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Thursday, March 14th, 2013

The Power of Corporate Logos in Branding Cities


Rolls-Royce Logo on Building in Downtown Indianapolis. Photo courtesy Gary Glover.

While driving up and down Boston’s Route 128, I’ve often noticed the various tech company logos that adorn the office buildings – Oracle, SAP, Adobe, etc. Interestingly, most of the ones that catch my eye aren’t Boston area based companies. Yet the presence of these blue-chip tech names on the buildings reinforces in my mind that Boston is a tech center.

I had a similar thing happen when I was in Indy last fall. Rolls-Royce – which actually manufactures aircraft engines, not cars, but is definitely an elite global corporate player – has its North American headquarters in Indianapolis. They had recently moved their offices to downtown and installed their logo on the building, a low rise office on the southern edge of downtown. Driving into downtown Indianapolis and seeing a giant Rolls-Royce logo, whatever wrong impressions about product it might generate in the public mind, is still a pretty powerful statement.

By contrast, the various office buildings ringing Indianapolis along its I-465 beltway sport a largely unimpressive collection of signs for various local and regional brands: law firms, mortgage companies, that sort of thing. There’s very little to make much of an impression on a visitor that this town is a major center of much of anything.

Lots of things that we take in as we look at cities help define for us what the place is all about and where it stands in the pecking order. Though they may give very false impressions about a place, for good or ill, the brand prominence of corporate logos displayed on major office buildings would appear to be one of those things that shapes our opinions of what a city is really like.

12 Comments
Topics: Civic Branding
Cities: Boston, Indianapolis

12 Responses to “The Power of Corporate Logos in Branding Cities”

  1. Chris Barnett says:

    That signage was up in time for Super Bowl 46, played two blocks away at Lucas Oil Stadium.

  2. flavius says:

    Those same signs would probably not be allowed in the city of Boston itself. In Indianapolis, not only was the sign allowed downtown, but the decades-old building was renovated to look like a suburban office park–one of several such developments on the fringe of downtown. The strategy succeeded in bringing several headquarters to the city’s near-downtown, but some with a big aesthetic cost. (I’m not sure whether the same renovation would be allowed under the current guidelines, though.)

  3. Alex Vuocolo says:

    I was just thinking about this. There is a trolley stop in the suburbs of Philadelphia that sits at the bottom of a hill behind a mall. There is a buffer of woods between the mall and the track, but a single, sloping path leads directly up to mall. I was waiting at the stop, looking up the path, and I realized that the Target (which is the newest anchor store added to the mall) dominates the view from the tracks. In fact, the Target sign is the only visible signage– its red ambiance stains the skyline, and red carts litter the slope. It occurred to me that, intentionally or not, this was the Target stop.

  4. Rod Stevens says:

    Ah, but what is the corporate reality here? Is it really the North American headquarters of a global aviation giant, or the North American headquarters for a washed-up car brand now sold to Tata, an Indian company? It probably is the former, although most people will think the latter. What is the true brand, and how long will it stand for what it used to?

    These are the questions you have to answer when you tie your local identity to multinational brands. My guess is that the Millenials generation is going to become more cynical about brands, simply because they are going to see more of the old stalwarts destroyed and remade. Remember Emerson, as an old American maker of small electronics parts like radios? Nobody else does now; it’s a brand sold at Walmart and probably owned by some no-name company.

    My feeling is you have to get your identity from strong local values and sense of place. Driving into any city pretty much looks the same these days- freeway exit after freeway exit of Chili’s and other chain restaurants mixed with 1980’s suburban office buildings and warehouses. It’s really the local food and neighborhood vibes that now define places, thankfully.

  5. Chris Barnett says:

    I actually wrote a college paper touching on this topic, and used this very logo as an example of the transference between symbol and reality through advertising.

    In short, advertising imagery and language may seek to define a brand as a luxury product: luxury means Rolls Royce. Successful branding inverts the equation, so that Rolls Royce means luxury.

    In this case, I’d wager that most visitors to Indy don’t think about the fact that the car brand and aircraft-engine companies are separate. They just see something they know as a strong “top-shelf” brand on a building, and some of the shine helps subtly form their impression of the place. I agree with Aaron.

  6. UrbanTom says:

    I live in Indy and had a friend from Philadelphia stop in to visit last summer. I was showing him around the downtown area – and was passing through the south side of downtown. I was talking about other things, and then he all of a sudden said “Does Rolls Royce have its offices here?”

    I forgot that they had just moved a few thousand workers into those offices and probably wouldn’t have mentioned it – but he definitely didn’t miss the logo on the top of the building. I told him Rolls Royce had bought the Allison Gas Turbine manufacturing facilities a decade or so ago and now produced jet airplane engines here and has many of their North American corporate leadership here. He seemed impressed. It was good their logo was very visible because it helped assure that we were able to talk about their presence here in Indy. My friend works for the Federal Reserve in the Philadelphia office.

  7. UrbanTom says:

    I live in Indy and had a friend from Philadelphia stop in to visit last summer. I was showing him around the downtown area – and was passing through the south side of downtown. I was talking about other things, and then he all of a sudden said “Does Rolls Royce have its offices here?”

    I forgot that they had just moved a few thousand workers into those offices and probably wouldn’t have mentioned it – but he definitely didn’t miss the logo on the top of the building. I told him Rolls Royce had bought the Allison Gas Turbine manufacturing facilities a decade or so ago and now produced jet airplane engines here and has much of their North American corporate leadership here. He seemed impressed. It was good their logo was very visible because it helped assure that we were able to talk about their presence here in Indy. My friend works for the Federal Reserve in the Philadelphia office.

  8. David Holmes says:

    This is an interesting topic that I’ve thought about both in terms of Milwaukee (where I live) and Seattle (which I have visited quite frequently within the past year). As many great things as there are in Seattle, my guess is that Seattle’s corporate brands (Starbucks in particular, and to a lesser degree Microsoft and Boeing)do more to promote Seattle’s overall brand than all other factors combined. I tested this theory by asking several people what was the first thing they thought of when I mentioned Seattle. Nearly all mentioned “Starbucks.”

    Milwaukee is fortunate in having several widely recognized and well respected brands (such as Harley Davidson, Miller Brewing, and Northwestern Mutual Life). My guess is that the promotional budget for these companies is 100 times greater than that city’s promotional budget for tourism, and that even though the advertizing of this companies is focused only to a small degree on the ties to Milwaukee, that this has more positive impact than the City’s official promotional efforts.

    Other interesting examples for Milwaukee are the Pabst and Schlitz Brewing Companies.

    The Jos. Schlitz Brewing Company first became the world’s top beer producer in 1902, a status that it exchanged multiple times with Anheuser-Busch through at least the 1950s. For many decades the company advertised itself as “The beer that made Milwaukee famous.” Although still the nation’s 2nd largest brewer in 1976, the company’s fortunes declined in subsequent years ending in the sale of the company in 1981 and the shutdown of the company’s flagship brewery in Milwaukee several years later. Similarly, Pabst achieved status as the largest brewer in the US by 1874, and for periods, the largest brewer in the world until surpassed by Schlitz in 1902. Perhaps in response to Schlitz’s slogan, Pabst also referenced Milwaukee in its claim that “Milwaukee Beer is Famous – Pabst Has Made It So.” Both companies advertising slogans were not only somewhat true, but spoke directly to the power of powerful brands in promoting not only companies but the cities in which those companies are based.

    What is interesting is that even though the Milwaukee breweries for both companies closed decades ago, the brands still live on as well as their impact on Milwaukee. The Pabst Brewery is undergoing an extraordinary redevelopment (which was recently recognized by the US Green Building Council with a LEED Platinum designation for neighborhood development, reportedly only the 3rd project in the US to be so recognized). Three of the redevelopment projects at the site are being developed with capital from Chinese investors (reportedly more than $50 million to date) with one of the attractions of this specific development reported by the lead Chinese fund raiser being Pabst’s status as perhaps the most widely distributed non-Chinese beer in China. The brewery may be closed but the brand lives on – both in Pabst branded beer now being distributed globally by a “virtual” brewing company based in Los Angeles – and in the continuing impact of the brand on its original host city.

  9. Chris Barnett says:

    Aaron, you’ve also addressed this in old posts about taking advantage of the motorsports brand in Indianapolis.

    When I was a corporate purchasing/materials guy, I used to experience what David Holmes referenced above: when I told people from anywhere in the world that I was from Indianapolis, the next comment almost inevitably included “Indy 500″. That was people’s strongest free-association with the city’s name. The 500 was a very strong international brand 20-30 years ago when former F-1 champs Mario Andretti and Emerson Fittipaldi were competing. Probably it’s more of a “legacy” brand today.

    Many cities also rely on their field-sports teams and stars for publicity. The ubiquity of Peyton Manning in US TV commercials when he was field general for the Colts probably was another free associative exposure for a city with an otherwise low national profile.

  10. Moochie says:

    So.. how would a tow truck mounted on the roof of the building across the street and just a few hundred feet away from the sign in that picture… affect the powerful statement they’ve made? How will that shape opinions of what the city is really like?

    omg I feel like a dangerous man right now..

  11. Jeff Downer says:

    Your kidding, right? No national corporate branding on real estate in Indianapolis? Downtown Indianapolis? The south side of downtown Indianapolis? Along the the stretch of I-70 that passes south of downtown? Ever notice a huge corporate campus from which a office tower arises clearly marked “Eli Lilly”?

    From that campus go north a block. What’s that? Another large corporate campus? Says “Wellpoint”, the nation’s largest health insurer? Isn’t Wellpoint’s corporate headquarters conspicuously located just a few blocks away on Monument Circle?

    Say, isn’t the tallest building on the skyline called the “Chase Tower?

    What does it say on that huge building that houses the finest stadium facility in the land? Does it say “Lucas Oil”? Didn’t those nice Lucas folks pay $120 million for that exposure?

    Missed all those fancy high rise hotels too, I guess. Didn’t see the: Marriotts, Westin, Hyatt, Omni, Hiltons and of course, the Conrad, huh?

    Did I mention the enormous distribution facility located next to I-70 at the airport? FedEx isn’t it? Not only the well marked buildings but all those colorful jumbo jets as well.

    If all you saw was the relatively modest Roll Royce corporate presence you might want to visit the Eyeglass World location just two blocks north of the “Banker’s Life Fieldhouse”.

  12. @Jeff Downer, you’ll note I referred to I-465 in discussing the undistinguished logos (contrasting with the Route 128 beltway in Boston). Most of what you cite is downtown. As for FedEx, that’s nice but you see FedEx planes at every airport and industrial/distribution type facilities don’t provide the same brand benefit as high end offices.

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