December 14, 2006

Linda Berman



Firm: Caruso Affiliated

Position: Vice president of strategic branding and communications

Linda Berman is not your conventional “brand consultant,” although Disney, AT&T, Nike, Coca-Cola, MTV, the NFL and the New York Jets, among others, have called upon her to redefine and refine their brands. She has mastered the approach of finding points of intersection between cultural shifts, consumer trends and a company’s own uniqueness to create an exciting array of new retail stores, licensing and merchandising programs, communications strategies and consumer experiences. She embodies Caruso’s philosophy that the future of real estate development is about building more than just places — but places in the heart of the consumer.

Tell us a bit about your background.

As a Los Angeles native, one of the few, I’ve always appreciated my hometown as a place that encourages creativity. There is a certain vibrancy that’s appealing to me along with the support for doing new and exciting things. My father was in the entertainment business. He was head of publicity for Paramount Studios, so I grew up in the world of entertainment. It was a huge influence on me in my retail career.

Getting personal
with Linda Berman
Q: If you could own any property on earth, what would that be?
A: There’s a breathtaking stone house on a bluff with a spectacular view of the northern California coastline in Carmel. It takes my breath away. I would be very happy to sit in that house and stare at that view for the rest of my life.

Q: What was your very first job?
A: I worked as a receptionist in a law firm. I still appreciate a good “How many lawyers does it take to…” joke.

Q: What’s next on your leisure reading list? Business?
A: “Water for Elephants.” It’s the story of loss and coming of age in a traveling circus during the Great Depression. On the business side, I just finished reading “The Alpha Male Syndrome” by Kate Ludeman and Eddie Erlandson. I recommend it, especially to any woman in the business world today! Enough said.

Q: Tell us one thing about yourself that would surprise people.
A: Even though I am, for the most part, a Four Seasons kind of girl, twice a year we travel to the Midwest, rent a truck, stay in inexpensive motels and spend days buying vintage goods from antique malls and flea markets. We ship it all back to our new store, Razzle Dazzle, where I spend my weekends. During the week, I’m at my desk as vice president of corporate communications and branding at Caruso. It’s the best of two very different, yet strangely overlapping worlds — with retail at the core of both.

My husband and I started our first retail store while we were still in college, a gift store called The Memory Gallery. We became the Los Angeles licensee for Crabtree and Evelyn and I eventually became a consultant to C&E helping build their image. Back in those days there was no notion of “brand.” That’s when I honed my understanding of what constituted a brand.

I went on to work for large retailers doing merchandising and trend tracking. What interested me at that point was not so much retailing, but what brands have the power to do. I became very interested in the emotional aspects of brands.

When do “brands” work?

Big brands, such as the Disneys and the Nikes, really work when they offer their customers an emotional connection. There is something in those brands that actually transcends the very products that they sell.

That intrigued me and I pursued that area of opportunity and started a company called Figure One. We were a think-tank of various disciplines — marketing, architecture, graphic design, media. Companies hired us to navigate and mine the DNA of a brand. After identifying that DNA and making it recognizable and palpable to that company, we would say “this is what you represent to your consumer.” Then we would present them with a blueprint for new business development.

When you understand who you are and the emotional real estate you own in the heart and mind of your consumer, you can create a “this is who we are” brand. We showed clients what that looked and felt like, whether it was in new products, media and so on. Essentially, we became advocates on behalf of the consumer.

Brands are like people. They need a rich, resonant voice that speaks to people and forms the kind of trust that is implicit in any personal relationship. That’s when a brand can make the leap to the next level.

How have consumer values changed in recent years?

In our post-9/11 world, priorities have shifted and changed. People are looking for experiences and seeking connection with others. People are scrapbooking and knitting, but it’s not about scrapbooking, per se. We have a need to preserve our past and pass it onto our kids. We need connection. Not all this is based on 9/11, but that event accelerated a behavior that was happening prior.

How does this translate in the real estate business?

In the context of business, it isn’t embarrassing anymore to speak about emotions. Developers need to attract clients, be they tenants or shoppers, and they need to understand this. We need to create heart share and places of meaning that connect people. My background isn’t in real estate except as it relates to the fact that there’s a sea change in the consumer world and in their priorities.

Typically developers, especially retail developers, draft off the brand of their tenants and don’t feel the need to create their own brand. Branding of places, done in a sophisticated way, is creating value separate from tenants. Then you put those great tenants in and it lends a certain magic. That’s when transactions go up and people frequent your property.

In creating successful places, be it retail, commercial or residential, there needs to be an understanding of what is meaningful to people. It doesn’t matter if it’s a resort or an office building or a shopping center. Go beyond bricks and mortar and beyond architecture and figure out how to create places of meaning. What will people respond to with their hearts as well as their wallets? We need to create places that will be sustainable and worth having around decades from now.

What traits do successful brands share?

They share the knowledge that their “meaning” looms larger than their products. They represent something to their audiences and have touched them. Once a brand reaches that kind of stature then they have permission to develop new products and experiment and command premium pricing. They even have permission to misstep occasionally, whereas a more fledgling brand can’t do these things without great risk.

Successful companies don’t abandon the roots of their philosophical positions and they craft something so distinct that it creates its own standard.

How is brand loyalty created and sustained?

Before you can expect people to buy, you have to get them to buy in. Buy into your philosophy and your point of view. That creates a loyalty that runs very deep and is far more difficult to dislodge. Once I choose to be loyal to a brand, I’m giving a certain permission that I don’t extend to just anyone. It’s like a relationship, when you choose a life partner or a friend.

But a brand is like a rubber band — you can stretch it so far before it breaks. You have to understand a brand’s elasticity and know that if you stretch it too far, there will be a disconnect.

Consumers are so empowered today and they’re mostly empowered to reject. We can have anything, anytime, at every price point. We shop Neiman Marcus in the morning, Target in the afternoon. We’re wearing Armani suits with a Gap T-shirt underneath. Consumers have too many choices these days and they are very smart and can be capricious.

What would be your next career?

I’d be a radio talk show host. I’m a huge fan and I’ve been listening for years because it helps me in my trend work. I needed to understand the marketplace as well as the mood of people.

What career highlight still makes you smile?

The first time someone came in the first gift shop years ago and said, “I love this,” and bought it. There isn’t a bigger rush than the validation from making someone happy. It’s not about the money, it’s about the emotional connection and that has been very satisfying.

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