-Wes Anderson, Attorney
Just as the Minnesota Vikings exceed expectations this year and push into the NFL playoffs, the Vikings’ still-unfinished new stadium is producing some interesting (if not expected) branding-related litigation.
A major topic of conversation here in the Twin Cities is the 2016 opening of U.S. Bank Stadium, the Vikings’ new home built on the site of the not-so-dearly departed Metrodome, and the accompanying outgrowth of buildings in the “Downtown East” area it occupies. Watching this hulking behemoth of angled glass and metal rise over the last two years, I’m happily anticipating the prospect of habitable indoor weather for the next Chicago Bears appearance in town (but probably not the game itself).
I probably should have anticipated the wealth of lawsuits that have arrived well ahead of the stadium’s ribbon-cutting. The latest example has two large banks’ logos a bit too close for comfort.
U.S. Bank paid an estimated $220 million for the naming rights to the new stadium, and its name will be emblazoned everywhere on its exterior. But just last week, the entity behind the stadium’s development (we’ll call it the “Vikings” for simplicity’s sake) brought a lawsuit in Minnesota claiming that Wells Fargo, another locally-based bank, is trying to steal some branding thunder and “permanently photobomb the image of the iconic U.S. Bank Stadium.”
While Wells Fargo doesn’t have its moniker adorning the new stadium, it happens to own a pair of buildings just across the street, and Wells Fargo looks keen to offset the exposure of its competitor’s name. According to the Vikings’ complaint, Wells Fargo plans to put its red-and-yellow logo mark both on the top floor of the building (facing out) and on a raised, illuminated platform (facing the sky). This means that those helicopter night shots of the new stadium and the Minneapolis skyline will also remind viewers of that other big bank in town, as shown in this rendering featured in the Vikings’ complaint:
The Vikings — and, I assume, U.S. Bank — take umbrage to the plans for a brightly-lit WELLS FARGO sign, and allege that Wells Fargo previously agreed that the rooftop logo would not be raised or illuminated, just painted. The suit was just removed from Minnesota state court to federal court, and as work continues on the signs (likely as you read this), expedited hearings are in the works to attempt to halt further construction by Wells Fargo. Given so many millions of dollars pouring into both the stadium and Downtown East, this messy dispute likely won’t be going away anytime soon. In the meantime, you can see the progress of both the new stadium and the Wells Fargo signs using the “aerial” webcam at the Vikings’ website.
It goes to show that stadium naming rights don’t also give an automatic zone of exclusion for crafty competitor branding. Branding can be found in every nook and cranny. I am reminded of the big red rooftop that used to be visible on TV in left field at Wrigley Field in Chicago. It quickly became a lucrative advertising prospect for Budweiser and the building’s owner (much to the consternation of the Chicago Cubs, which has since renovated the field and largely obscured the view of the surrounding rooftops).
Football is the premier sport in the U.S. thanks in large part to the advertising dollars that funnel into the game and its media coverage. The amount of famous brands willing to pay top dollar for NFL-related branding is legion. Arguably the most famous commercial of all time, Apple’s “1984” ad introducing the Macintosh, aired just once – during the Super Bowl. It stands to reason that stadium naming rights may not give a great return on investment if a competitor can swoop in and “photobomb” its way into similar media attention. And indeed, commentators have pondered whether it’s really worth all that money to have Al Michaels refer to the Vikings’ gridiron as “U.S. Bank Stadium.”
It seems both sides have a point – Wells Fargo seeks only to brand its own building, while US Bank and the Vikings can point what is ostensibly a breach of a prior arrangement between the parties. But contract dispute aside, who’s to say brand owners shouldn’t be like crafty NFL general managers, striving for maximum benefit at minimum cost?