Madelyne Kirch is the founder of Sun & Moon Marketing Communications in New York. What differentiates her agency is its focus on real estate – everything from corporate, commercial and retail, to residential real estate. Madelyne founded her company almost 30 years ago, in her basement with a $2,500 investment. She’s always focused on real estate, a unique niche and a much-needed one. Developers are not schooled in marketing and generally need help. And her projects have ranged enormously in scale – sometimes working on a brand new project and sometimes working on repositioning existing space.
Madelyne sees a story in every project. “We are Real Estate Storytellers” pronounces her website. Finding the story that represents the developer’s idea, the project goals, and the physical building is step one in her process. Her secret sauce is her insider understanding of real estate. She is a member of industry groups, such as the Women’s Development Collaborative and an active member of the Urban Land Institute. Her handle on the experience of being a developer, including the difficulties that come with it, help her effectively guide clients towards a meaningful and impactful story about their project.
Sun and Moon marketing has worked with numerous developers, but Madelyne says their biggest and most impactful project was the development of Hudson Square – a 30 year project that turned a previously undesirable and underserved neighborhood into the site of a Google Campus and the Disney headquarters. Madelyne knows the importance of real estate and its power to transform a place; the Hudson Square project did just that. Sun and Moon has been around for decades, and Madelyne’s method has withstood the test of time (and technology), but even in the age of digital media, she emphasizes the importance of incorporating real-life marketing. Marketing tactics change consistently, but Sun and Moon has displayed its ability to adapt to shifts in how marketing is done, helping real estate developers find success in their projects for nearly 30 years.
Read the podcast transcript here
Eve Picker: [00:00:11] Hi there. Thanks for joining me on Rethink Real Estate. For Good. I’m Eve Picker and I’m on a mission to make real estate work for everyone. I love real estate. Real estate makes places good or bad, rich or poor, beautiful or not. In this show, I’m interviewing the disruptors, those creative thinkers and doers that are shrugging off the status quo, in order to build better for everyone. If you haven’t already, check out all of my podcasts at our website RethinkRealEstateForGood.co, or you can find them at your favorite podcast station. You’ll find lots worth listening to, I’m sure.
Eve: [00:01:17] Madelyne is the founder of Sun and Moon Marketing Communications in New York City. What differentiates her agency is its focus on real estate everything from corporate, commercial and retail to residential. Madelyne founded her company almost 30 years ago in a basement with a $2,500 investment. She’s always focused on real estate, a unique niche and a much needed one. Developers are not schooled in marketing and generally need help, and her projects have ranged enormously in scale. Sometimes working on a brand new project and sometimes working on repositioning existing space. Over the years, marketing has changed a lot, from hard copy to experiential marketing. Gone are the days of ads in a newspaper. Today, you need to find your audience in other ways. Listen in to hear how Madelyne thinks marketing real estate works best. If you’d like to join me in my quest to rethink real estate, there are two simple things you can do, share this podcast, and go to rethinkrealestateforgood.co where you can subscribe to be the first to hear about my podcasts, blog posts and other goodies.
Eve: [00:02:47] Hi, Madelyne. It’s really fun to have you on my show today.
Madelyne Kirch: [00:02:50] Hi Eve, how are you? Nice to see you.
Eve: [00:02:52] On your website, you say we are storytellers and those are the words on your company’s homepage. And what does that mean to you? Why do you say that?
Madelyne: [00:03:02] I’ve spent my career trying to encourage my staff to answer two questions about every project or every company that we’re marketing. And it really leads to a strategic perspective on how we’re doing what we’re doing. It’s never about just let’s make it a color or do we like this font? It’s really about what’s our story and how are we going to tell it? Every project has a story. Every company has a story. It may not necessarily be the story that the developer thinks that it is, and often there are components to a story that are hidden at first. But when you think of them more broadly or more strategically, they become, they become the forefront of how you engage who your audience is. We really start from a perspective, from a developer’s perspective, at a 30,000-foot level, they want to maximize return and minimize risk, and when it’s a for profit venture, they want to monetize either land or air. Those are the three components. How you define return is very broad. Not everybody does it for the financial return, although certainly many do it for the financial return both to themselves and to their investors. And so, we believe that when you look at marketing through a strategic lens, it helps you both maximize the return and minimize the risk because you’re asking a lot of questions in order to tell your story, and you need to start at the end before you begin. So, you ask questions like, who is this going to be attractive to? Who’s our audience? What action do we want them to take? Why would they do that? Right, you do a whole SWOT analysis. I see a SWOT analysis as not necessarily a financial component, but also a marketing component because it’s going to tell you how to tell your story and what’s important to it.
Eve: [00:05:08] Backtracking a little bit. Your company, Sun and Moon, is focused on real estate and economic development, which is maybe a little bit unusual for marketing branding. Very specific niche. And so, what led you to focus on real estate?
Madelyne: [00:05:24] My degrees are in journalism, political science and public administration.
Madelyne: [00:05:30] Oh, wow.
Madelyne: [00:05:30] And so, I have this very unusual mix of interests and I’ve sort of fell into real estate through the public administration part of it many years ago. My very first job was I was the marketing director when the Port Authority was building the north terminal of the bus terminal a long time ago. And they decided that they had 60 million people a year going through this bus terminal and a lot of shops that weren’t earning their keep. And so, they thought they should treat it like a shopping center. And I knew nothing about shopping centers or how to market shopping centers, but that got me involved with ICSC. And from there I got involved in all sorts of other facets of real estate. Yeah, I love real estate. I really, just as, its impact on the world I think is different than almost everything else.
Eve: [00:06:24] And it’s permanent for a start. Usually.
Madelyne: [00:06:27] My friends will tell you that I’m always saying, it’s always about the real estate. And when you think about your life, both your personal life and your professional life, there are very few aspects of it that don’t have some real estate piece to them. Where am I going to live? What city do I want to be in? How much space do we need? Is the job too far from the house? I mean, there’s just lots of lots of decisions that are real estate related, and I think that it’s integral to our lives. Also, the impact that real estate is able to have on our world. How do places feel? How do we make places? What do the buildings look like? What is the streetscape like? All of that has this very subtle effect on us that even people in the real estate industry don’t, they don’t necessarily relate to, but they absolutely feel.
Eve: [00:07:20] Yeah, I agree. So, what type of services do you provide to real estate developers or others in the industry?
Madelyne: [00:07:28] We start at the very beginning, really with a strategic approach and we will ask the developers lots of questions about, how do we get to their story. Very often we name a project, everything has an address, but the address isn’t necessarily always the best thing to call it. That’s the first part of telling a story is what is the name. We have a proprietary process that we go through and how we look at every piece of land and come up with a number of lenses through which it can be seen. So, we do a lot of naming, both of neighborhoods as well as of individual properties. We’ve also named companies. We’ve had cakes with our logos on them.
Eve: [00:08:09] That’s great.
Madelyne: [00:08:10] And then of course from the name becomes the whole branding process where you develop the look and the feel and the aesthetic that reinforces the strategy that you’re trying to get across and begins to tell the story. And then you take it through to a whole series of marketing tools early on in the project, the first thing you might see would be signage that alerts the neighborhood to what’s going on. We also do websites and marketing collateral, sales environments, leasing environments, the whole gamut, digital advertising and so on.
Eve: [00:08:45] That’s extensive. So, who are your customers?
Madelyne: [00:08:49] You know, our customers really span the spectrum from very, very large institutional investors through individual entrepreneurs. And it’s one of the things that we think helps us, because real estate is not a single source entity. It’s seen through a variety of lenses by different people. Very often we’ve taken the same building in the hands of different owners and done entirely different marketing campaigns because different people see bricks and mortar differently. The building hasn’t picked itself up and moved across the street. It’s the same building, but it’s conceptualized very differently. So, we have a lot of owners and developers. A lot of the great real estate families of New York are clients of ours, individuals starting out, people in real estate related service businesses across the spectrum.
Eve: [00:09:43] Okay, so what’s the biggest project you’ve worked on and what’s the smallest?
Madelyne: [00:09:49] So, the biggest project we’ve ever worked on. How you define big. Is it different term? Is it by dollars? Is it by square footage? Is it by number of units? But I would say the most impactful project we’ve ever worked on is the development of Hudson Square, the Hudson Square neighborhood in New York, which we worked on for 30 years.
Eve: [00:10:11] Oh, wow.
Madelyne: [00:10:12] With Trinity Real Estate, when we first started working on it, it was known as the Canal Varick Hudson area. A catchy denomination if you ever heard it. And the advantage that we had was Trinity is an institutional owner, as a church, they owned the land for 300 years, they weren’t going anywhere and they were very persistent. And over the course of three decades, we introduced the name. We introduced it to a lot of different types of audiences. We started out with commercial real estate brokers, then we went to retail brokers, tenants. The neighborhood was rezoned which interested residential buyers in it. And now, 30 years later, Google is calling its campus in Lower Manhattan, Google Hudson Square, and Disney has relocated, its office is building a brand new building at four Hudson Square. 30 years ago, no one would have thought that either Google or a company like Disney. 30 years ago, there was no Google, but that a company like Disney would even consider this neighborhood. So, real value was created through this decades long marketing process with a very committed owner who really monetized their land for social good. Right? The Trinity real estate is a church. The proceeds go to church related activities and support church related activities, and they did very, very well. Disney Net leased the land for $650 million.
Eve: [00:11:45] Wow.
Madelyne: [00:11:47] It was a worthwhile investment.
Eve: [00:11:49] Did you expect it to take so long when you started?
Madelyne: [00:11:53] I don’t know if I expected it to take 30 years. And there were certainly incremental victories along the way. Rents rose. Now, market forces were obviously in play as well, but the neighborhood became an accepted neighborhood. It went from being seen as a industrial neighborhood to really a place, and it became an accepted and even desirable and sought after place initially for commercial tenants and then for retail and residential as well. And it takes time. It takes time and it takes vision. One of my favorite quotes is a Japanese proverb that says Vision without action is a daydream. An action without vision is a nightmare.
Eve: [00:12:38] I love that.
Madelyne: [00:12:40] And I give Trinity a lot of credit to have affected that kind of change and created a place. But marketing was a very, very important component of it. Every year there was a line item in the marketing budget.
Eve: [00:12:52] It’s really interesting. So, then tell me about a tiny project that you loved working on.
Madelyne: [00:12:59] Tiny project.
Eve: [00:13:01] That’s, you know, that’s huge. The one you just described.
Madelyne: [00:13:05] Not all of them are tiny. There are smaller projects where a commercial tenant, for instance, might need to sublease space. And the tenant itself is not in the real estate business other than the fact that it has office space. And so, a commercial broker will look to us to help them create the materials that will bring that space to market. And that’s really a business to business, not a business to consumer approach. But it’s very important in those instances, not so much to position the property, but to organize the information to make it easy for someone to get involved.
Eve: [00:13:40] How is marketing real estate shifted over the last few decades? What are some examples of the most seismic shifts you’ve seen?
Madelyne: [00:13:48] The biggest seismic shift, as with other aspects of society, is technology. When I started in the business, really everything was print based and very person to person based, you know, advertising in the New York Times and The Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times, wherever the property happened to be. Now, there’s very, very little of that, obviously, in print. And everything has gone to digital and to search and to SEM and SEO and those kinds of activities where you can be much more targeted, and you can have much more direct data to help you guide your efforts. I would say that the ability to target an audience has changed dramatically. But interestingly, person to person is still very important, and we find that we still do consistently over the years marketing suites, sales and leasing centers where you’re able to actually get someone to the building or in the case of new residential development to a nearby location, and really take them through the process as opposed to just the digital interface where you have to tell them, but you’re not quite sure how much attention they’re paying. So, the personal aspect of it and the ability to be there hasn’t changed at all. That’s still very much a part of the business.
Eve: [00:15:14] And we also learnt that through the pandemic, didn’t we, that we all burned out on Zoom and yes, person to person.
Madelyne: [00:15:21] You know, I mean, who would have thought, I guess it took a pandemic, but for people to lease apartments sight unseen from a broker’s camera iPhone tour was not anything that anybody would have thought of. But digital marketing in all its facets. There are now TikTok channels and YouTube channels, and residential brokerage was much quicker to interact with digital technology and video technology than commercial. Commercial took a little longer. But even now, during the pandemic, commercial space sort of caught up. And now all of the video tours and walk the room and things like that are all very much part of it.
Eve: [00:16:01] But some basic things like signage on the building, posters. They’ve remained, haven’t they?
Madelyne: [00:16:09] For individual properties, signage is still the single largest driver of traffic.
Eve: [00:16:16] Interesting.
Madelyne: [00:16:17] If you have no budget at all, the simplest thing that you can do is a well-placed and strategic sign on the property. If you have no budget at all, do that because ultimately people are going to be at your building and are going to want to be at your building. And the chances are that people already in the neighborhood are your best prospects.
Eve: [00:16:39] Interesting. And what’s like the hottest way to market right now?
Madelyne: [00:16:43] Today, digital marketing and video marketing, A.I. is becoming a very big part. We’ll see where the metaverse lands us in terms of marketing. There is now digital land has become very popular and we’ll see where that takes us. But I think as technology continues to have, and the Prop Tech sector is exploding really in all different facets, both from a property management perspective as well as from a marketing perspective, I’m not sure all of it is going to ultimately be successful. It will have a shakeout period. But in the end, technology is with us and will continue to be.
Eve: [00:17:18] Yeah, and it’s a great thing. So, you know, then there’s the audience too. And do they want different things than they wanted several decades ago? You’re marketing to a different group of people.
Madelyne: [00:17:29] Yes. The younger they are, the more experiential it needs to be. Whether or not we are creating that experience in a virtual format or whether you’re creating that experience in real life, the idea of the experience, which really goes back to the story. What’s our story and how are we going to tell it? And do we need to tell it differently depending upon the medium that we’re using? How are we telling that story in a virtual context and how are we telling that story in real life and how people interact with it? So, the interaction of both of those. Ideally, you want both you want to have a great presence online and you want to have a great presence in person. Not every budget permits you to do that. And even from a corporate perspective, where if you’re marketing a company as opposed to, or a service, as opposed to a property, you still want to have a very robust online presence. But it doesn’t take away, for instance, the need for face-to-face meetings or the need to sit down and break bread with someone. So, both of those things are still important.
Eve: [00:18:38] So, I’m going to shift to the developers. Your customers. Yes. What are some of your pet peeves?
Madelyne: [00:18:46] I guess probably my biggest pet peeve, and I understand this to a certain degree, is that development is very much about managing risk and they manage risk in every phase of the development. And so, they’re not willing to take risks in the marketing. And sometimes what we often say is we have a great concept, and the client will dumb it down, and that’s because of risk. They’re concerned about doing anything that could impart risk to the process. I look at it from the other perspective that sometimes taking that risk actually lowers the risk, and that if you’re willing to be strategically different and you’re willing to be out there in a different way and position yourself differently than the herd that will ultimately lower your risk. But often developers don’t see it that way. And there is a herd mentality and the guy down the street did it this way. And so, we’re going to do it that way too.
Eve: [00:19:43] Well, that’s a shame.
Madelyne: [00:19:44] Yes.
Eve: [00:19:45] And we end up with vanilla everywhere.
Madelyne: [00:19:48] It’s very hard to embrace new concepts. As I said, clients are concerned about doing that. The other thing that I would say probably a pet peeve of mine is that marketing is brought in too late in the process. It’s not really thought about early on, and often it doesn’t get the line item that it needs in order to do it the right way. And so, we’re always value engineering, I guess, the way a lot of real estate is. But if I could change one thing, that might be my preference.
Eve: [00:20:17] On the whole, how would you love to see the real estate industry change?
Madelyne: [00:20:22] That’s a very good question. I would like to see the industry be more holistic, think about its impact on the world. There are certainly lots of people who do do that, and I don’t want to slight them in any way. There are lots of very caring developers who really are concerned about the impact that they have on a neighborhood. And certainly, community groups will do their best now to keep them in check. So, it is a push pull. But I do think that everything from sustainability and climate change to affordable housing to placemaking, there’s just a broad spectrum of ways in which real estate impacts the world. And thinking about the world from a big perspective is something that we really need to continue to do.
Eve: [00:21:09] So one final question. What’s exciting you most right now?
Madelyne: [00:21:13] I would say that the economic development excites me a lot. I love to be able to work with cities to help them think about what they might be able to be and how to position themselves and market themselves to a broader universe. I like that a lot. I think it has the potential to do a lot of good. I think we have to be very careful about gentrification in that process and be sensitive to that process. So, we can’t just go in and have broad swaths of change, but there is also potential for tremendous benefit, and that excites me a lot.
Eve: [00:21:51] So, you know, the other thing I’ve learned about you is that you’re not just a marketing firm outsider. You’re pretty heavily involved in the real estate industry yourself as part of the women’s development initiative and also ULI where I think you’re now going, aren’t you the chair of one of their, what do they call them?
Madelyne: [00:22:12] On July 1st, I’m going to become the chair of the Blue Flight of the Urban Revitalization Council.
Eve: [00:22:17] So you’re really heavily involved in real estate.
Madelyne: [00:22:20] I am. I think that understanding the world from the developer’s perspective and from our clients’ perspective really informs our work and that if we don’t understand the forces that are up against them, that we really can’t do a good job in servicing them and providing them with the right story and what they need.
Eve: [00:22:43] Well, thank you, Madelyne. It’s been a total pleasure.
Madelyne: [00:22:45] Thank you, Eve. It’s been great being with you.
Eve: [00:22:51] You can find out more about this episode or others you might have missed on the show notes page at our website RethinkRealEstateForGood.co. There’s lots to listen to there. A special thanks to David Allardice for his excellent editing of this podcast and original music, and thanks to you for spending your time with me today. We’ll talk again soon, but for now, this is Eve Picker signing off to go make some change.
Image courtesy of Madelyne Kirch