IT WOULD BE AN UNDERSTATEMENT to say that Mark Bair and Harry Kerker had some obstacles to overcome when they were hired to create a marketing strategy for Playa Vista on the west side of Los Angeles. Once owned by Howard Hughes (he built and tested the Spruce Goose there), the 1,000-plus-acre tract was adjacent to wetlands and had faced intense opposition from no-growth activists who filed numerous lawsuits and called the project “environmentally irresponsible,” citing water run-off, traffic impact, and high concentrations of underground methane gas. They also maintained that the site included a Native American burial ground. Development ultimately went forward, but the project was in trouble.

“Most of it was unfinished when we started,” says Bair, CEO of High-Beam Marketing. “When we walked through it at first, we thought it looked like Beirut. It wasn't very pleasant to look at.”

What was pleasant was the location near the beach, airport, and established residential, retail, and entertainment districts.

“It really is the heart and soul of Los Angeles,” says Bair's partner, Kerker, Kerker Kommunications' owner.

Focus groups told them that because of the extensive negative publicity and litigation, the mere mention of the name Playa Vista created barriers to acceptance, so the team created a set of teaser ads without the project name. It incorporated lifestyle photos from the area, including the ocean, people doing yoga, older surfers, wetland animals, and blue sky, with the headline, “Now the California Dream Has Its Own ZIP Code,” which Playa Vista has. Those ran on bus wraps on two strategic cross-town routes.

Subsequent radio and print ads playfully acknowledged the public's skepticism about Playa Vista. To ensure neighbors that it wouldn't be a cookie-cutter development, another ad highlighted its diverse architecture with the tagline, “From Tuscany to the Mediterranean in five minutes.”

After the initial campaign, the first positive article ever about Playa Vista ran in the Los Angeles Times, which called it the city's new urban model.

“After that article, the perception changed dramatically,” Bair says. “We had 8,000 people come to the grand opening. [Playa Capital president] Steve Soberoff thanked us and said, ‘You guys lifted the curse.' That was the period on the end of the whole thing.”

Builder: Playa Capital, Playa Vista, Calif.
Ad agency: Kerker Kommunications/HighBeam Marketing, Glendale, Calif.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Los Angeles, CA.