Just revisited the Sears...er Willis...Tower for the first time in probably two decades. From a purely branding perspective, I have to say that I think the Tower is the most cohesively and completely branded attraction I've seen since Disney. Not surprisingly, the brand is essentially "whoa...this is a really big building" and every touchpoint with the visitor is carefully crafted around that brand.

The graphic approach begins as soon as you get in line. Shades of grey and orange, with big, bold, simple fonts and graphic representations of staggering statistics, are everywhere. From the ridiculous...how many thousands of feet of electrical wire in the building...to the sublime..."The Willis Tower is 323 Barack Obamas Tall". While you wait, interactive kiosks bide your time with touchscreen quizzes that instantly compare your results with the 30,000 other visitors. The mandatory video presentation is simply presented but deeply informative, and is current up to and including the recent renaming. My favorite touchpoint was the elevator ride, where a plasma screen tracks your progress as you rocket past other major buildings and structures on your way to the 103rd floor. If you weren't already convinced, by the time you get to the top, the brand is fully entrenched in your mind. Yes, it is a really big building.

branding lessons from the willis tower Photo Credit: Steve Bott

But the pies de resistance has to be "The Ledge". For the uninitiated, The Ledge is a big glass box that juts out about 4 feet from the west side of the Skydeck at the top of the Tower. This is the side of the building that drops straight down 1300 feet to the street below. And when I say glass, I mean glass. There is no visible supporting structure to speak of, so when you step out into it, there is nothing below you. You see your feet, and you see the street. It is an incredible visual and sensory experience as energizing as any theme park ride.

What I love about it from a branding perspective is that it pushes the brand to its extreme conclusion...it forces you to decide whether or not you will truly accept the "really big building" brand or not. Sure, the rest of the observation deck is just as high...but heck, it has a floor, roof, and walls and with a name like "Skydeck" it almost sounds like a cruise ship. The Ledge is different...a psychological and visceral experience that forces you to decide how you're going to respond. This is what the ultimate brands - Harley Davidson, Apple, Nike, Victoria's Secret - all excel at. They know they don't appeal to everyone, and that's how they want it. They want you to decide whether or not you are going to be a junkie to the brand, with all of the good and bad that goes along with it. At once they build both a loyal following and staunch opposition.

And so it makes me wonder how often we're willing to push our own brands to that extreme. How often do we force people to either say "yes, I'm bought in" or "no, I refuse". For small businesses or not-for-profits, it's a fascinating prospect...how much are you willing to engage people...how deep are you willing to go for people to experience what you do in a visceral way. How forceful are you being in making them decide to support you or ignore you? Conversely, how much time, resources and effort do you spend dancing around the edges, playing it safe, trying to reach the largest, most benign audience possible, not wanting to put off or discourage the casual prospect?

As business with limited resources, I don't think small business and not-for-profits can afford to do that. They need advocates, not casual purchasers. They need ignore people who complain about the temperature of the Skydeck, and pursue people who are willing stand on The Ledge and have an experience they will remember forever.

Tim Whitney

About Tim Whitney

Tim is the founder of Greenisland Media, having worked for and with nonprofits for over 18 years in policy, program design, and communication. @greenislandtim