While malls have long used sponsorship as a platform to generate incremental revenue, developers are relying on the marketing medium like never before.

The reason: malls are increasingly relying on marketers to enhance the shopping experience and offset competition from online retailers.

“The mall industry has become more experiential in nature to compete with online shoppers. We pride ourselves on creating experiences, and we take that mentality when selling sponsorship,” said Gerritt Smith, senior manager of partnership marketing with Glimcher Realty Trust, which owns 23 malls.

“Brand partnerships can help reinvigorate the common mall experience. Consumers feel more inclined to stay longer and keep on coming back because we’re delivering a unique experience they can’t get online,” said Erik Carlson, vice president of partnership marketing with Westfield Corp., the owner of 47 properties.

Case in point: Westfield last year secured a partnership with the NFL San Francisco 49ers at Westfield Valley Fair. The team worked in collaboration with Westfield to design, fabricate and deliver both a fan experience and retail store kiosk to accomplish two goals: Deliver a unique retail experience and promote the team’s new stadium in Santa Clara that is slated to open in 2014. The hybrid approach provides the consumer an opportunity to learn about the new stadium, buy season tickets, sit in the new stadium seats, purchase exclusive merchandise and immerse themselves in 49er history.

“The partnership provides our consumers a unique experience within our common area retail ecosystem that is new, fresh and exciting,” said Carlson.

Mall developers also are moving beyond play areas and other standard sponsorship assets.

For example, Simon Property Group this year sold Mercedes-Benz of Ontario naming rights to the Ontario Mills Fashion District, a group of stores anchored by Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom. The sponsorship affords brand integration in Fashion District signage, seasonal branding on large format media, presenting status of the Celebrating Women fashion show and valet signage.

In a different twist, Simon sold Mission Hospital naming rights to the Lullaby Lounge at The Shops at Mission Viejo. The lounge features plush seating, stroller parking and other amenities for nursing and expecting mothers.

“That is right in the strike zone of hospitals and their desire to connect with expecting mothers,” said Mikael Thygesen, CMO with Simon Property Group.

Lullaby lounges and other on-site amenities serve the dual purpose of enhancing the shopping experience while providing new sponsorship inventory, he said.

“The more of these types of amenities we can provide, the more sponsorship inventory we have to work with.”

Below, IEG SR shares tips on selling mall assets:

Engage media companies. Glimcher is placing more focus on offering sponsorship inventory to CBS Outdoors and other out-of-home media providers, who can then use the assets to create integrated marketing packages.

“A big part of their business is saying ‘what more can we offer?’ We can offer them visibility and other assets inside our malls,” said Smith.

The partnerships also have opened up a new sales channel, said Smith, noting that media companies now bring sponsors to the table. For example, Puma last year supplemented an in-mall media buy with an on-site experiential marketing program with The Finish Line, Inc.

Consider retailers. In addition to media companies, Glimcher is finding more interest from retailers in on-site promotions that help drive store traffic. That includes sponsorship of holiday events, play areas and Santa sets.

“Retailers are saying ‘we’re willing to spend money to distribute coupons and drive store traffic,’” said Smith. “They’re being more strategic in how they get consumers into their stores.”

Bypass agencies. Rather than waiting around for an RFP or a call from an agency, some properties have found success by creating their own partnership platforms. That’s the case with Westfield, which believes it can bridge the gap by developing a brand direct strategy that compliments its agency and third-party relationships.

The objective: differentiate Westfield from other mall developers by delivering unique consumer experiences that engage, excite and keeps customers looking for something new and different.

“We have the best centers in the best markets. How do I continue to differentiate what Westfield offers from the experience at other malls?” said Carlson.

The company has accomplished that task in part by focusing on technology companies that sell online and through channel partners. Those types of companies see value in telling their story in a one-to-one environment, said Carlson.

The strategy has paid off: Westfield in late 2012 secured a partnership with Belkin International, Inc., an electronics accessory manufacturer. The company leveraged its partnership with an on-site kiosk at Westfield Culver City mall to educate consumers about its product offering and drive traffic to Target Corp. and Best Buy Co., both of which have a presence at the property.

Westfield has secured similar deals with Griffin Technology, Inc., a manufacturer of smart phone cases and other accessories, and Logitech International, a maker of computing, communication and entertainment products.

Leverage major sports events. Simon leverages major sports events to generate a buzz and drive traffic to local malls.

For example, Simon activated the 2012 NFL Super Bowl with a custom build-out at Circle Center mall in Indianapolis.  The company repurposed a vacant space to create “The Huddle,” an 180,000 square-foot destination that featured a TV studio, after-hours bar, merchandise store and other Super Bowl-themed programming.

“That was a fantastic program. We repurposed a vacant store into something interesting and compelling for people coming to town,’ said Thygesen.

The company has created similar programs around the 2012 NBA All-Star Game in Orlando, the 2011 Final Four in Houston and other events.

Shifting Priorities: Active Categories Sponsoring Malls
Autos: Moving beyond on-site display BMW in October 2012 hosted a test drive event at The Promenade at Westlake, a Caruso Affiliated property. The event featured a continental breakfast, a scenic drive on the Pacific Coast highway, a luncheon and private dinner.

The auto maker used the event to promote the new 6 Series and 7 Series vehicles. The program was managed by Octagon, BMW’s event marketing agency.
Technology: Offering on-site integration Amazon last year partnered with Westfield to promote the Kindle Fire during the Christmas shopping season. The company sponsored Santa Claus sets and sampled the product to parents and their children.
Healthcare: Moving beyond walking programs MD Anderson Children’s Cancer Hospital inked a multiyear partnership with Simon that affords naming rights to a lounge and play area. The lounge includes stroller parking, children’s toys and media to promote health messaging.