28 March 2009

Made In Oregon: It's The Battle Of The Brands

1997.It's kind of the down-side of popularity. Everyone wants you; soon enough, everyone thinks they own you.

I am, of course, talking about Beau Breedlove.

Whoa, whoa, whoa, Sorry. The iconic Made In Oregon sign, sorry about that. My bad.

That I called it iconic says something right there. A lot of people look on it and, since it's in public view, a lot of people have feelings about it. It's certainly unique as a sign, and there's been some sign in that area designed as a landmark since the early 20th Century, when the Apostolic Faith Church used a building in that area as a meeting hall.

In short, it's part of the warp and woof of the way Portland looks and feels (if you'll excuse the Apple-esque termage). It may be as simple as a great assemply of steel, supports, glass, and electroluminescent gas, but it matters to people; people care. We all notice when a tube goes dark. We all look every year for the placing of the red bulb, the transformation of a simple abstract leaping dear into Rudolph The Red Nosed Rubicon, which has become as painfully Portland as meeting under the Meier & Frank clock or listening to the Cinnamon Bear on KEX used to be.

Enter the University of Oregon. The old Norcrest China building, once capital of the Naito Empire and home to the flagship Made In Oregon store, has been nicely reborn into something that stops just short of actually being the U of O Portland campus – store, offices, classrooms. And, with the building goes the sign. It's a package deal.

In that view, it's entirely reasonable that the U of O get to remake the sign with whatever message it wishes. It's part of the brand, and what a brand that is! We should all be so luck as to be gifted with that store of good will.

If it was just a sign, then that would have been the end of it.

Since the leaving of the Made In Oregon store, and belieing the pure corporate history of the sign itself (from White Satin sugar to White Stag sportswear to Made In Oregon), the three-word legend has gone from business name to generic tag. I myself was fortunate enough to have actually been made in Oregon. A lot of people I know who came here wish they could say the same. Oregon and all her intangibles are still desirable and seductive, even in our highly cynical age.

It's not just a sign.

Think more of When Worlds Collide.

The crack-up is so far kind of messy. Dread Lord Frohnmayer refuses to talk or deal in any way shape or form, reputedly (and I do mean reputedly; we've got PR coming out the gazonga on this) so intractable on this as to put off Randy Leonard. This, my friends, is no small feat.

Commissioner Leonard, for his part, is doing something typically Leonardesque. Don't want to discuss changing the sign to something less UO-specific? Fine. David Frohnmayer is finding out that when you go balls-to-the-wall with Randy Leonard, he's only too happy to oblige. The ace-in-the-hole; eminent domain.

If Buckaroo Banzai doesn't want to give up the Overthruster, then we'll just have to take it from him! In the, ah ... national interest, of course.

By this time next week, the sign and roof which supports it will be city owned and leased, respectively, most likely. UO Prez Frohnmayer, for his part, had threatened to let the sign go dark if he wasn't given his way. The City of Portland has the trump card here, or may well–as near as makes no difference.

Both sides understand the power of Branding.

Ironically, the illustrative photo (nicked from Commissioner Leonard's blog) juxtaposes the MIO sign with another icon, the Old Town rooftop watertank on the same building, which also resembles the logo of the adjacent Pearl District's business association ((pictured right) proving also that distintive architecture easily becomes a branding unto itself).

U of O would like nothing more than its brand on an icon, stamped in brilliant lights on the skyline of the state's principal city (because who ever heard of Portland State University?)

The City of Portland (as personified by Commissioner Leonard) would like something more universal,as befits the scope of the state's largest city (which includes both Duck fans and Beaver fans) such as the simple word "Oregon".

Both sides cannot see eye-to-eye.

Let the Battle of the Brands commence.

And so it goes.

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