Using Storytelling in Commercial Real Estate Marketing

By: Mark Winter

This article originally appeared on

Storytelling is an intrinsic part of our daily lives. Movies, books, music, news, religion and art are all imbued with the stories we tell each other–and the stories we tell ourselves.

Even the spaces and places that we work, shop, eat and play are “speaking” to us – and through us – defining our dreams and desires, informing our values, and even shaping the contours of our hidden prejudices and deepest fears.

We have evolved to respond to storytelling. We are biologically wired to look for meaning and connection, and great storytelling resonates with us on a deeply satisfying level. Great storytellers take simple ideas and present them in a way that is deeply compelling – connecting events and ideas, and people and places to larger themes, weaving narratives that help us to make sense of the world around us.

Perhaps nowhere is the story more important than in the worlds of retail and commercial real estate marketing. Company’s that understand the power of storytelling and can harness that power to create and share compelling narratives will find that they can establish real and lasting traction that has an indelible impact on both public perception and, ultimately, the bottom line.

Build a compelling story
Skillful storytelling elevates marketing to something much more powerful. A sales pitch becomes a series of shared experiences, and the cold calculus of blueprints and site plans is replaced by the warm glow of happy moments and lasting memories.

But great storytelling doesn’t just happen. It is meticulously crafted and carefully calibrated to achieve specific goals. In the case of commercial real estate, the story has to implicitly or explicitly answer critical questions like: Why should visitors come to you? Why would a retailer want to be in your center? Why should financial institutions lend you money? And why should an investor or partner buy into your vision?

Getting it right on the front end is vitally important. Building a compelling, passionate story that people want to hear begins with a comprehensive discovery process that identifies your unique attributes and differentiators, and leverages those assets into a storyline that is all your own. Documenting that story may begin with a foundational document like a backgrounder or media narrative, but it requires sophisticated communications strategies and proven PR expertise to enhance, build upon and evolve the storyline over time. From traditional media relations and marketing to social media messaging and activation, the opportunity and all of the tools to share your story are right in front of you, right now.

Identify and empower an accomplished storyteller
There is no record of when or where the first story was actually told. What we do know, however, is that early storytellers were able to keep their audiences’ attention by regaling them with engaging tales of hunts and heroism, history and heartbreak, reached positions of great respect and power.

Today’s storytellers are no less influential. They use energy, passion, visuals and experience, leveraging their highly specialized expertise to great effect. The right storyteller can even take an underwhelming story and make it a figurative page-turner. Gifted storytellers know how to connect with, adjust and adapt to different audiences, ensuring that your message is not only shared, it is heard. The ability to marry the message with the medium, and to do so in a way that weaves each thread of the storytelling pattern into a larger tapestry, requires a level of coordinated planning and sophisticated storytelling skill that only a select few professionals can consistently demonstrate.

To appreciate how important it is to find the right storyteller, think about the last time you heard a professional comedian tell a joke or relate a funny story. That exact same joke, in the hands of an amateur, will get a very different response. Selecting the right company or person to help you tell your story is just as important. It can turn a punch line into a laugh line, and transform polite applause into a roar of approval.

When looking for your storyteller, identify someone who knows your industry and has the ability to uncover your unique difference-making attributes. That can be someone inside of your company or a third party partner. Many times those attributes are not obvious to company leaders. Ideally you want to work with someone that can spot the Rembrandts in the attic: the things that you walk by every day, but may be too close to fully appreciate. Gifted storytellers know how to find those hidden treasures, and connect them to your story in a way that resonates with target audiences.

Amplify your voice
Even the best story is only as impactful as its audience. Reaching more people in more ways is at the heart of successful commercial real estate marketing and storytelling, which is why messaging amplification is such an important piece of the public relations skillset.

Great storytellers know how to leverage traditional media relations – including established relationships with reporters and editors at local, regional and national publications–to take full advantage of these highly visible platforms for your story. The best take it much further, however, leveraging earned media in creative ways and amplifying the message through websites and blogs, social channels and other platforms. In today’s world, the potential impact of this omnichannel storytelling is extraordinary.

Consider the example of Liberty Center in Cincinnati, Ohio. The Steiner + Associates center benefitted greatly from coordinated storytelling, particularly leading up to its grand opening in October 2015. In addition to strong trade publication outreach and awareness, Liberty Center’s story was shaped and shared through a comprehensive social media strategy and activation program that leveraged tone, voice, language, imagery and experience to engage in compelling storytelling. You can read our Liberty Center case study here.

Liberty’s example also proves that storytelling isn’t just about words: the visuals are essential. From videos to great photography, indelible images can add engaging new chapters to any commercial real estate story.

Change your story
We have come a long way from primitive stories around a fire, drawings in the dirt and finger painting on cave walls, but one thing has remained constant through millennia of storytelling: great stories find their audience and take a foothold in their consciousness.

In a commercial real estate marketing context, the most engaging stories – told in the right way, at the right time, to the right audiences – create opportunities, attract tenants, educate audiences, inspire communities, build credibility and drive ROI. The right combination of the storyteller, the audience, the medium and the message can work wonders. When you get those elements dialed in, magical things can happen. Spaces and places become ideas and emotions, greatly enhancing the potential for effective placemaking. And in an industry where perception is so critical, and where experience is currency, a memorable and enduring sense of place is perhaps the most a valuable asset of all. Ultimately, if you want a change the way you are perceived, don’t do things the same way and expect new or better results. Change your story.

Interested in more public relations and communications tips for commercial real estate and mixed-use projects? Download our free e-book on why media matters for mixed-use developments.

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