The selling of Malibu East

Posted on Wed, 07/01/2020 - 12:30pm
How new marketing tactics sparked sales in ’70s

By Ron Cohn

Second of two parts. If you missed Part One of this article in May, which examined the thinking behind the construction and marketing of Malibu East during the early days of the condominium boom, you can read it here.

Models move into building; sales center demolished

The official grand opening of Malibu East took place March 1, 1971, with the opening of six model homes and a sales center on the 21st floor of the building itself. At that time, the sales center at Thorndale and Sheridan was torn down. The event created a flurry of activity, but sales still lagged behind projections, and competition from new buildings and resales was heavy.

It was at that point, early in the spring of 1971, that I got involved in the marketing of our building, when Dunbar Builders hired my advertising agency, Weber Cohn & Riley, to take over for the group that they had used for Malibu and Malibu East up to that point. We didn’t solicit the business. Rosenthal and I were acquainted through a lawyer we both used, who recommended us because of the work we had done for Home Federal Savings, the introduction of Carl Sandburg Village and for suburban subdivisions of National Homes Corporation and others.

We were starting with an inventory of about 170 unsold units – equivalent to the task of selling a building the size of 1212 Lake Shore Drive. The clock was ticking. Dunbar was paying interest on its loan, and competition was fierce.

Three new tactics to reawaken sales

The first thing that occurred to us was that the suburban empty nesters could probably be reached more effectively. Advertising to that market in the real estate pages was not productive if the suburbanites weren’t actively seeking a condo on the North Side of Chicago. Our experience indicated that radio commercials on the heavily listened-to morning and afternoon drive-time programs on the highest-rated stations was the way to go. We had to let them know they were in the market for a new way of life in the city.

The first flight of spots coincided with the spring selling season for resales in the suburbs – the best time to have your home listed if you wanted to move. Our commercials were engaging little stories told against a musical background about one (fictional) couple per 60-second spot and how each found a new, carefree life filled with beauty and excitement. We sold the promise of happiness, and it worked.

The second strategy we employed was to inject urgency into our messaging. On the radio, still aimed at suburban commuters, we ran entertaining commercials parodying radio and television game shows. They were written and produced by us in collaboration with famous radio actor Dick Orkin, and at least one, “Let’s make such a deal,” was subtly directed at Jewish buyers, who were an important segment of Malibu East’s population. Another, “Truth or Torture,” was aimed at single buyers, a growing submarket.

My favorite story having to do with print advertising for the urgency theme was our visual idea to support the headline “Lake Michigan is nearly sold out.” The building had never been dramatically photographed from the lake, and we wanted to do it at dusk, with the building silhouetted against the afterglow and most of the windows lit and reflected in the water. The problem was, the building was over 65% sold but only 35% occupied, so besides getting owners to light up their homes, we had to place construction work lights strategically in about 80 or 90 vacant units. Another problem was getting our photographer, who was a well-known Life magazine photojournalist, to go out in a rowboat about 200 yards for the shot. He revealed to us, at the last minute, that he couldn’t swim and we had to send a production assistant out with him as a lifeguard. Over drinks that night we learned that the assistant could barely swim either and they both had been terrified.

The ad was very successful and the campaign theme it anchored played a big role in selling out the building. Through the end, we never ran one promotion, contest or giveaway, to my recollection, as it would have been in conflict with our final strategy. We wanted to place ourselves above the competition by positioning Dunbar as “the brand name in condominiums,” the spokespeople for the form of real estate ownership that the company originated in Chicago. The first condominium in the Midwest was Fountain View, at Ridge and Devon, built by Dunbar in 1963, and 10 more projects followed in the next nine years.

One of the ways we communicated this “proprietorship” was to treat it with a light touch. In the first three months of 1972, with sales winding down at Malibu East and taking off at The WaterFord, another Dunbar property, on Marine Drive, we ran a series of six cartoon ads featuring drawings by the noted caricaturist Alvin Blick. Appearing in the financial, news, sports, television and society sections of the Tribune and Daily News, the humorous ads portrayed landlords, financial advisors, TV personalities, astrologers and bankers as being ahead of their respective games by having the financial savvy to buy a Dunbar condominium.

I don’t know exactly when the final new condominium at Malibu East was sold, as I was very involved in The WaterFord and other new Dunbar projects from that winter forward.