09/27/12

Should we sell naming rights to public property?


Selling namesI was recently forwarded a link to a blog post about selling naming rights for public buildings to corporations. The author writes,

Last week, I wrote about “the halo effect” on events, buildings, and properties that have had multiple names, all of which have been commercial. The other area we often advise on is the sponsorship naming rights of iconic buildings “owned” by the community or named after community leaders. Often a building may be named after a past politician or community leader. Brands interested in naming such properties must take into account these situations and be prepared to invest accordingly.

As a municipal politician, I am always interested in how public property is named because these names are, for the most part, permanent, and say something about how our community presents itself and its heritage. Public property is not merely the bricks and mortar: it can also be a public event or activity. In a previous post, the author commented positively on the selling of naming rights to a public event in Vancouver:

A few weeks back, I wrote about my experience at the Honda Canada Celebration of Lights (COL) event in Vancouver. It was awesome! This is a fantastic property that has had more naming rights than China has tea. But when Score Marketing Inc. was able to bring Honda into the naming title for the COL this year, it was great. It is an old event that has been around a long time. It has had its ups and downs. But as the property rejuvenated itself, making it more applicable to the audience and worked with corporate sponsors such as Honda and The Keg, it was fantastic. Mature properties can be refreshed. The COL truly did this and it worked for the audience, the sponsors, and the property itself. To those involved—well done!

I am not convinced. The author writes (in part II):

So yes, you can place a corporate name on a community property and benefit from it. Both the selling property and the brand can reap rewards, as can the users of the properties. When there is an activation plan in place and a PR plan, it works well. When due diligence is not undertaken, it can be a catastrophe!

To me, the benefit seems limited solely to money, at the expense of community pride, heritage and the recognition of our own citizens. And I don’t mean just former politicians. We have many people who have contributed to the greater good of our community – volunteers, teachers, librarians, editors, museum curators, historians, writers, business people, philanthropists… why shouldn’t they get the recognition, rather than some international corporation?

The image, above, is from an Ottawa Sun piece on the selling of Ottawa. It’s a satirical piece, but it makes a point.

Question: “Would you only try to sell corporate names?”
Answer: “Not at all. You could also market products — the way a beer company features a particular brand or a car maker a specific model. Small villages would be ideal for this. What about Manotickle Me Elmo? ”
Question: “The city says it wants to sell naming rights not only to its facilities, but to its programs and events as well. Do you see opportunities there?”
Answer: “Absolutely. It’s a stroke of genius. I don’t think we pay these people enough. ”
“City department’s with marketing budgets could keep it in the family by promoting themselves on other city of Ottawa properties. That way their budget would just be turned back into city coffers, making the accounting real easy.

The CBC news story about the discussion noted that,

…the single largest potential generator is exclusive naming rights for city buildings. Officials have identified 16 recreation facilities for possible re-branding, including the Nepean Sportsplex, Kanata Leisure Centre and the St-Laurent Complex.

“What we want to make sure is that folks don’t get the sense that we’ve, you know, kind of sold out and all we’re doing is letting big business and advertising take over the city,” Taylor said.

How could anyone NOT feel like Ottawa Council was selling out? The evidence suggests clearly that, by turning our national capital into an advertising space for corporations, it has.

I feel it’s a bit like selling your soul, if it’s just about the money. Had that corporation contributed something significant to the wellbeing of the municipality, and we wanted to recognize their generosity, I might support it. I could support a street named after a historical business that was once located nearby. But not simply sold to a company without a business and social presence here.

Even naming after an existing business is tricky. I’m reminded of the Molson Centre in Barrie. Molson closed its 200,000 sq. ft Barrie brewery in 2000, putting 300 local people out of work. Today, Barrie residents still have a sports arena named after the long-departed brewery, a daily, and embarrassing reminder of that closure. The adjacent Molson’s Park, a park and concert venue, was quickly renamed to Park Place, probably to try to help erase the memory of the company’s departure. It was closed a a public space and re-opened as a commercial business park a few years ago.

Rather amusingly, the abandoned brewery was used as a rather large grow-op until it was discovered in 2004, prompting many jokes at the expense of both Molson and the City of Barrie.

Obviously the name Molson is not highly respected in Barrie these days, even though they contributed to the community in the past. The name still lives on in the arena. Had the arena been named after a historical figure, its name would still have the same respect as it had when built.

Where do you decide to draw the line? Should we sell naming rights to all public buildings and property for some ready cash? What about the library? The curling club? Town hall? The terminals? The new ice rink? Should we sell naming rights to streams, to streets, to parks? What about events and activities? The farmers’ market? The harbour? You could potentially sell naming rights to anything municipally owned.

Collingwood would then seem less like a town than a sprawling advertisement. Local colour and flavour would be diluted by the brand names. Hume Street might be renamed Hyundai Street. The water tower could become the Google Tower. Sunset Point Park could become Microsoft Park. We could host the Apple farmer’s market and the Sony Elvis Festival. Why not sell the name of the town, too? After all, most kids today probably know more about Coke, Nike and Samsung than Cuthbert Collingwood.

Toronto recently approved a naming policy like this:

Rob Ford’s executive committee approved a city naming rights policy Tuesday that critics fear will turn Toronto’s public space into an advertising free-for-all.

The city already has the ability to auction off naming rights to city property and events, but the new policy standardizes the process and will see the municipal government take an active role in soliciting cash from outside parties in exchange for the right to rebrand public assets.

Personally, I think our identity has been homogenized enough through all the cookie-cutter franchise businesses and restaurants that pervade Canadian cities. I would not want to further erode our own local identity through selling naming rights for public property to outside corporations and businesses. The money just isn’t worth the long-time cost to our heritage.