The Marquee Is The Message

Nokia and its partners artfully underplay their underwriting roles.

Upon turning the corner from 7th Avenue onto 44th Street in the heart of Manhattan's theater district, it's hard to miss the marquee that hovers over AEG Live's new Nokia Theatre Times Square. Next to the static offerings of adjacent theaters, the Nokia marquee displays digital video across its 85-by-10-foot high-definition led screen. On any given night, it might feature live footage from inside the venue or marketing missives from the theater's sponsors. Indeed, the marquee more or less lights up the entire block.

So upon entering the Nokia Theatre, which formally opened its doors with a Bon Jovi concert last fall, one expects to be met with a similar sensory barrage. But the interior offers none of the hastily hung banners and clumsy kiosks associated with most midsize entertainment venues. The overall effect, in fact, is understated. Welcome to the new era of out-of-home marketing, in which the effectiveness of a sponsor's presence will be judged by the contribution it makes to the overall concert-going experience, rather than by the number of times its name appears on walls, doors, and floors.

The decision to limit the amount of marketing content and number of sponsors was made by AEG Live, a producer of live entertainment events, early in the planning process for the $23 million renovation project. "Even before we found the space, we capped [the number of partners] at five," says Todd Goldstein, AEG's vice president of business development. As it turns out, AEG inked deals with just four: Nokia, Emerson, Heineken, and Red Bull.

Seeking what AEG senior talent buyer Mark Shulman calls "a home base" in New York, the entertainment behemoth looked at 50 different spaces -- everything from banks to retail sites -- before settling on the Loews Astor Plaza movie theater, previously the largest single-screen theater in Manhattan in terms of capacity. Instead of making plans for the space and then worrying about how sponsors might fit into them, AEG quietly reached out to a handful of companies with which it had partnered on other projects.

"The first time I went in there, a movie was being shown," recalls Mike McCann, Heineken USA's senior brand manager. "Once we knew that we'd have the opportunity to hardwire ourselves into the design of the space, we signed on before the first wall had been knocked down." Adds Goldstein: "We weren't just looking for somebody who wanted a sign. We wanted partners who would be involved in the DNA of the project."

At the same time, AEG sought out those companies that had, through previous marketing activities, shown more than a passing interest in popular music. Emerson is a longtime provider of audio components; Heineken had supported the Coachella music festival and the Grammys; and Nokia aims to back more sophisticated music-enabled devices. In turn, AEG gave assurances of category exclusivity within the new venue: "One of the things Todd [Goldstein] made clear was that this wasn't going to become NASCAR," McCann laughs. Goldstein encouraged the companies who signed up early to sit in on meetings with architect David Rockwell. For Nokia, this level of involvement, coupled with a positive experience working with AEG on the 6,400-seat Nokia Theatre at Grand Prairie in Texas, cinched the deal.

Hoping to make music a pivotal part of its future offerings, Nokia worked with AEG to showcase its products in an environment more akin to a relaxed luxury retail setting than a dingy concert hall. Upon entering the venue, visitors immediately encounter the "Nokia vision wall," on which the company's devices past and present are encased in elegant (and secure) glass. After a right turn and an escalator ride, visitors are dropped into the heart of Nokia's in-theater presence: the Nokia Blue Lounge, a plush area showcasing a range of products. There, Nokia cell phone owners can charge their devices and, via a Bluetooth hookup, download ring tones, images, and -- soon -- clips from that night's show.

"It's important to us to represent ourselves a certain way visually, but not in a way that steps on the music environment," notes Silvio Bonvini, senior manager of Nokia Unwired. "To AEG's great credit, they worked with us to find a way to bring our phones to life. They didn't treat us like just a naming-rights sponsor."

Emerson shared Nokia's goal of showcasing its products in the spacious lobby, but also saw the theater as an opportunity to cozy up to younger consumers. Emerson's lounge area, located about 40 yards down a broad hallway from Nokia's, offers touch-screen kiosks where concertgoers who input their e-mail addresses can receive 50 free music downloads and a smattering of products.

Just as important, Emerson plans to conduct product exhibitions and mini focus groups during events. "The business has changed so much. It used to be that there were new products every three or four years. Now there are new products every six to 12 months," explains John Raab, Emerson's senior executive vice president and chief operating officer. "The feedback we've already gotten -- [on] colors, packaging, price points, you name it -- is huge for us."

Heineken's presence is confined to marquee mentions for which the company created custom content and the three expansive bars, each of which boasts a New York-centric theme, from The Ramones to The Cotton Club. "We wanted to create an understated presence in the appropriate areas," McCann says, echoing similar comments by Raab and Bonvini.

Not surprisingly, all three cite the same challenge in coordinating their partnership with AEG. "We were four months late on the opening, which was tough. When you're really, really eager to do something, patience lasts 30 days," Raab acknowledges. "But obviously it's better that everybody involved takes their time and gets everything done right." Adds Shulman: "It's great that we had a core group of partners who hung in there with us. We were as eager to go as they were."

As for suggestions to other marketers hoping to get the most out of similar out-of-home partnerships, the Nokia Theatre partners stress the importance of authenticity, especially in a passion-provoking arena like music. "Everybody here is committed to music in a relevant way," McCann says. "If you're going to use naming rights as a way to push yourself into the music space with no history, people will call you out. You'll wind up doing more harm than good."