concepts that quite frankly are unexpected, that are consumer experiences, that allow shoppers to come not just to shop,” says Ken Volk, Mills' senior vice president of marketing. “We have done a tremendous amount of research, not only with consumers but also with retailers, to really put a bull's eye on what this brand represents.”

High on a hill

Consistency in experience is so important when it comes to the branding of malls, it helps if the portfolio has been developed with the brand in mind. That the new push to brand is happening at a time of industry consolidation and mega-portfolios further complicates things for marketers, however, particularly as mall companies create segmented ownership rosters, with everything from basic to platinum properties.

Another challenge traditional mall operators face is breathing life into their properties amid a broader trend toward open-air lifestyle centers. With elaborate landscaping, artwork, seating that inspires lingering and easy parking often directly outside retailers, lifestyle centers are designed to accommodate a mix of activities; some even incorporate dwellings. In many ways, they more closely resemble the idealized Main Street America that enclosed malls first sought to emulate.

Perhaps it's no surprise, then, that the developer of one of the first lifestyle centerc — The Summit in Birmingham, Ala., built in 1997 — is a student of urban planning. Naming that property, which sits atop a hill, was easy, says Jeffrey Bayer, founder of Bayer Properties. After that, the Summit brand just stuck.

Now in the midst of his third and fourth Summit projects, Bayer's formula is to bring attractive and fashionable centers with upscale tenants to markets with growing numbers of affluent customers and a dearth of shopping options. Consumers may not immediately recognize The Summit name, but its reputation is growing among retailers, who appreciate the lower relative occupancy costs and high sales potential of open-air centers.

“The reason we branded it is because it means something in the retail community,” Bayer says. “If you've done it the right way, you can call it the XYZ center, and they would come if it satisfies their needs.”