Reflections on trends in the cultural history of the playground
Playgrounds and play equipment as marketing tools
By Prof. Dr. Rainer Hartmann, Bremen City University of Applied Sciences
Playgrounds and marketing? At first glance, these two terms seem to have nothing to do with each other. After all, playgrounds and the corresponding equipment can be seen as being among the fundamental requirements of existence - in other words, they are amenities that provide for the activities that social geography considers to be essential to humans in their everyday life. As they meet certain basic human needs, the surroundings in which people live must be adapted to accommodate them. In the case of playgrounds and equipment, the aspects of appeal of place of residence, potential for recreation and the possibility to socialise - all factors that are themselves intertwined - play a role. Such fundamental requirements of existence involve a spatial necessity because space is needed in which to provide them and as a consequence, competition for this space can arise in connection with planning processes. It is one of the mandatory obligations of local authorities to provide playgrounds in their residential areas. Moreover, it is a political obligation to ensure that sufficient playgrounds and related equipment are installed, for example in recreational and urbanised areas.
But what has all this to do with marketing?
To answer this question, it is only necessary to recall that commercial outlets also employ play areas and play equipment to increase their attractiveness for their customers or - to put it another way - as part of their marketing strategy. Perhaps one of the most well-known of these is the 'Småland' concept employed by IKEA. Children aged 3 to 8 years can play in these areas leaving their parents free to buy furniture. "This is much more fun for children than having to tag along with you shopping. This is why we provide our supervised crèche areas – our Smålands - in our stores“ (IKEA). And in large shopping centres located in or out of town, there are similar attractions intended to ensnare the young ones so that the shopping experience of the adults is enhanced. In the massive Centro in Oberhausen, Germany's largest shopping mall, a new such feature for children called 'Centrolino der Entdeckerwald' has only just (May 2017) been opened. It is thus apparent that commercial operators employ playgrounds and play equipment as marketing tools. They are designed for the convenience of customers and as systematic focuses that serve to attract more customers, to improve customer satisfaction, to enhance the image of the commercial outlet and even as a means of outperforming competitors.
The installation of a play area as a marketing tool thus provides - at least in the commercial context - added value. For businesses, this represents a form of extra service offered to customers. The basic services provided by shopping centres and specialist retailers are the range of outlets and goods and the car parking facilities. All other services that make shopping easier, more diverse and even into an exciting experience are additional benefits. They serve as unique selling points and can also encourage customers to visit and to purchase. These additional services can take the form of (supervised) play areas for children, gastronomic outlets, events, leisure facilities, special apps and much more besides.
This, at least, is the case in the commercial sector. But how much of this is relevant to the non-commercial field and to local authorities?
Repositioning the concept of supply and demand away from the commercial to the non-profit sector makes it necessary to provide further differentiation of the notion of marketing. On the theoretical level, it is possible to distinguish between 'rational' ('quid pro quo') and ‘non-rational’ reciprocal relationships. 'Non-rational' in this sense would be the installation of a playground in a town to which all residents would have access without having to provide some form of counter-service or payment. The extension of the marketing concept to publicly operated services and municipalities as a whole began in the late 1960s.
When it comes to 'non-profit marketing', the emphasis is on ensuring that the particular service is designed to meet the needs of the corresponding stakeholders. These will be individuals or groups who, either directly or indirectly, interrelate in some way with the organisation in question. These interrelationships can be controlled by means of integrative marketing management processes. The aim is to ensure that what is provided conforms to the needs and expectations of the associated groups. And there can be many of these groups. This becomes at once clear when we consider a playground in a particular community. There are the interested residents (mainly parents and children), other locals (who might be disturbed by the noise), retail outlets (whose location might be made more attractive), local authorities (planning and finance), administration (acquirement of equipment and installation), other investors (donors, sponsors, associations etc.), the general public and the media. The above list is by no means exhaustive. The real skill when it comes to group-orientated marketing is to make sure that all the divergent interests of the various stakeholders are catered for as far as possible. This requires - possibly to an even greater extent than in the commercial sector - the ability to develop creative and innovative solutions.
However, in practice and outside the commercial sphere there is still a major legitimisation issue associated with the concept of marketing. Underlying this are vague concerns with regard to the use of terms such as 'market', 'customer' and 'marketing' and negative associations or prejudices ('commercialisation') and these tend to generate resistance. This rejection of the use of marketing is usually attributable to a failure to correctly understand its purpose - the problem thus in essence simply comes down to one of terminology. The benefits of non-profit marketing can be readily demonstrated on the basis of best practice examples in the sector that will illustrate what advantages this can offer for other organisations and communities (see below). Potential misunderstandings need to be addressed and it must be made clear in how far non-profit marketing differs from commercial marketing.
In view of the considerations above, it is clear that the installation of playgrounds in urban environments should not be a task assigned to town planners alone. If playgrounds and their equipment are to be appropriately designed and located, input from all responsible bodies in the community in question is required as this represents an important feature of the marketing of that community, whereby the concept of marketing here is applied to the community as a whole.
Urban marketing first emerged in the 1990s as a tool employed to provide for sustainable urban development. It has since been adopted and has established itself throughout Germany. The corresponding umbrella organisation 'Bundesvereinigung City- und Stadtmarketing Deutschland e.V.' (BCSD) now has members from more than 380 towns and communities of all sizes. Urban marketing strategies in various forms and with diverse purposes are implemented here through a wide range of organisational units. But common to all is the use of a new approach to the public-private partnership concept. Although there is no standardised definition of urban marketing, it can be said that in general urban marketing is a management process that encourages the local decision-makers to work together in an institutionalised, integrated process. Ideally, this should involve the bringing together under the banner of common interest the various aspects of urban development tasks and important elements of private commercial marketing strategies ('the town as a business').
Today's urban marketing focuses on certain 'core areas'; these are urban development, tourism, public relations, business and culture. One in five urban communities in Germany employs for this purpose comparatively comprehensive approaches. But the target of most projects tends to be the inner city areas. A trend towards 'objectivity', away from holistic and fundamental concepts to greater pragmatism is apparent in the case of urban marketing in practice. In terms of its implementation, urban marketing can be seen as a form of service within the scope of which the various activities of conception, coordination and communication with regard to the above core areas are brought together.
Playgrounds are admittedly just one minor aspect of urban marketing as a whole. Yet, depending on the objectives of the community or its urban marketing strategy, these can turn out to be significant 'marketing tools'. More and more communities are becoming aware that child- and family-friendliness is a 'soft location factor' that can provide them with a considerable competitive edge when it comes to attracting customers, residents and even businesses. This is particularly the case when effective urban marketing is already being undertaken and those involved recognise that the community as a whole can benefit from concentrated measures designed to improve its appeal for children and families.
As much of urban marketing currently concentrates on inner city areas, it is apparent that the installation of playgrounds here is being used for the purposes of marketing - in the same way such amenities are employed by specialist retailers and shopping centres. In order to achieve an optimal 'playground' design in an inner city, the location itself needs to be enhanced using a unified themed concept so that it becomes accepted by both parents (ease of access) and children (fun) while enhancing the quality and length of the time that families with children spend in the inner city.
There are many different ways that playgrounds and play equipment can be used for marketing purposes in practice. Winding through Velbert's inner city, for example, can be found a 95 meter-long and 80 cm-wide colourful 'play snake' with incorporated water play features. Throughout the inner city of Dortmund are distributed 13 'play stations' that offer different forms of play and fun experiences. There is a play area in the Adolfsallee in the centre of Wiesbaden; the playground, surrounded by chestnut trees, is located on the route from the station into the inner city and offers a trampoline, climbing tower and water play area with sand among other attractions. There is even a beer garden for the parents in the immediate vicinity. In Hamburg's HafenCity, the new Grasbrookpark opened its doors in August 2013. This consists of a large grassed area with a 175 m2 football pitch and goal wall while a section with training apparatus invites residents of and visitors to HafenCity to exercise and play. The main attraction here is the 'Treasure Island' play zone with its large pirate ship that is accessed by means of a wooden ramp and that 'floats' in a sea of blue wood chips.
From the perspective of urban marketing - understood here as the need to make these facilities attractive to target groups - many such amenities are associated with various positive factors; PPP-based design and financing, active media interest providing for 'promotion', effective organisation through (urban) marketing professionals and continuous monitoring of outcomes and adaptation as necessary. It is evident that to be successful in the use of playgrounds and play equipment as marketing tools designed to make a town more appealing for children and families a unified approach is necessary. As the examples demonstrate, planning alone is not enough - coordinated and concerted efforts are required - exactly those employed by urban marketing. Urban marketing frequently plays a major role in the planning, implementation and, of course, marketing of play attractions and equipment.
Information on the author:
Prof. Dr. Rainer Hartmann
Bremen City University of Applied Sciences
Leisure and Tourism Management
Tel.: +49 (0) 421-5905 2734
Photo: Kinderland Emsland Spielgeräte