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.

Thank god for 5 Useless Degrees | New Portland theatre criticism outlet takes aim at outrageous PCPA ticketing fees

They haven’t been around for that long in a journalistic capacity, but they routinely hit the bulls-eye like experienced vets.

In their weekly podcast, 5 Useless Theatre Degrees & A Bottle of Scotch are consistently the freshest voice in town. Beholden to no one, and with no skin in the game or advertising revenue to lose, the duo of James Engberg and Eric Kilgore gore the sacred cows with a vengeance and tell it like it is.

Thank god.

In their latest report, the two mention at the outset of the show the absurd extra ticketing fees you will have the pleasure of paying if you ever try to buy tickets from the PCPA (or whatever it’s called). It should be said that citizens are somewhat protected from the fees right now because the ticketing web site is so non functional, you have to really want to suffer to move your purchase all the way through to completion. It’s great to hear someone focusing in on this, but the fees are only the tip of the iceberg.

There is a much, much bigger story here that someone needs to tell at length. In a nutshell, how is it that instead of the cool, vibrant city theatre center that Portland SHOULD have downtown, we in fact have the horrific eyesore that is the PCPA, a generic piece of throwaway architecture that looks like a mall, has interior decorating from East Berlin, serves bland food, and sticks citizens with usurious ticket fees that are siphoned off to major corporations? Why is a publicly owned arts center being managed not for the benefit of audience members, but instead for the raft of special interests that penetrate the center and extract their pound of flesh? I suspect the full story here would curl your hair.

It started with the decision to build the monstrosity we know and don’t love, and how whoever was in charge did NOT pick a submitted proposal from international star architect Philip Johnson, because it was too expensive. The “design” (if that’s the right word) they did pick went on to go way over budget and cost (you guessed it) more than the Johnson project. That was the key moment. Because instead of a building that is a work of art, we have a major piece of blight on SW Broadway. Imagine what could have been possible if we had started with a world class building? Unfortunately, the look and feel of a place sets a strong tone that it becomes hard to overcome. And no amount of rebranding on earth is going to make the totalitarian PCPA cool. It just ain’t gonna happen.

Meanwhile, if you enjoy sending your money to Ticketmaster and other faceless corps, keep buying tickets online at the PCPA.

Mission impossible: Make this building cool.  Good luck.
Mission impossible: Make this building cool. Good luck.

Would not be out of place at the old Friedrich Strasse U-Bahn.  If this is the aesthetic of the space, what kind of shows will they put on?
Would not be out of place at the old Friedrich Strasse U-Bahn. If this is the aesthetic of the space, what kind of shows will they put on?

The dreaded $8 fee.  "We'll just mark up your ticket another 20% to pay for the cost of our wonderful rebranding."
The dreaded $8 fee. “We’ll just mark up your ticket another 20% to pay for the cost of our wonderful rebranding.”

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?