The only folks talking about branding decades ago were prison wardens and cattle ranchers. Back then, searing a distinctive mark with red-hot metal onto a person or piece of property was routine.

In the case of livestock, branding proved just the ticket to squelch cattle rustlers as it offered undeniable proof of ownership. For unsuccessful escaped convicts, the brand ensured a return ticket to prison.

Fast-forward, if you will, to more modern times. Procter & Gamble and its product manufacturing brethren successfully seduced customers to demand P&G brands.

As the largest consumer goods advertiser, P&G first sought the American Dental Association's seal of approval for Crest as proof of its product's superiority.

The move catapulted Crest to the top of the toothpaste heap for years. More recently, business-to-business providers proved they could enter the brand game. The end result? Well, we've been "Fed-Exing" packages and "Xeroxing" copies ever since.

Now, it's developers' turn. Mall branding is a red-hot issue at industry conferences, inside boardrooms and at office water coolers. Everyone, it seems, has an opinion.

Do developers really need catchy jingles, slick ads featuring celebrities, and recognizable icons and logos to unify their disparate offers in far-flung centers? Or is all this talk simply a reaction to satisfying a corporate directive targeting investors?

Consumer perspective Jim Nail, a senior analyst at Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research, says that branding represents an emotional connection customers have with a particular product.

Nail doesn't hold out much hope that mall owners and managers will be able to successfully brand their product unless they can promote some unique features of their centers beyond quality and good service.

"There's no reason for anyone to have an emotional relationship with the shopping mall, but they do have an emotional relationship with the retailers," Nail explains. "I have a relationship with Brooks Brothers. I am a Brooks Brothers type of person, but I'm not a Wal-Mart type of person. People have those types of associations."

Adds Nail, "Branding is about not just a name, not just an awareness, but having those kinds of values and personality associated with the name."

Nail cites the Mall of America near Minneapolis, for example, as a shopping center in which entertainment has become part of the character and value of the mall.

While most mall developers don't foresee a shopping-center version of the cola war anytime soon, conversations about branding are definitely heating up.

Simon says Four years ago, Simon Property Group invested millions of dollars in research to find out what its customer groups demand of retailers and mall developers. The exercise resulted in a corporate branding initiative.

"Branding will help strengthen the positive perception of our malls in an environment of increasing choices," vows CEO David Simon.

Echoing his remarks is Shari Simon, vice president of corporate marketing, who handles day-to-day branding efforts for the Indianapolis-based behemoth. Branding's principal job, she says, is "to create an emotional link between our customers and all aspects of the Simon shopping experience."

As part of its branding initiative, Simon Property Group streamlined its moniker to simply "Simon."

In March of this year, the company launched a $23 million multimedia campaign anchored by the phrase: "Simon, simply the best shopping there is." Simon officials hope to create awareness of their 254 centers and 17,000 tenants occupying millions of square feet, affecting some 100 million customers annually.

Tagline is but one part of a total marketing effort by shopping center owners to woo investors, customers and tenants, Shari Simon says. "Our industry needs to understand that branding doesn't happen overnight," she adds. "It's a long-term process."

In fact, several elements of Simon's branding initiatives have been in place for years, most notably the MALLPeRKS loyalty program, which rewards frequent shoppers. The program was begun by the former DeBartolo Corp. and has been maintained and enlarged since Simon's acquisition two years ago.

Shoppers can visit MALLPeRKS Marketplaces, customer service centers, to enroll for a Mall VIP Visa card, which provides numerous benefits and savings through Mall VIP Dollar gift certificates.

And this year Simon partnered with Time Inc. to develop "S" magazine, a full-color monthly publication customized to each center and offered at no charge to visitors.

Simon's pledge is another cornerstone effort to attract and maintain customers. Located at each entrance, tall-boy panels present the company's promise to deliver the Simon brand to every shopper in every one of its centers.

Words like "convenience, selection, value and entertainment" were chosen to convey the program's core message. Notes Shari Simon, "We're attempting to provide a clean, safe, quality environment with the retailers shoppers want."

Simon is confident a significant number of customers will appreciate and respond to its national branding effort as they travel the country on vacation or business.

But don't expect to see familiar signage coming down with new Simon logos going up. Rather, think of a theater marquee. The headliner is still the homegrown name, but the Simon name will appear more subtly - as in "brought to you by ..." program underwriting of a bygone era.

Lending the Simon name as co-producer is key, but so are other partnerships. Supporting roles have been created for Visa and Pepsi, which are but two national tie-in programs the company has initiated.

For example, the Simon Visa card offers special cardholder-only benefits, while the Pepsi program offers gifts and prizes available at Simon-only properties.

Underscoring on-site messaging is the Simon broadcast campaign consisting of 30-second television ads and 60-second radio spots all touting the Simon name and tagline, along with the center's name, but no recognizable retail identities.

Measuring success Throwing enough money at any effort sounds simple enough, but how is Simon benchmarking and creating return on its advertising expenditures and partner programs?

"Our main return is customers' satisfaction," Shari Simon says, pointing to year-to-date numbers. From June 1998 to June 1999, she notes, "Our MALLPeRKS activity (people turning in receipts) was up 16%."

Coinciding with the brand launch in March, more than 100,000 MALLPeRKS memberships have been sold at $5 each, Shari Simon reports. (Customers who join can then choose a gift with a retail value of $10 to $15.)

The MALLPeRKS Marketplace additionally serves as Simon's customer-service center where visitors can complete response cards. Responding to customers is important, Shari Simon notes: "We reply to every one of those cards within two days."

Follow the leader? If Simon, the nation's largest developer, says "brand," and if it's true there is a me-too mentality surrounding retail, will other developers follow suit?

At least one national developer thinks not. Marie Izzo Cartwright, vice president of corporate communications and marketing for Columbus, Ohio-based Glimcher Realty Trust, says, "The consumer probably doesn't know or care whose mall they're walking into."

However, Cartwright shares the Simon sentiment that what customers do want is a quality experience. "Customers go to a mall because the tenants they like are there," she explains. 'They're going to the one in close proximity to their home. They're choosing the one with a pleasant and comfortable environment."

Given the size of Simon Property Group as a company, its branding approach is not necessarily indicative of the rest of the industry, Cartwright observes. "They (Simon) have the critical mass to mount such programs, but the majority of developers do not," she says.

Thinking globally, acting locally Simon's concentration of centers in certain markets has enabled the company to brand in a meaningful way with another lucrative customer: corporate America.

Glimcher also has deals with Pepsi, only smaller. At Jersey Gardens Value Megamall, a 1.3 million sq. ft. development scheduled to open Oct. 21 in Elizabeth, N.J., area Pepsi delivery trucks will carry a Jersey Gardens message and the mall will host taste testings.

While the Pepsi tie-ins offer much in the way of co-opting, Cartwright makes it clear that "each center is branded individually. There are some corporate programs that cover many malls in our portfolio, but not all."

Cartwright notes the difference between Jersey Gardens and another Glimcher project: Polaris Fashion Place, a 1.5 million sq. ft. center in Columbus, Ohio, that's anchored by Lord & Taylor and Saks Fifth Avenue and is scheduled to open in 2001. "We don't use the same brand positioning for our 21 traditional malls and our three value centers," she says.

For example, at SuperMall of the Great Northwest, Glimcher's value megamall in Auburn, Wash., a "Save Yourself" campaign is expressed in broadcast and on-site collateral materials giving details of tenants' price-promotions.

A similar program at The Great Mall of the Great Plains in Olathe, Kan., is called "Deal of the Day." Overall, the company employs local programs, such as "Tools for Schools," to benefit local schools. These programs are customizable for each of its properties, including its 100-plus community strip centers.

Power of the people "We make good things happen" is the slogan used by The Macerich Co. in its approach to external customers and internal staff. At Macerich headquarters and at all of its shopping centers, the words are uttered to every phone caller. The sentiment is part of the company's collateral package as well.

Dana Anderson, vice chairman of the Santa Monica, Calif.-based company, has avoided jumping on the branding brandwagon with respect to its portfolio of 54 properties in 22 states.

"I'm afraid branding for some organizations is the hula-hoop of today," says the 30-year veteran and one of Macerich's initial investors. "That's not our approach and not what we've been aiming for or doing for many years."

Macerich's Susan Valentine, senior vice president of marketing, explains that the company is more interested in a community-based approach. "We send our managers and marketing directors out to talk with city fathers and local nonprofits to find out what's going on," she says.

Those conversations, Valentine says, "give us the information we need to develop good-neighbor programs." Corporately, Macerich's "Operation Smile" is the umbrella under which the company creates community-specific efforts ranging from fund raising for a local charity to collecting computers for schools.

All Macerich properties embrace the "Operation Smile" concept and feature the same big smile logo, which, Valentine says, "allows Macerich to make good things happen on a local level."

Community outreach is only one aspect of Macerich's relationship marketing effort to reach its external customer. Another key to its success is its people.

Says Anderson, "We're proud that we have one of the industry's lowest turnover ratios of personnel." On the tenant front, he says, "we've worked to keep maintenance and marketing costs low."

Anderson's philosophy sounds more like old-school common sense. "We never called it branding," he says. "We've just tried to make our name mean something so that retailers know who we are and what we represent.

"We also want the Macerich name to mean something to employees and potential employees," Anderson continues. "If we serve those two groups well, we think the investor will be well taken care of."

All in a name? In the past year, the "B" word has made its way into trade advertising for The Mills Corp. "I think that's been a corporate response to Simon's 'branding, branding, branding,'" says Anne Lipscomb, vice president of marketing for the Arlington, Va.-based operator of eight mega entertainment/value centers, which include Potomac, Gurnee and Sawgrass Mills.

"But my response is that we've been doing (branding) for eight years." The popularity of the Mills concept with both locals and tourists is evident, Lipscomb says, noting that some 18 to 25 million people visit Mills' eight centers annually.

"I know we have branded the Mills concept," explains Lipscomb, "because when I'm speaking at conferences, people come up say, 'You work for Mills? I know what that is. Isn't that Sawgrass Mills and Ontario Mills?'

Credit must also be given to an aggressive public relations campaign by Mills - aimed at community good deeds and local partnerships - as well as traditional print and broadcast media, Lipscomb notes.

She also points to Mills' decision to work with advertising and public relations professionals from the packaged-goods sector, of which she is a veteran. "We have always looked at ourselves as a product," she says. "We conduct focus groups, and we message-test both our local and tourist customer."

Mills enjoys strong project recognition with its constituents. Perhaps part of the credit should be attributed to the decision to repeatedly incorporate the Mills name on projects throughout the country. Says Lipscomb, "I don't know how you brand 300 'somethings' throughout the country. I don't think the customer will ever understand."

A name, however strong as Mills, can't make up for lack of personality, which Lipscomb says dogs the lion's share of industry projects. "There are so many products out there," she says. "Many are too diversified or so similar that I don't know how they've found their niche."

Mills' smaller Block projects -which are comparatively more food- and entertainment-oriented - will be branded in a consistent way, yet differently from existing Mills projects.

But to Lipscomb, the branding debate is simple to sum up: "A lot of people have a hard time branding because they don't have a brandable product - meaning a consistent, recognizable entity and experience."

And in the end This month, Shari Simon begins a new round of customer research to gauge the branding program's effectiveness. Could the nation's largest developer have maintained status quo without embracing the "B" word?

"My job is to deliver customer loyalty, which in turn drives traffic and sales," explains Shari Simon, whose company is attempting to leverage both its breadth and depth.

"I'm not saying that size is always better, but in this case we can back it up with programs in every center that are local yet national. We have the products and the services, such as relationships with Visa and Pepsi, to back up our position."

Without both, she says, "then in my mind you're not really branding. What you have is just the 'B' word and the 'S' word."