Sears Tower, Harley Davidson and Ft Lauderdale’s River House Restaurant

Three disparate articles from the business section of the Miami Herald caught my attention today. Not for their actual content, but for the statement they make, collectively, about the state of brands, and the meaning of branding today.

Chicago’s iconic Sears Tower, the tallest building in the U.S., has been renamed by a tenant as the Willis Tower. What? Can you rename Mount Rushmore? Sears Roebuck and Co. hasn’t actually had a connection to the tower since 1992. But that’s not really the point.

Sears lost touch with its market long ago. Now a forced sibling of K-Mart, a company built on great merchandising strategies has for some time demonstrated an inability to execute merchandising strategy. Yet its brand name is still so worthy of the tower it no longer graces. No matter how poorly the business itself performs.

Harley Davidson is cutting 1,000 more employees. The Harley brand is also the stuff of legend. It’s come back from the brink before on the strength of its product, and on the basis of hordes of devotees it has learned to enable through a number of well-documented marketing activities. We expect that, like Sears, the Harley brand will be with us forever.

What would happen if some lunatic took over and put his own name on that brand?  Same great bikes, only now they’re called “Johnsons” instead of Harleys. So how come you can rename a landmark tower and live to tell about it?

The River House Restaurant was always a very special place for me; it’s now out of business. (Story picked up from the Sun Sentinel.) Located in a historic property on Ft. Lauderdale’s New River, terrific food and service, great atmosphere. I guess I thought it would just always be there. When favored local businesses go away, sadly, it seems they take with them brands that matter to me and probably a few thousand others. No populist revival movement expected. But to those who care, it’s a shame. And whatever occupies a certain historic space on the New River in the future, we’ll always think of it as the place the River House used to be.

But that’s the thing about brands. They really are independent of the organizations behind them. Organizations give birth to brands, but lose control at an early stage as they take on their own meaning for people who make them a part of daily life. The organization goes away, the brand remains. A living spirit that, under the right circumstances, may be lucky enough to receive another incarnation.

Michael Gold

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