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Monday, Jan. 22, 2007 | With more than 10,000 new homes built in San Diego County last year, marketers know they have to work hard to set their houses apart from the pack. Sometimes, they work a little too hard.

Take, for example, this phrase used in a recent news release about Belvedere, a series of row homes near 73rd Street in La Mesa:

“Just around the corner from a variety of shops, cafes, tennis courts … and the chic La Mesa downtown atmosphere,” the release says. The tennis courts and community center and municipal pool described in the release are all there, just around the corner, indeed.

But the chic La Mesa downtown atmosphere?

If “chic” is in the eye of the beholder, Belvedere marketer Julia Simms is one of the only such beholders. Eyebrows crinkled in bewilderment among shoppers surveyed at the Lake Murray Boulevard Vons grocery store Friday afternoon.

“I wouldn’t use the word ‘chic’ to talk about La Mesa’s downtown, no,” said La Mesa resident Sybil Wille. “Quaint, maybe.”

To be fair, Simms is no naive newcomer to the home-marketing game. The portfolio for her agency reads like a Who’s Who in San Diego homebuilders — Corky McMillin, Shea Homes, Barratt American, Cornerstone, Reynolds. Simms admits it’s tricky to know what verbiage will be most effective. But she said she draws the line at lying to consumers.

“I would never mislead or put a falsehood in a press release,” she said. “Downtown La Mesa has a pretty cool atmosphere, like downtown Escondido. An older downtown with antique stores, mom-and-pops, that kind of thing.”

And that, she believes, it’s what’s becoming chic these days.

“Not ‘chic’, luxurious, like Tiffany’s,” she said, referring to the high-end jewelry retailer. “What’s cool nowadays is the old-fashioned, little bit funky downtown. An eclectic group of shops, not your suburban strip malls.”

“Eclectic,” La Mesa can do, with its juxtaposed Mexican restaurants, quilting and scrapbooking shops and auto repair centers. Simms said there’s a growing segment of the population seeking homes in older, established communities. And maybe, Simms said, the “chic” designation will not only draw new residents but prove a self-fulfilling prophecy for the neighborhood.

“It’s really somewhat true — retail follows demographics” said Leslie Wade, principal of public relations firm Wade Communications Inc. “If young, hip urbanites come into La Mesa, you will start to see more coffee shops, more retailers pointed at them.”

These kinds of marketing programs often define a neighborhood, Wade said.

“Hopefully, those messages are consistent with how the community sees itself,” she said. “City planners, developers — but it’s also up to the grass roots level. Absent that, developers and well-meaning bureaucrats will kind of define it for them.”

Wade, who recently stepped down from a 14-year stint as chairwoman of the East Village Association, knows something about community reinvention. She said it’s common for marketers to write their advertisements based on what the community could look like in a few years, rather than its current appearance.

“No one could market East Village the way it was — headquarters for homeless shelters, cracked sidewalks and derelict buildings,” she said. “The marketing had to be targeting the future of East Village.”

That neighborhood’s future would hold the installation of a new ballpark and dozens of towering condominium developments with street-front restaurants and retailers — a result far beyond what many of its prior residents could ever have imagined.

Even with the marketers’ dreams coming true, there’s some stretching that goes on, Wade said.

“[The marketers] create images of things that aren’t reality yet,” she said. “It may seem like the tail wagging the dog. But generally, these developers are following along with a message they’ve heard from the city.”

One such message is the desire expressed in new plans for National City, calling for thousands of condominium units to revitalize its disjointed, auto-shop-filled downtown with views of an industrialized waterfront.

As developer Eugene Marchese seeks to fit into that vision, his company has marketed its Revolution condo project with sexy images of sun-kissed beachgoers and slogans identifying the condos as “a hot spot for the culturally connected” with work, study and nightlife nearby. The project is “encased in the new,” its website screams, with a “credible funk and style that re-brands National City as a standout force.”

Marketing these developments, then, involves more than just describing the kind of appliances in the kitchen or the number of bedrooms. It’s about branding an entire community. And that, Marchese said, is what takes some creativity.

“What happens is, you have a situation (in National City) where a lot of developments are forward-looking, and so we have to envision the city in 2, 3 years,” he said. “With the billions of dollars of work that will go in here, obviously it’s going to look different in 2011 than it does in 2006, 2007.”

Marchese’s Australia-based marketing team wrote the language for his website, but many of them have made trips to San Diego to check out the project. He said a 10-year urban infill housing boom on the east coast of Australia has revolutionized the way housing units are marketed there.

“The Sydney team is well-versed in verbiage,” he said. “There’s a sophistication of infill marketing, a great deal of attention paid. Competition means that you need to stand out from the crowd — just like the auto industry.”

And those stand-out schemes matter even more in the slower market conditions in San Diego these days, he said.

Simms agreed the market often dictates how a marketing company does its work, most notably, spending more time identifying a target market.

“Should we be doing a postcard campaign or should we be handing out fliers at the ballpark?” she said. “In a frenzied market, you don’t need to spend that much time. People just come in and buy a house.”

Marchese doesn’t apologize for the dramatic, even racy, marketing techniques his company uses.

“We unashamedly produce a contemporary vision,” he said. “We’re targeting the urbanistas, considerably different from your older families who are looking to live in the suburbs.”

Please contact Kelly Bennett directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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