Real estate companies have been wondering how to leverage social media since the technology’s inception. The Empire State Building may have finally found a use: trash talk. On TikTok and Twitter, the official account of the Empire State Building is getting sassy. Online “The World’s Most Famous Building” is becoming known as much for its personality as its architecture.
A filter within the TikTok app that puts a mouth and eyes on any photo has become the Empire State Building personified. The account, run by two young employees under the watchful eye of the skyscraper’s VP of Marketing, Abigail Rickards, has put together an NYC Building Roasts playlist. The crude overlay sees the iconic landmark (who identifies as she/her/hers) throwing shade at other prominent members of the New York City skyline. New York’s new breed of Super Talls are a common source of ire, singling out both 432 Park Ave and One Vanderbilt repeatedly for being ugly, uninspired, and having glass floors. These two buildings are the arch-enemy of the personification of the Empire State Building. Other New York icons like Times Square, the Chrysler Building, and Rockefeller Center are mentioned on the account like family members the Empire State Building has to begrudgingly deal with. After a while, the established characters of the buildings start to feel like a skyline sitcom.
“We wanted to humanize the building, and we felt that by adding faces and mascots to it, we’d be able to relate to more people,” Rickards told the New York Post. The move is making serious waves. The building’s TikTok account has nearly 300,000 followers and almost 10 million likes. The account’s popularity is up 400 percent since October when the new style of posts started. Rickards hired two young creators early in 2022 who pose as tour guides on the account, posting daily on the latest trends. “We had an interview process,” Rickards continued. “We wanted to make sure that we hired people who were fun, open minded and who’d be able to creatively showcase the Empire State Building as an [exciting] New York City attraction.”
As a marketing strategy, the social media push is as brilliant as it is unique. You’d think a 2.7 million square foot office building with 102 floors would generate serious money from office tenants, but almost half of the building’s revenue comes from charging for tours and observation deck access. As an office building, the Empire State Building is a hard sell for many tenants. The 90-year structure lacks many of the floorplates, connectivity, windows, and other comforts that have come to define modern office space. That makes rent relatively cheap at the Empire State Building considering its place in Midtown Manhattan. Long past its prime, the building’s profitability comes down to its popularity. Broadcast and trademark licensing account for a major part of the building’s revenue.
It’s hard to translate viral popularity into profit in traditional office space. There are only so many tenants that can fit in a building, leasing decisions are far removed from visitor sentiment. There simply isn’t any mechanism to leverage that much demand: employees can’t show a TikTok to their boss to have them sign a new office lease. But when the building is a tourist landmark that can charge for access and the use of its image, popularity drives sales in a direct way. More views lead to more visitors which earns more revenue. The pandemic has hurt the building’s tourism revenue more than its rent rolls, the hope is that the building’s new viral fame can show the world the Empire State Building is open and waiting.
Going into the third year of a pandemic suppressing office occupancy and demand, many New York City office landlords wish they had the tourism revenue as an option. A New York Times investigation of the building found tenants who represent 41 percent of the building’s office space are embracing hybrid work plans. The Empire State Building’s office in the retail leasing business has withstood the pandemic far better than its visitors and observatory business. That makes the marketing strategy to get visitors back even more critical.
Empire State Realty Trust, the owner, hasn’t given up on the landmark but instead has doubled down, investing hundreds of millions in building upgrades to maintain its key place in the minds of New Yorkers and visitors. Work started with shoring up the infrastructure of the building, upgrading HVAC, waterproofing, and energy efficiency measures, eventually earning an LEED-Gold Rating. A full renovation of the lobby, guest spaces, exterior lighting, and kiosks were completed in 2019, adding floor-ceiling glass windows on the ground floor and new glass elevators. At a cost of $165 million, the most recent renovation has totally reimagined the Empire State Building experience for observatory visitors.
The Empire State building has always seemed larger than life. You may not be able to teach an old dog new tricks, but what about an old building? Approaching its centennial anniversary, a fresh social media presence has one of New York’s oldest buildings seeming younger than ever. Amid a struggling office sector, the building’s most important catalysts for revenue growth may be two Gen Zers posting online.