Suburban Legend

Thirty miles north of San Francisco, in a cozy valley of master-planned sprawl, the modern notion that branding has no limit may finally have hit just that. The unlikely stopping point is a 101-home subdivision nestled behind an ornate iron gate framed by what are meant to pass for two slate-roofed tollhouses. When it opened in 2001 the tract was billed as “The Village, a Thomas Kinkade Community.” It is now called merely the Village, and residents say the link to America’s self-proclaimed and trademarked Painter of Light lured them not at all.

“We would have preferred no Thomas Kinkade connection, honestly. I’m told there was a $1,000 surcharge because of the name,” says Richard Simonich, who arrived last fall with his wife and four children. “We were attracted by the architecture. These aren’t boxy like other new homes.”

Indeed, with their steeply pitched roofs, mock Tudor beams, and faux stone walls, the modest houses wouldn’t look out of place in the damp placid landscapes that Kinkade favors. There’s a tiny park with a gazebo, reached by a concrete path lined with billowy clouds of lavender, and many homes even have picket fences—though the front yards are so small a lanky person can reach across them to touch a wooden windowsill.

What made the Village unusual wasn’t the gauzy hint of simpler times. It was the licensing agreement between Kinkade’s corporation, Media Arts Group, and the Northern California division of Taylor Woodrow Homes. When the project opened on September 8, 2001—complete with an appearance by Kinkade, a Dixieland band, and the distribution of free prints to several hundred fans—cross-branding shimmered like the daub of light in countless Kinkade windows. Nearly every prominent painting in the model homes was a Kinkade reproduction. One included Kinkade-licensed living-room furniture. A gallery occupied space in the same tollhouse used as the sales office. And each model bore the name of a Kinkade daughter: Chandler, Merritt, Everett, or Winsor.

That was then. Now, as the project winds down, the models still have their names, and the sales brochure still quotes Kinkade’s pious promise of a place “where families thrive and memories are made.” But the gallery’s long gone, the Web link on the brochure is inactive, and many of the signed paintings have been replaced by standard subdivision fare—botanical prints and the like.

The problem with branding on this scale is that people who might spend $30 for lighthouse-shaped salt and pepper shakers or pick up 200 Serenity address labels from Checks Unlimited—two of the products covered by the artist’s 64 licensing agreements—aren’t necessarily in the market for new houses with prices starting just under $400,000. “No one bought on the name. I don’t know of anybody who said, ‘I want to be in a Kinkade community,’” sales manager Tom Dorsey says. “I don’t think I ever used Kinkade as a selling point, to be honest with you.” Within weeks of the Village debut, in fact, Taylor Woodrow sacked its entire Northern California management team. The new crew “kind of inherited the cobranding with Kinkade,” Northern California marketing sales director Toni Leance says politely. Nor was the contract renewed: “I’m not sure the cobrand I’d go after is Kinkade,” she says. “I’d like to cobrand with a Target, a Home Depot—something that’s huge.”

Eric Kuskey of Creative Brands Group, Kinkade’s licensing agent, says that in the beginning the two sides “absolutely” talked about Villages to come. “This was to be the start of something, not the beginning and the end,” Kuskey says. “We didn’t renew our agreement…we had ambitious plans, and we decided to pull back.”

Marketing experts suggest—charitably—that it was a stretch to imagine that affection for a particular brand name could influence a decision as complicated and expensive as choosing where to live. “Are there limits to brand-stretching? Absolutely. It’s like looking for a cliff in the dark. You edge forward slowly, and then you go too far,” says Sam Hill, president of Helios Consulting Group in New York and coauthor of such books as The Infinite Asset: Managing Brands to Build New Value. “Ralph Lauren has done the best of all of them; he has created a vague embodiment of upper-class English lifestyle. I buy his suits, but I’m not going to buy a house because his name is on it.”

If nothing else the relationship brought publicity. The Village is one of eight subdivisions within the Hiddenbrooke district of Vallejo, a former military town being transformed into a suburb of San Francisco. But it’s the only one among them that’s been featured in everything from the New York Times and USA Today to Canada’s Globe and Mail and England’s Guardian. Coverage could be derisive—“Land of the Twee” was the Guardian headline—and articles stressed the disconnect between a real village and this gated community five miles from the nearest store. No matter. “Our early traffic was enormous,” Dorsey recalls. “A lot of people did think Mr. Kinkade had something to do with the actual designs. Even now people will come in and ask if there’s a bus tour. Most of them aren’t here as serious shoppers.”

Nineteen months later, the only home still on the market is one of the models. The Village could hardly be called a failure. But the 101 units moved more slowly than anyone expected at the start, especially in a region where $400,000 can be the price of a starter home.

Many Villagers say they were ignorant of Kinkade before they paid their first visit to his licensed domain. “When I saw the models I had never heard of Thomas Kinkade, but I liked the feel,” says Jennifer Young, who recently moved in with her husband. During the sales process Taylor Woodrow agents “never mentioned him. The brochure said the designs were inspired by him, but he was not talked about.”

One homeowner confesses that she now owns a Kinkade, though Jennifer Fagundes is quick to add that her husband bought it as a present—and that “the price was reasonable…some of his stuff is outrageous.” What counts for Fagundes is that the subdivision feels right for her, her husband, and their three children, whether or not there’s a link to the artist whose professed role models are Norman Rockwell and, because of his marketing savvy, Andy Warhol. “This is a village. The name truly fits the community,” Fagundes says. “To us, it was icing on the cake to have a connection to a famous person.”

For his part, Kuskey insists six-figure branding might yet have a future. “I believe Thomas Kinkade as a visionary does have an idealistic view of the home itself, the larger community,” he says. “Our intent was to dip our toes into the water with this project and then take it to the next level… I think we can execute that in certain areas around the country and that Thomas Kinkade fans will gravitate to that vision.”

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