Branding and the Great Name Sell-off

You can’t claim identity theft if you sell the rights to your name, but you may lose your identity all the same.

New York City is about to test this premise. Two weeks ago, Mayor Michael Bloomberg tasked a new marketing office with selling naming rights to the city’s legendary features to deep-pocketed sponsors. New York needs money, and Bloomberg’s response is to carve “ownership” of New York’s many attributes into small, corporate-sized pieces.

Co-branding may benefit corporate sponsors, it may augment New York City’s coffers, but will it benefit the New York City brand?

No one knows where Bloomberg’s concept will lead. N. R. Kleinfield’s 7 April 2003 column in the New York Times, “Branding In New York Is Just The Beginning,” takes a tongue-in-cheek approach to describing future outcomes of this strategy, but the humour hides an important message.

Lowly public schools will be up for grabs – Kleinfield speculates that students might one day attend the Krispy Kreme Public School – but top city landmarks are to be preserved. Kleinfield thinks it unlikely that New Yorkers will soon picnic in J. P. Morgan Chase Central Park; the Brooklyn Bridge probably won’t be sold; New Year’s Eve won’t be celebrated in Heinz Square.

Still, if the practice proves lucrative, the urge to sell-off New York’s icons may prove too tempting to resist. The horse-trading possibilities are endless. It is a questionable practice to begin with; unchecked, selling off pieces of New York’s identity will be a bad tactic.

Branding has basic rules. One is that effective branding requires consistency, in its use of names, images and messages. Trading away key attributes that make up a brand’s name invites brand dilution. At what point will this fabled brand be undermined?

Bloomberg’s municipal identity yard sale is just an expanded version of an old practice of having the corporate sector to fill funding gaps. Sports and cultural venues have, for years, been sponsorship targets and there are many prominent recent examples of how the brands of these targets suffer if the corporate sponsor goes from boom to bust.

In 1995, San Francisco’s fabled Candlestick Park became 3Com Park, but last year reverted back to Candlestick.

In 1999, PSINet, another IT firm paid to name the Baltimore Ravens’ new home. PSINet is no more.

The PGA’s Hilton Head tournament has been widely known as “The Heritage of Golf” but in recent years that name was subordinated by the sterile moniker “Worldcom Classic.” With Worldcom’s demise, the Heritage of Golf title has been restored.

The most infamous may be Enron Field, successor to the Astrodome. After Enron’s December 2001 collapse, the name became an embarrassment to the team and its fans. So the park reverted, appropriately, to Astros Field. Still, the team remains interested in selling the name. I hope its brand of baseball is more consistent than its marketing strategy.

A corporate sponsor’s black eye taints the venue and the recipient’s brand. Marketing consultants try to sound magnanimous when they advise stadiums to overlook the downside: roll with the punches and find a new sponsor; consumers, they insist, will adjust. But will they?

When identities are changed, consumers become confused. They don’t keep a scorecard to track associations or brands’ meaning. Trust is easily undermined, and it becomes worse when names undergo repeated flips. A name is not just a sign, it is part of an organization’s overall brand package. It signifies the relationship consumers have with, and the experience consumers get from, the place. And if the deal goes sour, the “place” is sullied.

These recent experiences should compel organizations – especially nonprofits – to carefully consider the short-term and long-term benefits of co-branding. Whether municipality, sports team, or opera house, each should think long and hard about accepting sponsorship that might take away from the identity of their institution.

Your name, and the associations it earns through hard work, is a strategic asset. New York will be wrong if it trades it away cavalierly. Chasing sponsorship money at the expense of its own brand only seems like a good management practice


Required Reading:

N. R. Kleinfield, “Branding In New York Is Just The Beginning,” New York Times, 7 April 2003

Scott Thurm, “Stadium Jinx: What to Call Enron Field? ‘Enron Folds,’ Maybe,” The Wall Street Journal, 12 April 2001.

John Karolefski, “The Sport of Naming,” (Interbrand), 13 May 2002

Terry Poulton, “Nothing’s sacred,” Strategy, 10 September 2001

Editorial, “Corporate Sponsorships of Stadiums and Other Institutions Don’t Always Pay Off,” Knowledge @ Wharton, 9 May 2001

(Originally posted in Knowledge Marketing Watch, 14 April 2003)


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