Baked Into Buildings’ DNA

The northwest corner of Atlantic Avenue and Firestone Boulevard in the Los Angeles community of South Gate was never much to speak of. But that’s about to change.

Construction begins this May on El Portál, which may well become the most ambitious branded city in the country.

Like all branded cities, El Portál is an urban real-estate development with out-of-home advertising opportunities written into its DNA. Shopping, entertainment and town hall locations will be laced with a particularly large and sophisticated quantity of digital displays, which will total 4,500 square feet.

Three high-definition LED billboards will beam down on a plaza, where live performances will take place and some 4,000 people can gather. A so-called “e-canvas,” located on the façade of a Regency Theatre movie house, will involve a variety of interactive screens where the public can compete in multiplayer gaming tournaments or flip a screen’s “channel” to watch anything from local sports events to user-generated content. And commercial messages are part of the experience.

That’s not all. El Portál is the first branded city in the United States that is catering to a specific cultural group, Latinos. And it’s designed to appeal to the very social and family-oriented nature of that community.

“It’s smack dab in an area that’s 90 percent Hispanic. Ten percent of Los Angeles County is within five miles of our site,” says David Goldman, managing partner of Allied Retail Partners LLC, the real-estate development company behind the project. He predicts 22 million people will visit El Portál each year and that the advertising initiative will be “highly profitable”—all the more so because the complex aims to collect data on around 200,000 customers via a retail loyalty program, which will be made available to advertisers.

It’s easy to see why branded cities—places where people either work, live or play—are catching on. They are self-contained urban centers where signs aren’t just viewed for a few seconds from a car window—or maybe a few minutes, if someone is on foot. The interactive element provides an added attraction: “If you create an environment where people engage in media, it changes the dynamic,” says Adam Bleibtreu, CEO of The Retail Media Company, which is responsible for the design and advertising strategy of El Portál. “If you give people the opportunity to effect their environment, they talk about it; they come there more frequently; they stay longer.”

Real estate is deeply bruised by the economic recession. But those involved with branded cities say that while some projects may be put on hold, the concept is likely to grow and prosper in the coming years.

“They’re inevitable. The market will dictate their success in this temporary cycle, but for the most part, they’re coming,” says Mark Herring, CEO and executive producer of the Herring Media Group, an agency specializing in environmental media. He reports that there are developments weighing the branded cities approach in south Boston and Hartford, Conn.

New Orleans, Minneapolis and Baton Rouge projects may also take the branded cities approach, according to Robert Marans, a professor at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research. He was hired by the Foundation for Outdoor Advertising Research and Education to visit six locations in advance of a possible FOARE-funded study that would involve “man on the street” research to gauge what the public thinks of branded cities. (FOARE is administered by the Outdoor Advertising Association of America.)

Daniel Jasper, vp of marketing and business development for Clear Channel Communications’ Branded Cities division, offers a key reason why they will spread: “Look at the way sports and entertainment destinations are being conceived of now. The traditional mall out on the highway, with four walls and a roof, is outdated. There are not a lot of new ones going up.”