Corporate Eye

Rebranding a Landmark — Chicago’s Sears Tower is No More

sears_tower_chicagoIt’s not everyday that a national landmark is rebranded, but in the U.S. where everything and anything has a price tag, that’s exactly what happened last week when the Sears Tower in Chicago, Illinois became the Willis Tower.  The new name comes from Willis Group Holdings, an insurance company headquartered in London that is leasing space in the Sears Tower (according to the BBC, Sears vacated the building in 1992 but the name has remained until now).

It’s always difficult for people to accept the rebranding of a landmark.  Even sports stadiums that are rebranded when a new company becomes the primary sponsor can be a difficult transition for consumers to accept.  However, in time, most of the rebranding backlash typically subsides as consumers lose their attachment to the previous brand name.  Truth be told, as far as venue branding goes, the brand name usually has very little to do with the experiences that happen inside of the building.  When it comes to stadiums and arenas, the same teams still play inside and the same types of music and entertainment groups still visit for performances.  The only thing that really changes is the name outside the building.  In other words, companies try to brand well-known buildings, stadiums, etc. to keep their brands top of mind, but the branding efforts typically lose their effectiveness over time.

My guess is that the rebranding of the Sears Tower in Chicago will leave many people upset and longing for better times in general — and better times in the past included the Sears Tower, not the Willis Tower.  Ultimately though, this too shall pass, and the Willis Tower will continue to exist.  Will people start referring to the Sears Tower as the Willis Tower anytime soon?  It’s unlikely because the building is ingrained in our lives as the Sears Tower.  It’s a habit that Willis Group Holdings needs to try to break if they want to benefit from the rebranding in the short term, and consumer habits are hard to break.

I also think that the transition would be easier and would happen faster if a well-known, popular brand had purchased naming rights to the Sears Tower.  When an unknown brand enters the picture and takes over, consumers are highly likely to resist.  Again, it goes back to the comfort and security issues that are innate for most consumers.

What do you think?

Image: Flickr

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Susan Gunelius is the author of 10 marketing, social media, branding, copywriting, and technology books, and she is President & CEO of KeySplash Creative, Inc., a marketing communications company. She also owns Women on Business, an award-wining blog for business women. She is a featured columnist for and, and her marketing-related articles have appeared on websites such as,,, and more. She has over 20 years of experience in the marketing field having spent the first decade of her career directing marketing programs for some of the largest companies in the world, including divisions of AT&T and HSBC. Today, her clients include large and small companies around the world and household brands like Citigroup, Cox Communications, Intuit, and more. Susan is frequently interviewed about marketing and branding by television, radio, print, and online media organizations, and she speaks about these topics at events around the world. You can connect with her on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, or Google+.

You make some great points. The subject of brand loyalty is particularly applicable to architectural landmarks. Through casual observation, I’ve discovered that many people seem to readily connect the name “Sears Tower” with the City of Chicago, oftentimes to the point of eclipsing the very structure it represents.

Several weeks ago I was in downtown for a Nine Inch Nails concert. I met a couple of really friendly tourists who travelled cross country from L.A. just to see the band (What can I say, they were devoted fans). Well, after some initial greetings, we proceeded to talk about our respective vacation plans for the next few days. Their initial reponse was to check out the famed Chicago nightlife, quickly followed by “going to the top of the Sears Tower”, as if that was a requisite “closer” for any Chitown trip. At that point, they pointed toward the famous skyline as viewed from nearby The Field Museum, asking me to identify the building for which the famous name is associated.

This sort of naivety probably rings true with many tourists for obvious reasons: The moniker itself, after all, has nationwide notoriety. So Willis Group Holdings got its moment in the limelight. But in time, I suspect that relatively few people will actually remember what the Willis in “Willis Tower” even signifies. And most of those that do care, will continue to view the new name with disdain.


Anybody already made the Willie Tower joke?

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