The CMO Interview

Simon Wants You to Spend More Time Hanging at the Mall

Retail Landlord Uses Social Media, Technology to Foster a Community Experience for Shoppers

By Published on . 1

NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Mikael Thygesen renounces the death of the mall. As he should: He's chief marketing officer of Indianapolis-based mall operator Simon Property Group and president of Simon Brand Ventures. In this age of social media, online transactions and virtual recreation, the mall still exists, he argues, as a place where people can engage in the physical world -- eating, relaxing, escaping and, yes, shopping.

Mikael Thygesen
Mikael Thygesen
His job is to market that experience, for the sake of Simon and its tenant retailers. Simon Property Group owns or has an interest in 380 properties in North America, Europe and Asia. Mr. Thygesen oversees marketing and consumer-related ventures at Simon, which in the spring unsuccessfully offered to buy out bankrupt competitor General Growth Properties.

Ad Age: What do you say to people who say the mall is dead?

Mr. Thygesen: Our performance speaks for itself. We've grown our business substantially over the last decade. Over the course of the last five years, maybe 10 years, there's been a lot of development of retail in this country, a lot of it marginal development, and what's happened with the recession is there's been a significant retrenchment, flight to quality, and we're seeing retailers come to us and say, "We're not particularly pleased with the experience we had with the strip center down the street; we'd rather be back in the mall because we know you're going to have traffic, you market your centers unlike other retail locations, you actively market and support the centers, and there's a unique value proposition there that's difficult to duplicate outside our walls."

Ad Age: What kinds of marketing partnerships do you have with tenants?

Mr. Thygesen: We executed over 11,000 events last year -- including grass-roots events that we do on a local basis, mall by mall, specifically with the objective of connecting with the local community, driving traffic to our centers and providing opportunities for the retailers to step out of their stores and integrate into these events and ultimately drive traffic into their stores. It might be a community event, a fair, an expo, a seminar, a celebrity appearance. One of the unique points of difference for our platform vis--vis any other retail platform is that we are part of the community. We have folks who spend on average 82 minutes in mall per visit. They're not spending 82 minutes running down their list of items they need to take care of like they do in a supermarket. They go to enjoy an afternoon with their friends, enjoy an afternoon with their family, shop. They view the mall as a destination in and of itself, an opportunity to be entertained, to see what's new and different.

Our retailer showcase is an opportunity for our retailers to provide offers and promotions that we then aggregate by mall and make available to our consumers on a mall-by-mall basis. We do it online, we do it on mall with brochures and fliers. We're going to be distributing via text, via email, via mobile-phone applications these offers to our consumers.

Ad Age: Can and should the mall be an ad medium?

Mr. Thygesen: The mall is an advertising medium. Over the last nine years we've significantly expanded and standardized our media offering to brands and marketers. Our value proposition is we have 100 million-plus unique consumers visiting our malls 2.8 billion times a year. We have a standardized media platform that we make available to our advertising partners and we have a consumer that we know from research is predisposed to messaging on mall. The advertisers that come into our mall -- some of those reside in our retailers, some are retailers themselves, a lot of them just want access to the 2.8 billion visits and their product may not be sold on mall but they want that exposure. And we're able to take the media element, like sky banners, which is our proprietary, large-format static offering, they'll take that and they'll combine that with activation on mall. So there might be a car display coupled with banners that are used to promote the car itself. We might have test drives out in the parking lot. So it's an out-of-home medium and then we're able to combine it with the experiential component of what we offer to our brands.

Ad Age: To what extent are online "malls" like Amazon challenging you?

Mr. Thygesen: Clearly there's business to be made online. We recognize and understand that, but it's not experiential; we entertain as well as provide retail options for our shoppers, we have dining options that are very much anchored in the physical world, and you combine those things, plus the fact that to a large degree shopping is a tactile sport, just the idea of spending a morning with your girlfriends, talking, laughing, having a wonderful time -- that can't be duplicated online.

Ad Age: How has the recession impacted Simon's business/marketing model?

Mr. Thygesen: It's been a difficult two years. This is a time for us to cement our relationship with our retailers and make sure that they understand when times are tough, we've stepped up our game and we've done whatever we can do to support their efforts and make the most out of a difficult situation. We're really focused on how to leverage technology going forward. Part of our thinking is we need to leverage technology to enhance the overall experience on mall, to drive sales in our retailers. We've hired a VP-digital strategy named Patrick Flanagan. His role is to really spearhead our efforts from a tech standpoint. Mobile is a key area of focus for us; social media is another area of focus for us, extending our retailer showcase, making those offers available to consumers on their phones.

Ad Age: How are you using social media?

Mr. Thygesen: We launched last year a social-media initiative and the purpose is to create a forum for our shoppers to not only get information for what's happening on mall, events, promotions, new store openings, but also to share their experiences, [through] Facebook primarily, Twitter secondarily. We're working on creating that engagement with consumers and encouraging them to provide content to share their experiences, to talk about the deal that they've found, to talk about the events that they've participated in. ... The more we get people talking about it, the more it reinforces what we're trying to reinforce to consumers, that this is a unique venue that is unmatched in the physical world.

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