One year after dismal rebranding, on-line ticketing system for TAVFKAPCPA (“the arts venue formerly known as PCPA”) remains nearly unusable

Almost exactly a year ago, you may recall some coverage of the ill-conceived “rebranding” of Portland’s downtown performing arts venue Portland Center for the Performing Arts (a workable if not brilliant name that everyone in Portland knew by its acronym PCPA) into the 100% artless “Portland’5 Centers for the Arts”.

Metro presumably spent a lot of money on this rebranding effort, the net effect of which was that Portland woke up one morning last August to find the city’s largest publicly-owned arts complex was now lumbered with a name so unappealing (and ludicrous) that many people (and even some arts group tenants in the building) just kept using PCPA.

But nothing else about the complex of five performance spaces had changed. And the notion that we now have five CENTERS for the arts makes no sense. There’s the Schnitz, the Keller, and the PCPA (which has three halls inside it). What does it mean so say that each of the halls inside the PCPA is itself now an “arts center”? It…just… MAKES. NO. SENSE.

Good brand names clarify, simplify, and ARE BEAUTIFUL. They create magic. A good brand name – especially when it is for a physical space or location you want people to love and frequent – should be simple and attractive so that people will use it. It should have character. Saying the name should be fun and memorable. An example of a great brand name for a venue is “the Schnitz”, one of the five spaces unhappily subsumed under the new totalitarian moniker. “I’ll meet you at the Schnitz.” Boom. It doesn’t get much cooler than that. You know exactly what’s involved, and a distinct experience is conveyed. And it’s short.

Other examples of great Portland brand names (new and old and gone) for physical locations that people love(d)? The Ace Hotel, The Armory, The Nines, The Benson, Doug Fir, The Whitsell, Tilikum Crossing, The Guild, Cinema 21, The Woods. Note how all those names become part of the Portland landscape. They enrich the city by filling it with cool names for places that are themselves cool.

And the new brand name for TAVFKAPCPA (“the arts venue formerly known as PCPA”)?

Use it in a sentence and see what you think: “Hey Joe, do you want to catch a show tonight down at the [PORTLAND’5 CENTERS FOR THE ARTS]?” Cue sound of needle scratching back and forth across record while explosions, screams, and sirens ring out. When you try to actually use the new name you can appreciate how non-functional it is. Which makes you wonder if the creators ever tested it. More importantly, the new name has no originality or unique Portland character. It could have been mass-generated by a computer algorithm in Texas. If Portland is a creative town, how can you expect its citizens to pronounce a phrase as unbeautiful and uncool as PORTLAND’5 CENTERS FOR THE ARTS when they refer to their preeminent performance venue? It’s embarrassing. What a name like that does is drive people AWAY from the building.

And then there’s the business of the shortened version of the name that becomes the real handle people will actually use. Because no one is ever going to say the sentence above. What is the short name? Is it “Portland 5”? Note how bland and non descriptive that term is. It has no connection to live performance. It needlessly includes the name of the city, which was how buildings were named 50 years ago. Other than the city name, there is no creativity at all in the name. It sounds like the lineup for some gangland crime family incident. It is, quite simply, A TRULY AWFUL NAME.

What should have happened here? If there was something wrong with the old name (and there really wasn’t), the city could have opened it up to a public naming contest, similar to how the new pedestrian bridge was named. Portlanders would surely have come up with something better. You know they would have. And by the way, as the old proverb goes, “No matter how far down the wrong path you have gone – turn back!” It is never too late to say, “You know what, this is just not the best name for what should be an exciting downtown space. Let’s try again.”

But lo! The name is not the only non-functioning aspect of TAVFKAPCPA. It turns out the web site you have to use to buy tickets for any event in any of the PCPA venues is functionally unusable. I know – because I just tried to buy a ticket there. Have you tried it? Go take a look and see what you think. The experience is at least consistent with the new brand name. It’s terrible. After slashing and burning through five screens, I aborted and picked up the phone. When I got the box office, I asked if they knew how terrible the experience of trying to buy a ticket online was. “Yes.” It’s been this way for at least a year. So what is being done about it?

Why does this matter?  If every arts group in the building has to use the TAVFKAPCPA web site for ticketing, and the online experience is bad enough to actually dissuade people from making a purchase, the web site is negatively impacting everyone.  Instead of leading to more ticket sales and attendance, the poor UX is going the other way.  It’s hard enough to get people to buy tickets to go see some theatre.  The last thing we need is a botched web site that further narrows the number of people who can jump through all the hoops and navigate the unhappy experience.

As always, the larger question here is: Why, instead of the world class downtown performance space we need, does Portland have TAVFKAPCPA, with carpeting to take you back to East Berlin, bad food, and overpriced tickets that you can’t even buy online because the web site is so bad? Where is the larger vision? Where is the urgency to get with the program? Who is giving the current status quo a pass and saying, essentially “Yeah, looks good.  Everything works for me.”

Are people aware of the issues?  Someone needs to light a fire here before the next surprise “enhancement” at PCPA unveils itself.

It get5 worse: New PCPA signs confuse rather than clarify

As mentioned previously (When branding goe5 terribly wrong), Portland’s downtown PCPA has been “rebranded” and given a new name.

But since no one can figure out how to pronounce the jarring combination of letters and number that is “Portland’5 Centers for the Arts”, folks will likely continue to use “PCPA” to refer to the red brick building on Broadway next to the Schnitz.

Or, in a nod to the purple Minnesotan: “The performing arts center formerly known as PCPA”.

Or for simplicity: TPACFKAPCPA.

Meanwhile there is a new sign up on TPACFKAPCPA.

And it illustrates everything wrong with the new name.

New signs on the north entrance of the PCPA.
New signage on the north entrance of the PCPA.

It may be ugly, but at least it confuses the customer and cost a lot.
It may be ugly, but at least it confuses the customer and cost a lot.

For starters, those kaleidoscope images on the top row that look like they were auto generated by your screen saver circa 1998? Those are actually letters. In other words, the new visual icon for each of the 5 space5 is simply the first letter of the theatre name, camouflaged and colored weirdly. Note the left panel is the overall brand, while the three on the right are actual performance spaces. Alles klar?

A visitor might look up at this unlovely placard, assuming they can read the icons as letters, and mistakenly think the acronym for the building is “PNWB”. Nope.

Could we maybe use the word “Portland” a few more times here? Yes, we’re in Portland. WE GET THAT. But using the word four times doesn’t contribute to the brand experience – it starts to numb your brain.

What else is there to say?

A visual color signature is a big part of any brand. Even if you can’t read the words, the color combo will often tell you what it is. Note the complete absence of any identifying color scheme here.

Also, see how the older signs stenciled on the building are still there? So above the new new sign we have “Antoinette Hatfield Hall”. And below it we see “Newmark Theatre – Dolores Winningstad Theatre” (but note it’s “Dolores Winningstad Theatre” – not “Winningstad Theatre” as in the new sign: so which is it?) and “Brunish Theatre”.

In other words, there already were signs for the three spaces. So what did the new signs add? And why weren’t the old signs removed? And what is “Antoinette Hatfield Hall” – and why is there no new sign for it? And why are there so many questions on a beautiful September morning?

A rebranding should clarify and simplify. This one does the opposite.

Do your own test. Take an out of town visitor to the north facade of TPACFKAPCPA, plant them below the new signage, and ask them what they think the overall building name is. As in, what name would you use if you wanted to tell a friend, “I’ll meet you at 7 downtown at the [NAME]”?

The overall goal here should be to get people to actually come out to more downtown shows, and making the name of the venue unknowable to the city’s potential audience members is not a first step down that path.

Adding to the overall confusion, the big electronic marquee sign on the Broadway side of the building is still headlined “Portland Center for the Performing Arts”. Will that be replaced? At what cost?

And again, the original question behind all of this: Why? Why the rebrand? What was the problem for which the rebrand is the solution?

Meanwhile, lost in the din surrounding the nonsen5ical rebranding of TPACFKAPCPA is a much more important question than what we should call a cutting edge performing arts center for showcasing local work in downtown Portland.

Namely: Why don’t we have such a place?

More on that one soon.

What will it cost to replace this marquee sign?  Or will the old name hang on to confuse people?
What will it cost to replace this marquee sign? Or will the old name hang on to confuse people?

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.

What?

“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?

PCFTA
P5CFTA
PCA
P5CA
P5
Portland5

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?”

Sigh.

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.

Steppenwolf
Disjecta
Druid
Higgins
Flickr
tEEth

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.”