Branding the mall: Mills taps NY shop and boosts budget

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Mills Corp., seeking to brand its malls and position shopping at them as an experience rather than a chore, has hired New York ad agency Pedone & Partners Advertising.

The mall operator is expected to break two campaigns in the first quarter to differentiate its offerings. One will focus on its regional malls, anchored by outlet stores or discounters such as Saks Off Fifth. The other will promote its shopping/entertainment complexes, which include ESPN Zone skateparks and children's activity areas. Mills operates 26 malls nationwide.

Shopping-center developers are in a race for traffic in a highly competitive environment. Most mall developers went public in the last decade, which has increased pressure to deliver results even as the economy softened. Rival mall operator Simon Property Group has also used ads to brand its malls as destinations.

Mills will increase its ad budget to $10 million, from an estimated $4 million, and expand its media mix to include TV and out-of-home ads, direct marketing and its first e-mail campaign, said Senior VP-Marketing Ken Volk. Pedone replaced Doner after a review handled by Rakin & Co., Maplewood, N.J.

Agency President Michael Pedone said the campaigns will spotlight the mix of retailers at Mills locations. "We're looking to focus on the stores that are the drivers of the mall," he said.

Mr. Volk said that as Mills has expanded-revenue rose to $250.5 million, from $146.6 million, in the first nine months-it saw the need to develop separate marketing strategies for the two types of malls it operates.

`mall with a difference'

Mills pitches its properties as "a mall with a difference," luring shoppers with entertainment offerings and activities, said Kurt Barnard, president of Barnard's Retail Consulting Group. But shopping malls have seen a steady erosion of traffic in the last decade, he said, with consumers more likely to view shopping as a chore that needs to get done quickly.

"The average regional mall today is hungry for traffic," he said.

Mills Corp. has also entered into an agreement with PBS Kids, a non-profit media venture backed by public TV stations, to create branded playgrounds in its malls. PBS Kids Backyards include activity areas, entertainment based on PBS shows and activities sponsored by local PBS stations. Mills also signed a marketing agreement with Lego Co. that encompasses joint promotions and contests.

"We're trying to create a great destination with brands that people know and trust," said Mr. Volk.

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