In 2002, at the age of 23, Stephanie Darden founded FDG {creative}, a branding and marketing firm based in Orlando, Florida. Since then, she has become a leading expert in the branding and strategic marketing of real estate developments, with a national body of work totaling more than 180 projects. For ten years, Darden and her team have utilized their talents to shape the brands and marketing campaigns of multifamily developments throughout the United States. Within the real estate industry, her notable clients have included Bank of America Merrill Lynch Community Development Corporation, CNL Commercial Real Estate, and Orlando’s Creative Village.  In addition, she is doing marketing and branding for the National Basketball Association (NBA) and donates her firm’s creative services to domestic nonprofit organizations through her Greater Good Initiative. 

In a recent conversation with Urban Land, Darden talks about the notion of branding and how it has helped her real estate development clients’ bottom line. She offers her advice on how infographics and social media are serving the industry, and discusses emerging new media strategies as well as the importance of cross-pollinating online and offline communication strategies.


Urban Land

: First, how did you get into marketing/advertising?

Darden: I was awarded my first freelance graphic design project in high school: painting a mural for a popular restaurant. A few short years later, I graduated from the University of Central Florida with a degree in graphic design. From there, I quickly worked my way up the ladder and into an art director’s position at an advertising agency before leaving and starting up my company at the ripe old age of 23. We started as a graphic design firm and quickly evolved into a branding-and-marketing agency, adding and augmenting service offerings to fulfill the unique demands of our clients throughout the last ten years. I love what I do. I love who I do it for. And every day is an adventure. It doesn’t get any better than that.


UL

: Graphic design is important to the work of your firm. At a previous event, you mentioned how infographics can tell a story. How so, and can they benefit land use professionals?

Darden: Infographics are incredible. They succinctly distill complex statistics, information, and concepts into a visually inspiring and readily consumable format. They “speak” to both left- and right-brainers—and anything that can accomplish that is a definite invaluable resource. I am a self-professed infographic junkie, and you [would be] hard-pressed to find an industry or a profession that cannot benefit from intuitive infographics. In fact, I am in the process of launching a new passion project website: Bubbled.it. On this site, we’re authoring and illustrating infographics on a variety of topics. Two upcoming pieces that tie into land use and development include exploring the ripple effect of LIHTCs [low-income housing tax credits] and a more whimsical, fun one that explores the life cycle of a development deal from land acquisition to zoning to vertical construction and on to final COs in a Shoots-and-Ladders–style game board format. When complex information is compelling, you succeed at creating a communication platform that will get attention and increase the odds of viewer/reader information retention.


UL

: In the past when you spoke at ULI conferences, you have emphasized the need for “branding.” You once said, “Don’t do anything until you have branded.” Can you explain the importance of this to your marketing strategies?

Darden: Branding means a lot of things to a lot of people, but I define it as personality and promise. It is far more complex and crucial than a logo design. Typically, our branding initiatives involve a series of strategic brainstorming and discovery meetings with the development team and key partners. We soak up all the intricacies, challenges, and potential strengths and this fuels our creative efforts as we work through the branding process, culminating in logos, colors, keywords, taglines, positioning statements, and key messages—the invaluable components that help us devise a project’s own visual and verbal voice. In the development industry, branding is even more crucial to the success of a project. It helps us define a piece of land, a building, a vision—as a place. Branding formulates the story of what makes that project different and identifiable—ultimately magnetic—to audiences. Without branding, a real estate development has a hard time standing out amidst the usual market clutter.


UL

: How was branding important and incorporated into some of your clients’ land development projects, such as ENCORE! and Columbia Parc at the Bayou District?

Darden: We have had the distinct privilege of working for clients who value and understand the role branding plays in ensuring their developments are successful. Bank of America Merrill Lynch Community Real Estate Development (Encore) and Columbia Residential (Columbia Parc) are clients who consider branding another form of infrastructure development. They view it as a crucial early step in the development process and, like infrastructure, [it] must be completed upfront to successfully support development and marketing activities. The beautiful thing about branding early is that you being to lay the foundation for a community to identify [with] and relate to your project. Development by nature is always affecting and influencing urban areas and communities. Branding helps the general public get to know the personality and promise of their new burgeoning neighbor, and the side effects include public support. For Encore, a 40-plus-acre (16.1-plus ha) mixed-use urban infill master development in downtown Tampa, branding started years in advance of actual on-site development. When we started branding for Encore, we were blessed to discover the neighborhood possessed a rich history worth celebrating. Its historical roots as a vibrant African American community and stage for musical legends were the brand’s muse. We invested a tremendous amount of energy into creating the Encore brand to ensure that the decision makers charged with evaluating the development team’s grant applications identified this project as well conceived and “shovel ready,” which was [of] paramount [importance] in the 2008/2009 stimulus package–infused real estate climate. Branding started at Encore before a single shovel ever touched the ground.

For Columbia Parc at the Bayou District, we were not only branding this new mixed-income community that was emerging at the former site of the St. Bernard Public Housing Development, we were effectively also rebranding the concept of affordable housing in New Orleans—a market that in 2009 was extremely skeptical of the one-third public housing, one-third affordable, one-third market-rate model. We also had the added challenge of repositioning a neighborhood that was infamous for the relentless criminal activity predominantly hosted within the former public housing site. Columbia Residential was zealous about delivering on their promises to New Orleans in the community they were creating. Their promises, the Bayou District’s holistic vision, market research, and good old-fashioned local insight and flare came together in our branding initiatives, which have resulted in superseding [the] preleasing and leasing objectives of Phase I [466 units] and such a strong market demand that phases II and III may coast through their leasing efforts without any formal marketing or advertising. To have a project achieve these results and potentially now not need to engage in advertising or marketing tells me that it is a high-quality product, management is fantastic, and the brand we conceived is strong and hit the mark. Today, Columbia Parc has its own voice. It has a distinct, friendly, slightly sassy personality and its promise is clear.

Right now, we are branding Creative Village—a 60-plus-acre (24.2-plus ha) mixed-use urban infill development in downtown Orlando being codeveloped through a public/private partnership among Bank of America Merrill Lynch Community Real Estate Development, Ustler Development, and the city of Orlando.


UL

: How have social media and other new media technologies been important to your business?

Darden: They have been crucial in defining the way we activate the brands of our clients and the real estate development projects we are involved with. Marketing and advertising have effectively undergone a significant overhaul—an evolution from a push [messages, products, ideas] to a pull [you into a message, product, ideas]—that has reshaped what success and return on investment [ROI] look like. The immediacy of communications through social media and new media has also shifted our role on many projects. Social media and other new media technologies enable us to engage our target audiences in ways never possible with traditional advertising and marketing solutions. Four years ago, we were buying an enormous amount of print advertisements and allocating sizable budgets to print collateral. We had one-way “push” conversations with our consumer audiences. Today, we spend more in online advertising, social media, and alternative marketing initiatives and succeed in creating so much more than campaigns. We’re creating lasting, magnetic brands by engaging audiences and pulling them into the story of the client or development we are shaping. We are activating brands through social media.


UL

: What is the importance of cross-pollinating online and offline communication strategies?

Darden: Online and offline strategies will never fully realize their potential if we keep them isolated and in a vacuum environment. You don’t have to look any farther than your own office or water cooler to realize how differently people communicate. The best-conceived communication strategies are always going to be the ones that harness the potential of all available communication channels. An example of this is the awareness booklet we produced for Columbia Parc, titled the People of Parc. This micro-campaign included printed booklets, two different web portals, and a Facebook tab to help tell the story of mixed-income living at Columbia Parc. Columbia Residential found themselves continually trying to illuminate the vibrant array of people who [make up] the Columbia Parc community, so we conceived this communication strategy that leveraged personal stories, accurate information, and even Facebook comments to showcase the People of Parc.


UL

: How do you and your clients measure online and social media marketing ROI?

Darden: We start every project with a simple question: What does success look like at the end of this campaign? Depending on the project and the objectives, ROI takes many forms. For most of our social media initiatives, we are using it to activate brands and often support active sales or leasing efforts. In those cases, we measure success through analytics data, lead generation reports, and other social media insights.

For instance, in regard to a campaign, we can look at how many people become fans or follow you on a social media network. It is easy for a lot of people to understand the importance of having a deep email database. The same is also true for social media sites and why you would want to acquire fans and followers. These people who follow you are basically saying that they want to keep tabs on you and they are interested in what you have to say. When you look at it from this perspective, you can see how this is just as important as having a deep email database. Most of our clients are concerned with the bottom line, so social media serve as a great way to bring your message to potential customers and getting them to know and identify your product. As with any online advertising campaign, the return can be measured by how many people request more information about your product.


UL

: Do you see any new media trends emerging that developers should take note of?

Darden: Absolutely! Crowdsourcing is the number-one emerging trend that all developers need to study and potentially harness for their own use. Crowdsourcing is another fancy term for engaging the public or a group of people to complete a task or make a decision. Social media are the perfect engine for activating crowdsourcing initiatives in cost-effective ways. Recently, while in D.C. driving down H Street, I saw a huge banner on the side of an otherwise normal building facade for Popularise.com. Once back at the hotel, I checked out the website and then proceeded to kick myself the rest of the trip for not coming up with that concept myself!

At Columbia Parc, we used crowdsourcing as an opportunity to engage New Orleans’ renowned arts community and the broader local community to help us transform an unsightly pump house parcel into a branded, inspiring focal point at the entrance of the Bayou District and the front door to Columbia Parc. We orchestrated an open call to artists in Orleans Parrish to submit concepts for a public art sculpture through social media and in partnership with the New Orleans Arts Council. Once submissions were in and the judging panel selected the top three contenders, we took the results to the people and the results were nothing short of exhilarating! During the month-long voting period, ColumbiaParc.com received 5,303 page views, and 2,917 of those were unique visitors who had never been on the website before. Fifty-three percent of the contest page visitors went on to become “shoppers,” exploring apartment floor plans, amenities, and related information about Columbia Parc. Today, through crowdsourcing, Columbia Parc has something special and distinct at its front door that the community helped create—and, may I remind you, a strong brand poised to continue redefining mixed-income housing. 

Crowdsourcing can be as simple as asking people to chime in on exterior paint colors, vote on name concepts for the place you are creating, or, as in the case of Popularise.com, help decide whether that neighborhood needs Thai takeout or an art supply store!

ULI–the Urban Land Institute