When branding goe5 terribly wrong

Portlanders woke up Monday morning to discover the city’s downtown, publicly owned performing arts center has a new name.

It used to be called the Portland Center for the Performing Arts, and was widely known as PCPA.

It is now apparently called Portland’5 Centers for the Arts, and will be known as…well…PCPA.

But wait.


“Portland’5 Centers for the Arts” ?

Alles klar?  "I'll meet you tonight at 7 at...er...the...er...you know..."
Alles klar? “I’ll meet you tonight at 7 at…er…the…er…you know…”

WTFDTM (does this mean)?

And more importantly, WTFDTC (did this cost)?

While the new web site for the organization looks great, the new name and all important brand is a major stumble.

The previous moniker, admittedly very much of the old school style (where inevitably the name has words like “art”, “center”, and [city-name] in it), was workable. And the acronym PCPA was well established. Everyone in Portland knows what PCPA means.

You don’t change a widely known brand unless you plan to improve it in a huge way. And more significantly, you don’t go to the trouble of a rebrand unless you really have big plans to change something fundamental about the underlying experience.

But in this case, the new name is considerably worse.

First, there is that little question of how you will pronounce it.

When you read this:

Portland’5 Centers for the Arts

Which of the following is how you would actually pronounce it?

“Portland Five Centers for the Arts”

“Portland’s Centers for the Arts”

“Portland’s Five Centers for the Arts”

The fact that after reading the new brand name, there is any question whatsoever about how to pronounce it indicates how utterly non usable it is. But note that all of these options are unbeautiful.

Second, it’s confusing. Before we had one center with five spaces. Now do we have five centers? What does it mean to call the Brunish, Newmark, and Winnie “centers”? Each is its own art center? All in the same building? Or are they three spaces inside one art center? Logic and management structure would seem to indicate there is a single center or complex here with five different performance spaces.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, is the matter of what real people – the audience – will actually call the space(s) day to day. Whichever of the longer full pronunciations above the creators may have intended to be how you actually say it – no one will use that long name. We need a short one or two syllable phrase or acronym. Like PCPA.

So what will that short handle be?


Now try pronouncing (most of) those.

Again, none of these possibilities makes any sense or represents an improvement over PCPA. And it would take years to try to convince people to change from their familiar PCPA.

So why?

And why was the word “Performing” dropped? That was an important piece of the old name that helped you understand what kind of art the center was for. Is it now for any kind of art?

The real brands here should be the five spaces. “The Schnitz” is a GREAT brand name. “The Keller”, “The Brunish”, “The Newmark”, and “The Winnie” are all good names. Because they are part of our history and mean something to us.

People have feelings for and attachments to specific performance spaces and halls – not the bureaucratic structure that manages them. The valuable brands here are the individual spaces.

When you have good names, you don’t want to mess with them.

What’s in a name?

Everything. Absolutely everything.

Great works of art have great names. Because the name is part of the art. Great works of art happen in great spaces. Great spaces have great names.

Plus, what’s the point of trying to rebrand the overall management organization that runs these five spaces?

Are you going to say to someone: “I’ll meet you down at Portland5 at 7 PM.”

Note they’d still have to follow up and say, “Yeah, but, uh, which space?”


This rebrand moment should have been a chance to leave the long, multi word clunky name style behind, and move right to an exciting single word. The best brands are single words.


A chance to create a new thing of beauty in the local ecosystem that the public could love (and which would thus drive them to be more engaged with the space – “See you down at the [BRAND] tonight!”) was simply missed here.

The first thing you wonder when confronted by a bad brand name is how good the brand’s products could be. It’s entirely appropriate for someone to wonder, “If this new unlovely name represents the managing organization’s aesthetic – how good can any of the shows taking place inside the space be?”

That’s what I would wonder.

A bad brand name signals to the audience: “The things attached to this awkward handle are going to be bad, too.”

And then there’s the cost and waste. Think of all the signs, paper, brochures etc. that will need to be replaced. Every organization that performs in the space is now going to have to change all their materials.

That’s not the Portland way.

Portlanders would have been much better served if the effort and money used for this rebrand had instead gone towards bringing world class art to downtown Portland.

Putting good shows on in these spaces is the single best way to rebrand the PCPA.

Other commentary
8.20.2013 Portland Mercury “…this little ‘the 5 looks like an S’ gimmick is a terrible idea.”
8.30.2013 OregonLive “…worst re-branding in memory.”