Silence Isn’t Golden for the W***** Tower

(Photo credit: Jeff Reimer | Mode of Expression.)

This content originally appeared on my former Chicagosphere online-media blog, hosted on the Chicago Tribune‘s ChicagoNow network.

There are bad branding strategies. There are Macy’s-mothballs-Marshall-Field awful branding strategies. And then there’s Willis Group’s hubris- and hare-brained idea to rename the Sears Tower. What do you get when you glue a new name on an old icon whose existing monicker has worldwide recognition? Judging by local blog discussion, a good laugh–and lots of people who say they just won’t bother to say the word W*****.

Admittedly, most buildings are named after one corporate giant or another. At its opening as the then-tallest building in the world in 1973, the Sears Tower was named after its original owner and largest corporate tenant–Sears. The name stuck around long after Sears moved out, and still sticks in the popular mind today fully six years after Sears’ naming rights expired.

Enter Willis, a London-based insurance broker seeking to become a household name in the U.S. In March of this year, Willis jumped the gun in announcing a deal to rent 140,000 square feet of space in Sears Tower–that’s barely 3.6% of the building, if you’re keeping score (and considering how puny a proportion that is, you should be)–at the discount rate of $14.50 per square foot to house about 500 employees, with said tower’s naming rights coming with. It’s a move that prompted a pissy response from Sears Tower’s owners, who were miffed that Willis disclosed the financials of the deal to the public.

Judging by Willis’ deaf-eared behavior in the wake of the July 2009 name re-chiseling, they really shouldn’t have been surprised (keep reading, though, as I’m getting ahead of myself.) And yet again, Chicago–at least partially–has New York interests to thank for kicking to the curb yet another local nameplate. The renaming deal was brokered by the NYC/Chitown Cushman & Wakefield duo of Kent Ilhardt (here) and Josh Kuriloff (there.) Back in March, the New York-based Kuriloff cooed that winning the deal to erase the Sears name from the Sears Tower was one of the highlights of his career–so think on that the next time a New Yorker tries to tell you their pizza or hot dogs are better.

Blogosphere reaction across America to the announcement was immediate and to the point. For example:

“But now, some insurance company nobody knows about is getting the naming rights, FOR FREE, with their new rental agreement. Yes I said RENTAL. Apparently, in today’s rough commercial real estate market, if you rent a large enough percent of a building (in this case only 3.5%) you get to rename American landmarks after you. Good thing there is no office space in Mt. Rushmore.” (Monk In the Middle)

“Chicagoans need not worry so much. To them, it will always be the Sears Tower, and to those outside the Windy City who also knew the tower, it will still be such. When newbies or non-traditionalists call it the Willis Tower to their faces, they’ll have the elitist pleasure of correcting that chump.” (Black Book Mag)

“I don’t think this name change is going to go over too well. I think most people will still refer to the building as the Sears Tower. As one Facebook member said, ‘I asked a cabdriver to take me to the Willis tower. He said, ‘Where the hell is that?’ That pretty much sums it up.’” (Notes on a Fucked Up Society)

“So what’s the big deal? Well, maybe it’s not happening in your city yet… but it’s extremely unnerving to have landmark buildings, parks, etc. re-named by corporations: it’s disorienting. Comiskey Park? Now replaced by U.S. Cellular Field. The Tweeter Center in neighboring Tinley Park — and what was the name before that??? — is now called the First Midwest Bank Amphitheatre … how’s that for a mouthful? It makes you feel: where the heck am I, anyways?” (Opine ‘n Wine’s Weblog)

“Of all the stupid things. Just because someone opens their checkbook doesn’t necessarily mean it should be able to buy anything.” (The Amish Cook)

“The corporate naming game has run amok for years, but the recent name change from “Sears Tower” to “Willis Tower” in Chicago has touched a nerve. Or 96,814 nerves, as the case may be–that’s how many people on Facebook don’t like the idea.” (AdPulp)

“…before I change anything, I always carefully explore the ecology of the change on the entire system. That system might be the life of an individual or the life of a corporation, but I am going to make sure that all of the repercussions (good and bad) of a change are explored in-depth before I make them. In the case of the property owner of the Sears Tower, I think they did a terrible job of checking and evaluating ecology.” (Your Wonderful Life)

Or how about these selected comments from a lengthy discussion on the subject at Chicago’s homegrown Gapers Block:

“Some company that is renting a miniscule portion of the building pays a bribe to the management company and we’re all supposed to start calling a Chicago icon by a different name? Plus, this company is getting tax breaks (from a city broke off its ass) to help them move into the building (despite the fact that their profits were immense)? Yeah, and I’m going to petition my landlord to rename my building “The Kiss My Pale Furry Ass Center” (it’s not really tall enough to be called a “tower”).” (Cletus Warhol)

“There would be less popular resistance if Willis Holdings was a household name in Chicago. United Center, okay; they’re a hometown company. US Cellular Field, okay; smaller cell provider but still hometown. Allstate Arena, ehh I suppose; insurance doesn’t sound as cool as Rosemont Horizon, but they are hometown. Macy’s, ehh; most of us at least heard of them before they bought Field’s. Willis? Never heard of ‘em until a couple months ago. Barging in here, renaming a landmark we hold especially near and dear to our hearts. They’re not being good neighbors or endearing themselves to us.” (B Knight)

“No, I will not be calling it by its new name. It was and always will be the Sears Tower. You wouldn’t rename the Chrysler Building, or the Empire State Building, so why rename the Sears Tower? That’s total crap.” (eee)

“I’ll stick with Sears. I still call my phone service Cingular, and as long as the address redirects, I pay my bill by keying in cingular.com. You know newbies from long time people by how they pronounce words and what they call things. Like Cabaret Metro.” (mike-ts)

“I used to work for a company in the sears tower. The building management was emphatic that we could not use the phrase “sears tower” to refer to the building or the address. I will take great pleasure in continuing to call it the sears tower. (And I believe all of the publicity about that stupid glass box in the skydeck called it thus as well.) (flange)

“I’ll never call it Willis Tower because it just sounds silly.” (Chicago Garden)

“The more I think about it, I just want to call it ‘Carl.’ I think I’ll start refering to all the landmark buildings in Chicago by anthropomorphic names. Navy Pier will now be called ‘Popeye’ and the Tribune Tower looks like an ‘Ethel’ to me.” (boxspring)

And, of course, there’s the de rigueur petition. They’ll probably be as successful as those well-meaning Fields Fans Chicago wags, but God-love-’em both, anyway.

I hope you took notes about that 3.5%-to-3.6% of rented space (depending on who’s counting) that got Willis the name change. Last week, Sears Tower’s owners let out that none other than Chicago’s own United Airlines is considering a major relocation to the black behemoth. And United wants up to 450,000 square feet of the tower.

Anyone else thing Ilhardt and Kuriloff are taking turns kicking each other right now?

I’m thinking rank-and-file Chicagoans would have had a lot easier time seeing United’s name go up at 233 South Wacker (and potentially come down from the former R.R. Donnelley Building at 77 West Wacker) than the monicker of a locally unknown carpetbagger.

In fact, the only three boosters I could find online touting the attempted name change come as no surprise. The first is Mayor Daley, never one to stand in the way of anti-intellectualism, who opined to the Tribune:


“You’ve got to realize that change is good.”

As in always, apparently. (Hmm. Parking meter deal, anyone?)

The second are Willis, themselves, who distributed the P.R. version of a woodie (or is that a willie?) in a July 2009 release that features this priceless piece of 1984-esque newspeak:

“Above all, the naming of Willis Tower is an affirmation of our strong commitment to the great city of Chicago, its people and its future.”

And the third? Ah, you’ll see (just wait.)

While you’re waiting, any idea where we go from here? As with all things couched in the popular mind, we really don’t need to go anywhere. Estimable interests like the two above will be more than happy to use the term W***** Tower in daily discourse.

Anyone else preferring the historic name that stuck around both officially and unofficially for 36 years can feel free to keep on referring to the Sears Tower as the Sears Tower. There’s no law or ethical conundrum preventing you from doing so.

And unlike Macy’s when it renamed the State Street Marshall Field’s flagship, Willis isn’t exactly doing a full-court marketing campaign to change your mind on the matter, either. Or, really, any marketing campaign at all. Consider these quotes from a July 16 Crain’s Chicago Business interview with WIllis CEO Joseph Plumeri on the matter:


“People have asked me, ‘What do you think they’ll call it? Willis, Sears?’ I’ve said, ‘You can call it the Big Willie, and that would be fine with me.’ And I mean that…I’m not in charge of the marketing of the building.”

I can’t tell if that’s chutzpah or simple stupidity in the face of wise corporate brand positioning. Perhaps this quote from Plumeri in a same-day Chicago Tribune editorial might clear things up:

“[Chicagoans] can call it whatever they want…All I know is that the day we announced that this building would be named Willis Tower, everybody in America knew who Willis was.”

Or this one, uttered by Plumeri at the alleged renaming ceremony:

“Willis is not only going to have its name on the side of the building but it’s going to have an impact on the society and community of Chicago…You have to make a decision between sentimentality and the reality of what puts food on your table…there’s no food on the table called ‘tradition steak.’”

Chutzpah wins by a mile–and by the same reasoning that America knows the names of serial killers and deadly hurricanes the day they hit the news, too. That is, by shock value, pure and simple–no matter how people actually feel about the newsmakers, themselves.

Speaking of shock value, I find it a little shocking for any company to claim 500 employees in discount rental space are going to have much of an economic impact in one of the world’s financial capitals for much of anyone except Sears Tower’s owners. Of course, I could just be dizzy from all the spin.

That July 16 Trib editorial goes on to say:

“…we’ve got a feeling that Willis Tower is going to work its way into Chicago’s lexicon–and its heart.”

There’s your third Willis booster, folks–and that seems like a pretty pat way to downplay in one glib sentence the widespread disfavor of local sentiment in favor of big business. (Not for nothing, even the New York Times opined that some Windy Citizens might prefer to stick with the historic name no matter what.)

In the end, I guess Plumeri and company think chiseling a name on a Chicago icon is enough for to be thought of seriously–or over the long term, at all–in this town.

The Trib’s opinion notwithstanding, more than likely Chicagoans will continue to shrug and smile at the hubris, invite out-of-town visitors to the top of the Sears Tower, and try to remember just what the heck it is Willis sells, anyway.

Definitely not the bill of sale on this corporate phallacy.

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