Cunning linguist

cunning linguist bw blog

Naming rights are the perfect IP. They cost nothing to create, they need minimal servicing and there’s no benchmark for pricing. No wonder rightsholders love ’em – they’re like a real pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. And the rainbow ends in your backyard. Or stadium.

Arsenal is the inspiration for the Premier League, with Chelsea, Liverpool and Spurs openly linked to aspirations to follow their lead. It’s hard to argue with the potential when sellers can point to the O2. Not only did the easy and universal adoption of the name provide a brilliant example of brand integration, the assets secured gave O2 a clear leg up in the race towards customer reward, which is one logical way forward for that industry. And, as with all the best examples, it feels so effortless and natural that failure was never an option.

But for every Emirates and every O2, there’s a Friends Provident St Mary’s Stadium, or’Park and probably two Ricoh or Manchester Evening News Arenas: the question is, what makes the difference?

We’ve just concluded due diligence for a major naming rights proposal on behalf of a multi-national client and our study helps explain exactly why the O2 was such a success – and exactly what to look out for.

Of all the challenges facing a naming rights deal, user acceptance is the most critical: even the notion of some naming rights deals has been met with rejection. The story of Candlestick Park, in the US, where money often talks more persuasively than common-sense, is salutory.

Tellingly, many of the most successful deals have stuck with new builds, where the opportunity existed to create a new identity, rather than overprint an old one. In the case of the O2, although an existing venue, there was no existing user franchise, no emotional ownership, and hence no integral resistance.

The other advantage of a new build, beyond allowing fans’ memories to rest in peace, rests upon a familiar principle of sponsorship: the brand’s contribution, in this case generally financial, is obvious and appreciated. Again, the O2 was exemplary: when it opened, the new venue had been entirely transformed for the better; the vast space of the Millennium Dome had been tamed. And O2, somehow, took the credit.

All of this is analogous to traditional sponsorship, of course: how does any new sponsor overprint its presence? But with naming rights, it’s that much more critical, as name usage is an integral and obvious measure of success. Surprising then, that absurd constructions like’Park are ever conceived. Our linguistics expert was fairly categoric: if you want to get into the vernacular, you have to think vernacular. You, me and the groundsman all know that’Park will remain St James’ Park except in those all important client meetings. Syntactically, because it actually embeds the separation between sponsor name and venue, is about as bad as it can get. But even constructions such as Friends Provident St Mary’s Stadium fly against our natural tendency to abbreviate. So, once again, the O2 was spot on: shorter, cooler and more memorable than Millennium Dome. And easier to spell.

There is still value in the ubiquity that naming rights can give a brand: for Mike Ashley, the media exposure for was probably fairly compelling – and he probably didn’t pay much for it. But I can’t help believing that putting your brand in a position where consumers’ entirely predictable linguistic behaviour will resist the association, is not a good place to start.