Karen Corsaro’s son Anthony wanted a Nike outfit for his fifth birthday. She got to the cash register with $250 worth of clothes and $70 worth of Mall VIP certificates – rebates from the co-branded Visa card she helped create. “Man, that helps,” sighs the president of Simon Brand Ventures, the marketing arm of real estate giant Simon Property Group. The Indianapolis company owns 150 regional malls and counting, and Corsaro has led the charge to make them all first-rate promotion venues.
Simon Brand Ventures has accomplished a lot since its August ’97 inception, signing major alliances with Visa USA, Pepsi-Cola Co., and Microsoft, and rolling out the first national loyalty card program, MallPerks. Total revenues for Simon (formerly Simon DeBartolo Group) rose 25 percent to $933 million for the first nine months of ’98. The company’s share of diluted funds from operations rose 28 percent to $223 million.
Corsaro has been alone at the helm of Simon Brand Ventures since co-president Andy Halliday left in June to become vp-commerce for Excite. Between 30 Dakota Moon concerts with Pepsi and a 10-city tour of the NFL Experience with Visa, Corsaro’s had a productive, if exhausting, year.
“Andy left, we hired more people, and I haven’t missed [school] snack day once,” Corsaro laughs. Now that Simon’s promotion engine is revved, the company kicks off a national brand effort this year, breaking its 1/2rst-ever ads in March to pitch “the Simon way of shopping,” and building Simon MallPerks Marketplace kiosks to give info on current promotions via a national computer network. (Shoppers have been lukewarm about a similar kiosk-and-CD-ROM system testing in two of Simon’s Baltimore-area malls.)
In the meantime, Simon has relied on partners’ promotions to drive awareness. “We have to be very careful about the partners we choose, because their brand equity is the credibility we establish with consumers,”Corsaro says.
Pepsi lent Simon visibility this year with its September-October introduction of Pepsi One. Pepsi Lounges in malls hosted games and sampling. “We had people waiting 50 deep in line to play that golf game,”Corsaro laughs.
Pepsi also brought Dakota Moon to 30 Simon malls for free concerts. Corsaro’s team had pretty short notice on that gig: Pepsi approached Simon only 30 days before the tour began. “That proved we can execute a big idea rapidly,”she says.
But Pepsi delayed the back-to-school launch of its teen af1/2nity program as it and Simon tinker with the concept. “We just aren’t there yet”with a broad-based program to run nationally. It’s not a promotion, Corsaro stresses, but a long-term loyalty program to serve teens over a number of years. “Teens are absolutely on the cutting edge, and you just can’t do anything lame.”
Simon’s relationship with Visa matured this year as the credit card company tapped its NFL sponsorship for Kickoff ’98, bringing the NFL Experience roadshow to malls in 10 markets. Visa ran a national sweeps, gave gifts with purchase, and hosted NFL-themed events in malls.
“It was hard to kick off NFL’s season with any hoopla while the baseball season was ending so dramatically,” Corsaro says. “But the promotion really drove NFL merchandise sales.”
Visa and PNC Bank collaborated with Simon on the Mall VIP credit card. “We’d never be able to offer a loyalty deal like 2 percent back, because we just don’t have that kind of cash,”Corsaro explains. “To have a banking partner like PNC that can do that is really spectacular.”
Approval rates this past year were disappointing, but Corsaro blames that on the number of young applicants with a lot of interest in shopping but not much credit history. Visa and Simon are considering other versions of the card to serve that group.
Separately, Simon rolled out nationally its own MallPerks loyalty card, the only national loyalty program that’s “tender-neutral and retailer-neutral,”she says. MallPerks has two million cardholders, and “it’s only the base line of what we can do.”
With promotion platforms in place, watch for more partnerships and national campaigns this year. “We’re in an R&D phase,” Corsaro says. “‘Pilot’ is our favorite word, and we have a great laboratory. Customers will tell you right away what they like and what they don’t.”
So does the kindergarten class on snack day. Corsaro can handle both crowds.