Prime Retail Inc. is banking on the bubbly personality of television sitcom actress Faith Ford to popularize its new brand image across the country for 51 shopping centers that carry the Prime Outlets name.
With her quick smile and light-hearted style, Ford -- who long played Corky Sherwood on "Murphy Brown," and now stars on her own show, "Maggie Winters" -- will carry a $5 million multi-media advertising campaign through the holidays.
Ford fits the target demographic and tested well with dozens of consumer focus groups. She has a year-long contract with Prime with an option for a second year
"She's got style and sophistication," said Anya T. Harris, senior vice president of marketing and communications for Baltimore-based Prime Retail. "What's beautiful is the way she says, 'This is shopping.' "
It's the first national advertising campaign for Prime Retail, which became the world's largest outlet owner and operator this summer with the acquisition of the Horizon Group Inc. Previously, each of Prime's centers did its own advertising campaigns.
This holiday season campaign is designed to be consumers' first real introduction to the brand -- the marketing of all its centers as Prime Outlets at whatever geographic location. In Maryland, there are Prime Outlets Hagerstown, Prime Outlets Perryville and Prime Outlets Queenstown.
"The key objective with the campaign is to raise awareness for Prime Outlets as a viable alternative to a mall for your holiday shopping," said Bernadette Alexander, president of Elkman/Alexander & Partners, the Philadelphia advertising company that created the campaign. "We had to create awareness for Prime as a brand because it didn't exist before, and create an interest to go there to do your holiday shopping."
But beyond being a first for 10-year-old Prime, the campaign is also first-of-its-kind for the outlet shopping industry, according to experts.
"The industry is growing up," said David M. Fick, a Legg Mason Wood Walker Inc. senior analyst who tracks Prime Retail. "It's only possible to do this when you have a player who's large enough to spend the money."
In her television and radio spots, Ford offers shopping tips that range from practical to whimsical. Radio spot advice includes: "Don't bring anything that will slow you down, like a husband who would rather be home watching the game" and "Never, ever pay retail -- especially if it's for your mother-in-law."
Television ads show Ford on a shopping trip, recommending that shoppers wear comfortable shoes but then spotting a sporty pair with 5-inch heels for sale and saying, "These look comfy."
In another scene, she finds a dress that she announces will look great on her Uncle Sid, turning to a fellow customer and confiding: "You don't know my Uncle Sid."
The core of the radio, television and print ads is uniform in markets across the nation, with directions and maps tailored to specific locations in the 26 states where Prime has centers.
"They've got to establish their name throughout the country," said Mark A. Millman, president of Millman Search Group, based in Lutherville. "It's like going to McDonald's for breakfast in Maine or in Tucson. You're getting the same consistency, quality, price and value."
Also key is boosting the idea of outlet shopping as fun.
"What we realized was that our key customer really loves to shop," Alexander said. "It's the thrill of the hunt. It's finding that brand name that you might not otherwise be able to afford."
There are more than 325 outlet malls in operation in the United States, with shopping at those centers representing $13 billion in sales annually -- about 2 percent of total retail sales in the United States.
Prime Retail owns 25 percent of the nation's outlet space. Its revenue was $129 million in 1997 and $155.5 million for the first nine months of 1998.
"Prime has been the absolute leader in developing the outlet industry and taking it to new heights," Millman said. "They've made it a part of the American way of life."
The company is building in Puerto Rico and recently announced plans for a center in St. Louis and two in New Jersey.
Experts also expect Prime to put together developments in Europe in the next 18 to 24 months.
Prime's extensive branding campaign is expected to have an additional effect -- boosting Prime's stock price, which experts say is undervalued. Shares in Prime Retail closed yesterday at $10.5625, up 18.75 cents.
"We think this is a stock that should currently trade at $14 to $16," said Fick, the Legg Mason analyst.
Carleton Meyers, president of Factory Outlet Consultants of Fairfax, Va., predicts that the Prime campaign will spur similar efforts by developers of other centers.
"It will be interesting to see in the spring who copies their idea," Meyers said. "Other developers the size of Prime will likely pick up on it, just like when the Rouse Company did food courts for the first time. Based on 35 years of shopping center experience, when people do something successfully, everyone copies them."
Pub Date: 11/12/98