The owners of the “Willis” Tower in Chicago have announced plans to either recapitalize or sell the building formerly known as the Sears Tower, which for 25 years held the title of world’s tallest building.
For 36 years it was iconic and it was the Sears Tower, known worldwide. A marvel of construction, nine towers banded together to accommodate winds, with two of the nine towers reaching a height of 1,451 feet; 1,730 feet including antennas. Such is the genius of human ingenuity, and while unadorned, a thing of beauty in its own right.
“Willis” Tower? A virtually unknown name, and attached to a former icon, a total zero in the world. Why rename an icon? All done by a new owner for the sole purpose of luring an insurance broker into the building. “New owner” is even something of a misnomer, really we should say an investor. Investors buy and sell assets, which is great and wonderful – hey, I’m a capitalist – but when it comes to icons I wonder how far we should go with willful destruction of brand assets.
The investor is happy to take cash off the table, or leave entirely. No problem, do what works for you. But the name? We owned the Sears Tower name, and by we, I mean anyone and everyone in the region or anywhere else, who takes pride in place, or pride in great design, or architecture or just the accomplishments great people are capable of. And part of the accomplishment is that things get named. And they become known by their names.
So the investor sells, and what happens now? Another new name when the tenant eventually leaves, I guess.
Remember the sale of Marshall Field’s department stores to Macy’s? Field’s was a class act and an institution going back to the infamous Chicago Fire in 1871. Marshall Field vowed to rebuild on the same ground the day after the fire leveled the first store. Macy’s? Please. The one thing the city insisted on was that the metal placard on the building’s façade could not be removed. So we’ll still have the sign even though along with a name change the quality of the former Field’s stores went down. This is not a tragedy on the same level of world-class icon, I’ll grant you. More a decision that also didn’t benefit Macy’s in the long or short run. I can just imagine some smart manager’s Powerpoint showing wonderful economies of scale from not having to support multiple brands.
And in my own business backyard we have exhibit A, American National Bank. My bankers throughout my formative years in business, a bank known as the bank for business, and run by an icon, Michael Tobin Sr., known as a banker’s banker, a guy whose word was his bond. Eventually, of course, the bank sold to a bigger bank, First Chicago, which in turn became part of what is now known as Chase Bank. But not before First Chicago squandered every last iota of brand recognition and brand power American National Bank had built up over years and thousands of relationships.
The funny part of the complete erasure of the American National Bank brand was a series of full page ads that someone in the marketing department at First Chicago bank decided to run in the Chicago Tribune. The headline read: “See? Nothing’s Changed.” The ad showed two banker’s business cards, identical except for the logo of ANB on one card and First Chicago on the other.
But everything had changed. First Chicago wanted nothing to do with many of ANB’s tried and true clients – they really only wanted to keep serving their big clients, not ANB’s middle market. So they lost the name and then proceeded to also lose the client base.
Brands matter, not just as a hood ornament, but because at great companies the brand is just the tip of the iceberg of a promise and commitment of something tangible and real.
I was just thinking about the Stonehenge site in the UK. It is grand, but I wonder if it couldn’t be, well, upgraded a bit? With investment, and a better name? What about Pepsihenge? Or Nikehenge? Wait – Bobhenge! I can pay them for it!