A Helicopter Over Toledo and Other Dumb Branding Exercises

March 22, 2023

We’re surrounded by ads, all day, every day. From social media to broadcast TV and the clothes we wear, the ubiquity of branded images cannot be escaped.

This is, of course, not a new observation – but, while recently viewing an ad, I was struck by thoughts of when branding succeeds and when it fails. I then had a cringe-inducing memory of my time at a TV station in Toledo, Ohio. I worked at WTOL, which was the only station in the area with its own news helicopter. Despite the fact that we were in a small market with very little need for a news chopper, station execs wanted to wring every little bit of promote-ability out of their investment, and we were forced to used that chopper for any and all reasons!

The most contrived example of this was “Friday Night Flights,” where our copter flew over Toledo and its dull suburbs. On one such occasion, the chopper couldn’t fly, and I removed the segment from the show. However, the executive producer insisted that Friday Night Flights were in fact mandatory and forced us to concoct a farcical report from the station’s satellite center, complete with old footage and impressive looking maps, just to have a report featuring the helicopter.

Obviously, this was a dumb idea, and I told my producer so. He retorted that “not branding our big advantage” was even worse. He overruled me, and we went ahead with the report, much to my chagrin. But I still maintain it was a dumb idea, to this day!

Sensible Branding Exercises

The positive news is that even though clangers like helicopter Fridays do exist, there are lots of good branding and awareness campaigns to observe as marketers. The halo effect of good branding truly does aid in introducing the public to brands and companies and the benefits they bring.

Branding is all about repetition, and title sponsorships across events like musical tours (Vans) to golf (FedEx) ensure that a company’s brand is always mentioned in promotions and news. Venue branding, like Chase Center and T-Mobile Arena, is also well-established. It offers exclusivity and “ownership” of a community-based place and facilitates immersive brand experiences while helping marketers control and amplify messages. Reach is impressive, and when a news segment starts with “Today at T-Mobile Arena…” that brand is securing valuable mentions for the investment.

Branding Misses

These naming arrangements have their cons, too. I can’t imagine being responsible for the clumsily-named “Guaranteed Rate Field,” and we can all remember the use of high-visibility sponsorships for dubious brands and products.

For example, cigarette advertising has essentially vanished from public view, but it still persists. As recently as 2019, tobacco firms were skirting the 2006 EU advertising ban and doing sponsorship activations for products like smokeless tobacco. More recently, the crypto meltdown has shown the crazy spending of now-bankrupt FTX. And the company’s high-profile sports marketing deals have imploded, just like their stock price.

Avoiding Helicopter Night

To this day, I cannot recall if that silly helicopter segment was ever aired. But the experience taught me a valuable lesson, which is that dumb branding exercises, done for their own sake, are a waste. It is far better to develop campaigns that are based on your company’s ethics, vision and mission – as well as key messages – and to subsequently engage with professionals who can help achieve exposure and value from sponsorship and branding dollars.

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Curtis Sparrer Principal Bospar PR Marketing

About the author

Curtis Sparrer is a principal of Bospar PR. He has represented brands like PayPal, Tetris and the alien hunters of the SETI Institute. He is a member of the Forbes Communications Council and has written for Adweek, Forbes, the Dallas Morning News, and PRWeek. He is an active member of the National Lesbian Gay Journalist Association. Business Insider has twice listed him as one of the Top Fifty in Tech PR.