Hello, Columbus

It could be the best brand makeover I’ve seen since I first discovered Columbus Circle (by mistake.) 

As teenagers, my friends and I would take the bus from New Jersey into the “city.” And if we ever ventured into that weirdly gray, dirty and dangerous end of the world flanking Midtown and the Upper West Side, we’d try to hotfoot it past its decrepit centerpiece, the Coliseum. 

I never once thought about the marble statue standing atop a 60-foot granite column in the middle of the (once grand?) traffic circle. (Kind of like the old joke, “Who is buried in Grant’s Tomb?)

For all I knew, it could have depicted George Washington -- they wore similar breeches and lady boots, and were equally remote, and um, set in stone.

Fast-forward 30 or so years, and the Coliseum has been razed. In its place stands the gleaming Time Warner Center, with its glass towers, atrium, and pedestrian hub featuring new subway stops, fancy “shops” and restaurants.

Across the way, to commemorate the 400th anniversary of  CC’s first voyage to the New World, the New York City’s Department of Parks, along with urban arts groups and private sponsors, raised funds to renew the Circle’s fountains, footpaths,and crumbling statue (for the first time since it was sculpted by Gaetano Russo and erected in 1892) The department also commissioned the Japanese artist Tatzu Nishi to feature the newly cleaned 13-footer in a temporary art installation open from Sept 20 to Nov.18.

The tickets are sold out -- but you can probably find someone online selling an extra one.

Inside, marketers can learn the darnedest things. Visitors take six shortish flights of stairs (or a construction elevator) up into the space (and from the outside, the birdcage scaffolding is a beautiful work of art.) Coming through the front door, the delightful visual shock is the artist’s stock-in-trade: we encounter a warm, inviting, domestic space, like a living room, with glowing pink wallpaper and sleek but comfy Gold/Williams furniture supplied by Bloomingdale’s.

A giant flat-screen Samsung TV is permanently tuned to CNN -- part of the surrealist “displacement” experience, since you can look directly into the office windows of CNN headquarters right across the way.

But one of these things is not like the others. Could it be the colossal statue of Columbus in the middle of the room, sitting atop a modern (perhaps made out of wenge wood) coffee table, dwarfing everything, like Gulliver in Lilliput? 

You can act like you’re at a museum, studying Columbus’ curves and the stone work. Or you can enjoy this mind/puzzle of recontextualization, including thinking about how Columbus fits into history and pop culture. The handmade wallpaper, with small, cartoonish images of Marilyn Monroe, hot dogs, Elvis Presley, and Martin Luther King, is supposed to epitomize New York. But it certainly seems to be a depiction of American culture filtered through the Japanese lens of the artist.

In the same vein, the entire experience seems familiar and alien at the same time. Some people sat leafing through the magazines placed on the side tables, as if they were in a doctor's office. But mostly, no one wanted to leave this little tree house cocoon, although the tickets are reserved for visits in 15-minute intervals.

So what’s the takeaway for marketers? For one thing, “recontexualize” is a fancy art world term, but it just means shake up the expectations around your brand: Change the size or the nature of the offerings by placing them in a different context or location. The Hershey’s Store in Times Square comes to mind, as does the CNN Grill set up for insiders and journalists at political events. 

Another example: When Tommy Hilfiger changed his line from urban back to preppie, he seized on one trademark detail and blew it up, changing the context and basics of preppiedom. He freshened the paradigm by making monograms huge, giving traditional button-down shirts inch-thick stripes or manufacturing them in Dayglo colors.

Additionally, the transient nature of anything "pop-up" provides a sense of urgency and exclusivity for consumers. They get bragging rights for being part of that particular club at that particular time. H&M, for example, does this brilliantly by bringing in mass merchandise designed by guest (and usually much more upscale) designers for discrete periods of time. Customers line up for days, and the merch sometimes ends up on Ebay at hugely inflated prices.

Or brands can create tension and excitement by doing the opposite of what’s expected in a particular space. Take the success of the High Line, the high-concept walkway built around abandoned railroad tracks on the lower West Side in NYC. Creating a “wildscape” of weeds and flowers in the city as a way of raising revenue from tourists would hardly be anyone's first idea. 

All this is easy to do, you say, when it’s a quasi-public project. Not really; it’s not like the Columbus Circle project didn’t have its own naysayers. “Encasing this majestic statue in a cocoon of conceptual art demeans the community and trivializes history,” Rosario Iaconis, chairman of the Italic Institute of America, said in August, before the project opened. 

Au contraire. It makes people care, probably for the very first time.

 

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1 comment about "Hello, Columbus".
  1. Maddy Mud from McMarketing , October 20, 2012 at 12:20 a.m.
    I thought this was going to be about re-branding Columbus Day, as Explorer's Day, so we leave the smallpox and slavery stuff behind ... thought this was an interesting solution: http://boingboing.net/2012/10/02/exploration-day-columbus-day.html