Media planners are constantly seeking compelling ways to connect brands with consumers. So they should have warmly greeted last week's news that Westminster City Council is in talks with agencies and clients about securing sponsorship for the £20m redevelopment of Leicester Square (Marketing, 8 February).
Some may be hesitant at the thought of linking their brand with a public space that, arguably, has become synonymous with binge drinkers and an unfeasibly loud Swiss clock.
For all its drawbacks, Leicester Square remains a major fixture on the capital's list of tourist haunts and as a consequence is permanently crowded.
Its marketability is also enhanced by the regular stream of film premieres hosted at its cinemas.
Opinions on the square's potential are divided. Posterscope deputy managing director Glen Wilson believes such landmarks offer a unique opportunity for brands to create relevant temporary installations that offer something of value to consumers. His agency has already created an ice rink for Absolut Vodka and a poppy field for fragrance brand Kenzo, both in Covent Garden.
But James Rolls, director of Travelling Media, believes the demographic that the square attracts is too diverse to be of use to marketers.
Westminster council is developing the square specifically with a family audience in mind. It plans to organise a series of entertainment events that would take place in the centre of the square, with the existing gardens replaced by a stage.
Conscious of the need for financing to support the project, the council has said it is open to a significant degree of partnership with a sponsor.
Deputy head of West End and area renewal Joy Moore says that while a sponsor will not be allowed to attach its name to the square, it could have a say in the organisation of the entertainment.
This is a crucial point for brands considering this kind of sponsorship programme, according to Steve Parker, UK buying director at Starcom.
'Brand owners want to feel that there will be a level of partnership in a project such as this,' he says. 'Consumers can easily tell when a sponsorship does not involve any commitment or intent on the part of the brand.'
Despite a high-profile drive to serve flyposting marketers with ASBOs a couple of years ago, Moore says the council is not averse to working with the commercial world. 'We don't want ads all over the place, but we are looking for creative solutions that acknowledge our sponsor,' she explains.
Moore points to the recent creation of Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) in the borough as an example of its openness to commercial input.
Modelled on a scheme in New York, BIDs involve businesses contributing to a fund that finances improvements to their local area. Leicester Square is within the Heart of London BID. The scheme has already contributed to the development of Coventry Street, which links Piccadilly Circus to Leicester Square.
The UK has thus far been conservative in its attitude to branding public places. Other countries have been more proactive. In New York during the dotcom boom, for example, large expanses of Broadway were covered with flags carrying the branding of digital marketing agency Doubleclick.
Italy has a long tradition of financing the refurbishment of statues and public buildings through sponsorship. Buildings are covered with branded hoardings for the duration of projects and the public largely accept the sponsors' role in the work.
In the UK, this kind of public-private partnership has failed to attract such a positive reception. In 2003 St Paul's Cathedral caused uproar when it offered advertising space on a screen used to cover the building during cleaning. Not surprisingly, no marketers were willing to risk the adverse PR.
But public attitudes seem to be thawing, and marketers are becoming braver about planning projects with public partners. Carling has been sponsoring busking areas on the London Underground for three years, and 95% of Tube users have said the licensed performers cheer up their daily commute, according to TNS.
The Greater London Authority (GLA), which manages Trafalgar Square and Parliament Square, is in the final stages of arranging a refurbishment of Nelson's Column, which will be partially ad-funded. This will involve a branded structure being placed around the column while it is repaired.
GLA sponsorship manager Scott McDonald, who ran the pitch to select the brand that will front the column, says he was insistent about the need for creative that would be sensitive to the site. Despite its potentially controversial nature, he believes the project will be viewed as 'unusual and thought-provoking'.
Those marketers seeking an even more unusual opportunity, and one that will avoid the challenges of council planning authorities, might be tempted by the chance to sponsor a satellite set to launch from Kazakhstan in June.
The spacecraft is set to embark on an expedition to research the possibility of energy-saving by reflecting light from orbit. Travelling Media is brokering the chance to be a partner, and as Rolls says: 'There are plenty of opportunities out there for PR-savvy brands.'
DATA FILE - BRANDS IN PUBLIC PLACES
- In July 2001, Battersea Power Station's chimneys were wrapped in an ad for Duracell Ultra M3 batteries. The activity was intended to create an association between the battery and the idea of power.
- Last year Ariel booked all the ad sites at Earls Court Tube station during the Wimbledon tennis championships, for its 'Championship whites' campaign, created by Arc London. The previous year the brand had used Southfields station, the closest to Wimbledon.
- In 2004, Cussons' Imperial Leather signed a three-year deal with Alton Towers to sponsor the park's log-flume ride. Renamed The Flume Unplugged, visitors rode in bathtubs instead of logs. Imperial Leather products are also supplied in Alton Towers' hotel rooms.
- For the past 18 months the London Heliport has been sponsored by UBS. The branding for the bank is deliberately subtle to avoid alienating senior business travellers.