Rosedale Center went to the dogs last year, hired drag queens for a fashion show this spring and embraced the 1980s with a “Stranger Things” back-to-school promotion.

For the holidays, the mall called up social media influencers, then turned the tables by putting them at the center of its marketing.

“I’m here to make waves,” said Sarah Fossen, the marketing executive behind the innovations. “We’re being given more freedom than other malls in this market, so we’re doing it first.”

The region’s third-biggest mall (after the Mall of America and Southdale) added a new wing last year and is about to start another $100 million construction project. But, at a time of extreme pressure on retailers and malls, Rosedale’s marketing outreach has attracted national attention and, more important, the coveted under-40 set of shoppers.

“More bodies means more sales,” said Greg Maloney, chief executive at Jones Lang LaSalle Retail, which manages Rosedale and other malls.

In January 2018, Rosedale invited people to walk their dogs inside the mall on Sunday mornings before stores opened. Hundreds became regulars, but the mess became too much and executives ended it in February.

But Rosedale’s marketers were just getting started. The fashion show with the drag queens sold out its 400 tickets. Each attendee received a coupon from Macy’s, and the redemption rate was 50%.

“That’s insanely high,” Maloney said. “Usually you’re happy with 10%.”

This year’s Easter egg hunt turned into a mallwide search for art, a promotion that put the spotlight on works by 30 Minnesota artists. And this fall, Rosedale turned to area teenagers with large social media followings to promote a back-to-school effort tied to the Netflix drama “Stranger Things.”

For the holidays, the marketing department expanded its social media reach by hiring 14 influencers. Each was asked to add several Instagram posts, take a photo of themselves with a $250 Von Maur gift card to be given away to one of their Instagram followers, and post five favorite items from Rosedale.

In return, the diverse group of local influencers had the cameras turned on them. Bobby Rogers, the Walker Art Center’s official photographer, snapped photos of them in their element as hair and makeup artists, stylists and photographers.

Rosedale is using those photos for its holiday marketing online and in the mall itself.

‘Rosedale’s my mall’

Eva Igo, a Hugo teenager with 277,000 followers, received 23,000 likes and 800 comments on a recent post about Rosedale.

“I used to live in Inver Grove Heights, so I still feel like Rosedale’s my mall,” she said. “The response and the number of comments I’ve received has way exceeded what I expected.”

Sumaya Keynan, a 26-year-old makeup artist with almost 100,000 followers, was the second woman wearing a hijab to be featured in Rosedale’s influencer photos this year.

On Dec. 11, she wrote an Instagram post with three pictures of her at Rosedale and one taken of her as a young girl. Then, she added a note to her younger self.

“My goal in life is to show young girls and women who look like me that they too can change the world and that no dream is too big. Thank you for never giving up on me,” she wrote.

More than 500 followers responded with messages of their own. One girl wrote, “Seeing your huge campaign at Rosedale Mall showed me that being different was okay, and that it was okay to shine a light on my own culture and ethnicity without having to feel shameful about it.”

For Fossen, those kinds of feelings capture the campaign’s mission.

“Traffic and sales are important, but the ultimate goal is emotional equity at Rosedale,” she said. “We want them to feel like this is their mall and have a real connection to us and see themselves in the space.”

Maloney is confident in the strategy. Ninety to 95% of the mall’s external communication is now on social and electronic media. “We had to get out of our comfort zone to find our consumer,” he said.

Revolution Hall didn’t last

Not everything has worked. Revolution Hall, a food court with a centralized kitchen and a no-cash checkout, lasted just eight months. Executives replaced it with a new concept, called Potluck, that features 11 local restaurants and opened to big crowds last month.

After canceling the dog-walking, Rosedale welcomed dogs and their owners back for pet-and-Santa photo events.

Josh Thoma, co-owner of Smack Shack, Burger Dive and some other metro-area restaurants, said that the crowds for Smack Shack and Burger Dive at Potluck have been almost twice what he planned.

“We got involved because of Rosedale’s willingness to listen, to be flexible about leasing, and be a partner who markets for us,” he said.

Modest surroundings

Retail analysts say that one of Rosedale’s inherent strengths is location.

“There is a lot of density in the northern suburbs, many of them former Brookdale shoppers, plus the U of M and St. Thomas campuses in Minneapolis and St. Paul,” said Mary Van Note of Ginger marketing in Minneapolis.

Dick Grones of Cambridge Commercial Realty in Edina said the mall’s surroundings belie its financial success.

“If a person drove by the beautiful houses oozing money surrounding Eden Prairie Center and then looked at the older 1950s and ’60s housing stock around Rosedale, you’d assume the Eden Prairie mall does better,” Grones said. “But it’s not true.”

With sales of about $650 per square foot, Rosedale is at or near the top of Twin Cities’ regional malls. Sales at Eden Prairie Center are closer to $450 per square foot, Grones said.

Rosedale’s drive to attract younger shoppers is one reason for the difference. A haunted Christmas attraction in the old Herberger’s at the moment gives the mall something that’s fun and slightly edgy for the holidays, rather than a typical destination with a sweet, sentimental tone.

“Rosedale isn’t the typical Minnesota mall that they used to be,” Van Note said.