It Will Always Be the Sears Tower

Sears towerHow place names represent brands

Anyone who names things for a living will tell you a name is simultaneously the most important and least important signifier of a brand. It’s the most important because it’s the most succinct verbal expression of everything the brand stands for. It’s the least important because that “everything” is what gives the name value. The name alone – or out of its brand context – doesn’t mean anything aside from its dictionary definition, assuming there is one.

Now think of all the places you’ve been — especially those places that conjure up fond memories or positive associations. The place names stand for something much larger than their geographic locations. Even places you’ve never been can have very specific associations. Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr at the top of the Empire State Building. Dr. King and the March on Washington. Paris, France. Wasilla, Alaska. Each place name has its own narrative, real or fictional, that gives it significance beyond the everyday. The name represents the story that is the brand experience.

The Sears Tower was completed in 1973, but it feels like it’s always been there. Grade school kids who grew up in the 70s and 80s knew it as the tallest building in the world. Chicagoans considered it an icon of urban pride. The name “Sears Tower” came to symbolize American industry and audacity, literally and figuratively scaling new heights of cultural prominence. Even after Sears, Roebuck and Co. vacated the building in 1992, the company retained their naming rights through 2003, an indication of the edifice’s brand value.

When the Willis Group obtained the naming rights to the building (thrown in as part of the deal) and renamed it the Willis Tower, they joined a long line of place renamers: New York’s Pan Am Building is now the MetLife Building; San Francisco’s Candlestick Park is now Monster Park; Washington National Airport is now Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. But ask the residents of those cities how they refer to their landmarks, and there’s a good chance they’ll use the old name.

The associations we make in relation to brands – whether place or product – are powerful enough to overcome reason. Refusing to use a new place name is just an expression of brand loyalty. The familiar name triggers emotions inside us that are not easy to set aside. And so for many of us, that formidable structure on South Wacker will always be known as the Sears Tower.

Editor’s Note: Tom Parrette is Director of Verbal Branding at Addis Creson, a Berkeley, California-based strategic branding firm dedicated to creating positive change for clients and communities. Visit their work online at www.addiscreson.com

3 Comments

  1. Although I’m not from Chicago, I’ll always call it the Sears Tower. However as a DC area resident for over 25 years, it’ll always be National airport to me.

  2. I agree; even as I am a Reagan fan it’s still National.

    And while it doesn’t seem like Willis will be willing to change back, perhaps the folks at Willis would have done well to name it the Willis-Sears Tower. Hyphenation always works in marriage naming issues; why not with buildings? Most Americans know it by the Sears Tower name and they will be confused or annoyed by the Willis name, which means nothing to them.


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