Ten years ago, Westfield carried out an intensive marketing campaign, aimed at convincing major retail brands to consider opening a store in their shiny new Derby scheme which was, at that time, still under construction.
The campaign was called ‘Be Surprised’.
Westfield, based in Sydney Australia, may be the world’s largest retail property company, but they had no presence in Europe and their market entry euro-plan was to start with the UK, before moving onto the continent itself.
The strategy was simple. Buy a number of key shopping centres and sites – Belfast, Birmingham, Bradford, Derby, Nottingham, London, Tunbridge Wells et al – and, over a period of time, develop them out.
The London scheme was always going to be developed second, so the analysts scoured the UK and crunched the numbers on where to start.
The result, one that truly shocked the market, was that they selected Derby to be first, making an unprecedented £340m investment in the city.
Many will remember the construction phase, with five massive cranes towering over the city, but less known was the effort that had to be put into attracting tenants.
For Westfield, the opportunity seemed straightforward. The numbers showed Derby had the strongest demographic yet the weakest product. Build it and they will come.
Employment and salaries in and around the city were high but the opportunity to spend was poor.
This meant that Derby had become a place of convenience not choice and the city leaked its wealth to the likes of Meadowhall and Nottingham.
But, in trying to sell that narrative to retailers, Westfield kept running into the gap between perception and reality.
The logic of the numbers may have pointed to Derby but there was an awful lot of convincing to do.
The retail community and their professional advisors were quite resistant and needed convincing – thus the creation of the ‘Be Surprised’ campaign.
Later in 2007, when Westfield Derby opened its doors, retailers that had never had a presence in the city – brands such as All Saints, Build-a-Bear, H&M, Paperchase and Zara – were present.
The 2008 crash changed the world and certainly ended Westfield’s grand plans, with only Derby and London being developed.
They sold off their UK interests as the strategy shifted to focus on iconic cities (apparently, the cash from Derby’s sale is being used to build Westfield Milan which opens in 2020).
The need to work on retailers’ perceptions has been successfully continued by the team at intu (which bought the centre in 2014 for £390m) - think of the arrival of brands such as Byron, Carluccio's, Cath Kidston and MAC among others – and the sell is getting a little easier now there is a 10-year track record.
The gap between perception and reality, and the need to sell ‘surprise’, have been core factors in the work of Marketing Derby and remains so.
I still meet investors or business leaders oblivious to the nature and strength of our economy and the opportunities that provides.
The city has attracted £3billion of investment and many of our greatest successes have emanated from London as the UK’s centre of power and decision-making.
That is why this summer we are intensifying our efforts in the capital.
Last week, we opened a virtual base in the city and will soon be hosting promotional investor events at Lambeth Palace and City Hall, as well as launching a London Ambassador Club.
We still like to surprise – our London office innovation is unique and has grabbed much attention and positive comment from investors – but today our pitch has a more confident platform and is more likely to be based on opportunity, as opposed to revelation.