Commercial boom time?

A slew of property ventures is launching in the face of a recessionary storm, and it’s all good news for branding consultancies, says David Benady

The UK property market may be heading for meltdown, but a pipeline of new shopping centres, office blocks and flats is providing a steady stream of branding work for designers.

Home sales have been hit by the credit crunch as potential buyers struggle to secure mortgages, and there’s more bad news in commercial property, where values are expected to fall 25 per cent in 2008-2009, according to a report by letting agent DTZ.

Even so, four massive shopping centres are opening in UK cities this year and some say it is the busiest year for new retail developments since the late 1990s.

At the same time, developers are making ever more strenuous efforts to sell and rent vacant properties, creating branding opportunities as competition intensifies between landlords in what is rapidly becoming an over-supplied market. Pared-back marketing budgets will have to work harder, heralding an era of cheap and cheerful property branding.

On the retail front, last week’s opening of the 93 000m2 Highcross shopping centre in Leicester town centre appears to belie reports of a high street slowdown.

An astounding 125 000 shoppers visited Highcross on its first day. Its logo, branding and advertising have been created by Midlands consultancy Rees Bradley Hepburn.

A spokeswoman says, ‘The brand campaign will feature a poem that celebrates individuality. We’ve taken phrases from that and developed a typographic style to complement it, and to reflect the diversity, personality and vibrancy of Leicester and its people.’ This month also sees Highcross developer Hammerson open the Cabot Circus centre in Bristol and a shopping centre in Paris, the first time any UK developer has opened three malls in a month.

Shopping centres are long-term developments that look to ride out the ups and downs of the boom-and-bust economy.

Eileen Connolly, head of retail marketing at property agent DTZ, says 2008 is a boom time for new shopping centres. She points to the opening last March of the Victoria Square centre in Belfast, the full opening next month of Liverpool One and the Westfield launch in London’s Shepherd’s Bush.

‘They have all benefited from strong pre-opening branding and positioning campaigns,’ she says. ‘Considerable sums have been spent to attract retailers in the initial stages, then this morphs into campaigns to attract shoppers,’ she adds. The openings are the culmination of years of planning, but she predicts fewer major shopping centre launches in coming years. That said, developer Westfield has announced plans for a new centre in Stratford to open in 2011 (DW 11 September).

Despite the collapsing property market, development continues. Northern property developer Urban Splash has recently unveiled a new brand identity to unify the marketing for its schemes across the UK.

It has a much-lauded commitment to bringing strong architectural and design values to regeneration projects, and has been described as a marketing venture that happens to be in property.

The revised branding, by North Design, uses a newly created typeface developed by Dalton Maag called Urban Splash Bold. The aim is to create a unified theme to use across Urban Splash developments, rather than let each scheme create its own branding.

This will keep marketing costs down. Crucially, says North creative director Jeremy Coysten, ‘The font is not finished and never will be. It will keep building and evolving, like the communities that Urban Splash creates.’ New characters will be added over time, he says.

Urban Splash brand director Kate Amin, previously a project director at brand consultancy Venturethree, says, ‘The rebrand is a happy coincidence with the downturn. We started the project a long time before there was a suspicion the market was going to collapse. But the fact we have done it is going to help us in a tighter market because we will be slicker and more efficient. Previously, there was a lack of focus and it was getting a bit chaotic.’ She denies the unified branding will detract from the individuality of branding on Splash’s various projects.

Other designers are battening down the hatches as they prepare for tougher times ahead in the UK. Tim Lewis, director at property branding specialist Small Back Room, says, ‘We have a strong pipeline of commercial and retail property work, but developers are going to have to make their budgets work harder and will be more cautious in their approach. We haven’t had clients cancelling jobs but things will get slower.’ He says the group is getting work from the Middle East and China, which is expected to build up to 50 000 skyscrapers in the next two decades.

One novel approach to the downturn comes from Homerun, a new venture, which offers interior design and maintenance services for time-pressed landlords. It offers bijoux classical and some contemporary styles.

New branding for the service launched last week, created by design consultancy Pyott with an ‘H’ logo that mimics the shape of a house (DW 11 September). Director James Pyott says Homerun is likely to do well during the downturn, as owners look to rent out their properties rather than sell them.

He says of the branding, ‘It gives Homerun an edge over its competitors and gives it more of a chance of standing out in a busy market. Design is critical given that people make their choices according to the way things look.’

The UK property collapse may be in its early stages and destined to get worse. It will be interesting to see how this is reflected in the scale and style of the branding work commissioned by developers.

CENTRE COURTIERS

• Homerun identity by Pyott

• Urban Splash branding by North Design, featuring a newly created typeface developed by Dalton Maag

• Highcross logo, branding and advertising by Rees Bradlet Hepburn

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