Marketing Downtown: Less ‘Should,’ More Filling a Need

By Jason Menard

It’s not enough to build it and hope they come. And while the downtown master plan is visually appealing, core proponents can’t be blind to the fact that the most important thing to see is what the consumer actually wants.

It’s great to have a pedestrian-friendly downtown, but you have to focus on marketing and give those pedestrians a reason to come. And it has to be more than supercilious castigations of what people “should” be doing; it has to be a focus on providing customers with something they want to do.

Otherwise you’ll end up with a beautiful, but empty, revamped core.

It’s basic marketing. You can be idealistic and you can believe to the moon and back that the downtown core is the heart of the city. But if you’re not addressing the wants, needs, fears, and desires of your clientele, then your ideals will result in empty storefronts, pretentious hand-wringing, and — most of all — a wasted opportunity.

I’m a fan of the downtown; but I’m also a huge fan of reality. I can be idealistic, but I also know that to get anywhere you have to be both realistic and pragmatic.

To start, getting to know the customer would help. Those same people who raise a hue and cry about outside perceptions of downtown residents are often the first to throw out mocking and uneducated stereotypes about suburbanites (read: cookie-cutter, selfish, ignorant, uninterested, etc.)

In my experience, across three cities (London, Montreal, and Toronto) the suburbs are far more vibrant than they’re given credit for. They’re just different

Unlike downtown communities, which breeds cultures of the evening, suburbs are communities of the day. They are rich, vibrant mutli-faceted communities of neighbours working together, supporting each other, and sharing in the growth of the families. Some are ethnically focused; others are more intermingled, but once you peel back the veneer that you’ve placed over your own eyes, you’ll see that homogeneity is the exception,not the rule in the suburbs.

Downtown or suburb; commercial and entertainment or residential: one’s no better or worse, and a smart marketer would choose not to insult or undermine its potential clientele. Instead it behooves us to focus on finding out who our potential customers actually are, what they actually want, and how to deliver it to them.

The issues keeping suburbanites at bay are pretty simple:

  • Convenience; and
  • Inconvenience

To get people to shop downtown, you need to deal with the convenience of malls. They’re close to suburbs where people live; they allow for comfortable walking in hot and cold weather. Yes, you don’t get the diversity, yes, they’re filled with big corporations. But the majority of people don’t care — they want quality and value. Not feel-good sentimentality.

A downtown can’t compete with malls, so it needs find one’s niche. But it can’t focus exclusively on niche marketing. Starting as a commerce and marquee entertainment centre is a good beginning. But what’s next?

You want regular, repeat business so it can’t be all boutique shops. You have to strike a balance. And in a city the size of London, you can’t focus exclusively on boutiques because we simply don’t have the critical mass of residents and tourists to make it work.

Exclusively quirky works in cottage communities, not in cities. Downtown London could take a page from Hyde Park and see how unique, boutique-style stores can work in conjunction with Big Box stores. Strong anchor stores aren’t the enemy; planned effectively they can be the small store’s greatest ally.

Let’s not forget issues of transportation and parking. And, of course, providing convenient reasons to come downtown. Pedestrian-only corridors work in other cities because they’re tied into festivals, events, and regular activities.Restaurants can spill out into the streets and your downtown becomes a complement to the entertainment activities.

Now for inconvenience. If we want our downtown to be successful, we need to listen to what’s keeping people at bay — and respect that they may have valid concerns.

Such as the D-word.

Drugs — I have seen countless denunciations of the “fears” people have about coming downtown. In more-or-less mocking tones, they suggest that people who express discomfort about coming downtown “need to visit elsewhere… etc.”

But you can’t dismiss concerns and hope they disappear. You have to address them. The fact is, there are a lot of people who don’t feel safe coming downtown. And, despite the beliefs of those naysayers, some of those people ARE familiar with other cities. I know long-time Montrealers and Toronto folks who grew up in some of the toughest parts of those cities, who in their advanced ages don’t enjoy the downtown experience.

As youth, they dealt with thugs. From families to single women to seniors, they just want to feel safe walking from the theatre to their car, or a restaurant. Is that wrong? Can we actually have the audacity to say that what they feel isn’t right? As a business (and we need to think of the downtown as a whole as a business), is it smart to ignore the concerns of the very customers who we’re trying to attract?

Yes, it’s a part of living in a city. You’re right. I hope being right makes you feel better. But you being right doesn’t bring shoppers to the core on a regular basis. What we have to remember is that most people can go to their suburban mall or their suburban restaurant and not be offered drugs or asked for money.

Downtown is a commodity — and a potentially great one. But to get the most out of it, we have to market it effectively and understand that we’re competing for people’s time and money, and competing against convenience.

We need to address the root concerns and perceptions. Most importantly, we have to stop thinking in terms of moral obligation and more in terms of customer service.

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