Futurist Urges Apartment Industry to Adopt ‘Storytelling’ and ‘Customization’

"How are our residents changing and how do we need to change the way we design and market our communities?" asks author Jack Uldrich during the 2011 NMHC Apartment Operations and Technology Conference & Exposition.

Dallas—Amazon now sells more electronic books than traditional print books, but it was slow going at first when this new reading option came to market. What has happened since then, says best-selling author and global futurist Jack Uldrich, is an extraordinary shift in human behavior. Professional futurists make it their business to anticipate these types of shifts, but according to Uldrich, the apartment industry needs to be looking ahead as well while asking: how are our residents changing, and how do we need to change the way we design and market our communities?

During his keynote speech at the 2011 NMHC Apartment Operations and Technology Conference & Exposition at the Hilton Anatole in Dallas, Uldrich touched on a number of exciting trends and described how innovative businesses are implementing them. “The Internet is creating a new kind of consumer. Behaviors are changing; when we were lost driving, we used to look at a map to see where we were on it. Now we focus on where we are and where everything else is in relation to us.” In order to communicate in ways that matter to consumers, you need to know what they’re thinking.

Daimler discovered that young people living in urban areas don’t want to deal with the expense of owning a car, said Uldrich. So rather than concentrate all efforts on trying to figure out how to sell this demographic—or lose their business—Daimler shifted its focus onto renting them Zip cars.

“We’re going to continue doing the same things—reading, driving, shopping—but how we do them will continue to change,” added Uldrich. In Seoul, South Korea there are now digital supermarket aisle displays throughout the subway system that allow busy commuters to place their grocery orders for delivery at the end of the day.

Uldrich also noted that according to Northeastern University more patients prefer seeing virtual nurses than live ones who are too harried to engage in conversation. With the virtual nurse, there is no expectation of human interaction, and so the experience is frequently more pleasant for the patient.

We will also be seeing more products that borrow from gaming technology so prevalent among the younger set. According to Uldrich, the dashboard of the Ford Fusion contains a video game with a green tree that continually grows greener or begins to wilt depending on the route selected by the driver. “Can gaming technology [result in a solution] that helps you lower water and energy costs at your properties?” he asked conference attendees.

The younger consumer wants to recall an event from his or her own perspective. This need for customization can also be seen in the fact that there are so many choices when we order a cup of coffee; teens today can design their own music lists, sneakers and clothing. Will they want to carry this customization over into the apartments where they live? “Figure out how to do it before your competition does,” said Uldrich, who also stressed the importance of getting up to speed on data mining and business analytics. “It helps us see the world more clearly.”

Uldrich shared an anecdote about a McDonald’s consultant who discovered something surprising: most milkshakes were actually bought in the morning by commuters who wanted an easier alternative to hot coffee but something a bit more substantial than iced coffee. Franchise owners resisted this insight from an outside consultant because, they said, “We know our business.” But, as Uldrich points out, the data doesn’t lie. “If you don’t use these tools, you’ll be at a disadvantage.”

Last, but not least, he suggested the apartment industry consider the power of storytelling as they move their businesses forward. “A story resonates with people and helps them deal with the onslaught of information they face all the time,” he said. The YouTube clip produced by Chipotle—the fastest-growing fast food restaurant in the U.S.—has been downloaded 4 million times. Chipotle has used storytelling to show how it uses locally grown sustainable products to cultivate a better world. Telling the story of what the brand represents (for example, sustainable, local farming) helps anchor the brand to its customers and build loyalty.