I'm no marketing expert, so when I read that our highly regarded sports architecture firm, HOK Sport Venue Event, changed its name to Populous, I was confused. Why ditch a well-known name for one that sounds like a pharmaceutical-grade acne medication?
The name change was necessary after the local firm's management bought itself out from under St. Louis-based HOK Group at the end of 2008. A source at HOK Sport told me yesterday that the split happened because the KC office, with its focus on stadium and arena design, was doing much better financially than its parent company. With credit for high-profile projects like the new Yankee Stadium scheduled for completion this year, an independent direction makes sense for the former HOK Sport.
But the new name sucks.
Populous. It sounds Greek. When you think Greece, you think amphitheaters, which are like arenas and stadiums. Good. But...nope. Populous still sounds like the name of a fertility clinic to me.
The worst part is that HOK Sport paid good money for a name that more aptly fits a rapping lil' cousin of Fabolous. Boutique branding firm Milkshake Media, based in Austin, Texas, got the job of rebranding HOK Sport They're probably best known for creating Lance Armstrong's LIVESTRONG campaign.
According to this article, HOK Sport hired Milkshake Media upon Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper's recommendation. HOK Sport designed the Pepsi Center where the Denver Nuggets play, so they're familiar with Denver's brewpub mayor. The article claims that Hickenlooper is pals with a Milkshake exec.
I asked Will Gregory, the media-friendly namesake of his own PR firm, what he thought of Populous. "I'm really just a PR guy -- but since you asked, what disappointed me most was hearing they (HOK) went with an Austin-based company when we have agencies here in town that are full of highly-creative, national-caliber talent -- people who specialize in just this sort of branding initiative," Gregory says. He's referring to KC's zillion hometown ad and marketing agencies like Barkley, VML, Bernstein-Rein, Trozzolo and Liquid 9, for starters. These are award-winning companies. Bernstein-Rein invented the Happy Meal, for Chrissake.
"It's even more disappointing coming from the same company that urged the city to use them to build the Sprint Center because they were the best combination of industry leader and 'hometown' architecture firm," Gregory says. "I think without a doubt, we can say the same thing about many marketing agency talents here in town. Just a shame not to take advantage of it."
Gregory has his fellow ad and PR people in mind. Like
the rest most of us, they pay taxes. Given that the Planned Industrial Expansion Authority
granted a 25-year, 100 percent tax abatement on HOK Sport's $22 million
dollar, LED-enhanced headquarters at 3rd and Wyandotte, it's not crazy
to expect a little KC loyalty. We even built HOK a pseudo-public parking garage.
I just think the name sounds clunky. "Populous" is an adjective, a word that describes things. Brands are often named with verbs (Bounce, Shout, Sprint) or nouns (Apple, Hallmark). But I can't think of many brands that are named with a single descriptive word. And that makes it sound weird.
"The whole thing is actually quite a coincidence," says Gregory, "as ironically, I am changing the name of my company, Will Gregory Public Relations, to HOK Sport Venue Event. It's unorthodox and confusing -- but that's the hook."
Best of luck, Populous. May you become all-powerful, and the world become your tiny plaything, as it is in the Nintendo game whose name you've assumed.