MUSIC CULTURE: The O2 rises from the Dome's ashes

This weekend will see London's newest music venue open its doors. Have its owners pulled off a spectacular rebranding trick? Robert Gray investigates.

How do you turn a white elephant into something white hot? The question underpins what has been happening in North Greenwich at the site of the erstwhile Millennium Dome, frequently derided as symbolic of party political bombast, financial mismanagement and failure of the imagination.

This Sunday, 24 June, a huge state-of-the-art entertainment centre, The O2, will emerge from the metaphorical ashes of the Dome. Its owner, Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG), and its partner, the mobile phone service group that is sponsoring the reincarnated venue, are det­ermined to shrug off negative associations in favour of a positive new image. They wanted a bold opening statement for day one, and that is to be provided by New Jersey’s finest, vete­ran stadium rockers Bon Jovi.

Andrea Bocelli, Justin Timberlake, the Rolling Stones, Take That and Prince are among those that will follow in Bon Jovi’s wake, indicating that The O2 has had little difficulty in attracting acts of the highest calibre.

Organisers have not just restricted themselves to booking music acts ­either. Olympic medal winning boxer Amir Khan has a bout scheduled at the arena next month, and exhibitions from NBA Basketball and NHL Ice Hockey give a nod to the venue’s US owner – as does the ‘Disney on Ice’ spectacular planned for October. An exhibition ­entitled ‘Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs’ should provide a hook for the more culturally minded when it opens in November.

So, while the venue will not be short of headline events to shout about, the greater challenge lies in communicating the rebranding and the breadth of change at The O2.

Share of voice analysis research conducted for PRWeek by Factiva Insight found that in 2,757 relevant articles in the UK media between 22 May 2005 (when the Dome was renamed The O2) and 21 May 2007, the venue was referred to as The O2 in just six per cent of coverage, but as the Millennium Dome in 94 per cent – a massive disparity in favour of the old name. Just two months ago, one veteran music industry commentator grumbled to PRWeek that ‘no one has a clue’ what ‘the O2’ is.

‘The issue with the Dome is its history, of course, and the associations people have with the structure, such as the profligacy of previous owners of that building,’ says Rune Gustafson, UK CEO of branding consultancy Interbrand. ‘It was meant to be the flagship of Great Britain but it failed.’

Gustafson does, however, see the logic in O2’s sponsorship, feeling it provides a bigger platform for the brand built on ‘bringing people together’ rather than a more limited positioning based around selling airtime.

‘I think it’s a major PR job rebranding the Dome as The O2, but it is massively helped by the fact there are so many great names appearing in the coming months,’ says Alan Edwards, CEO of entertainment PR specialist the Outside Organisation. ‘People soon cease to worry about the name if the brand is good and gives them what they want, and The O2 definitely does that with its fabulous amenities and great sight lines. After all, The Beatles wasn’t the most extraordinary name for a group, but once the songs started flowing nobody gave it a second thought.’

AEG recently took The O2’s PR function in-house after five years with Freud Communications (PRWeek, 11 May), not long after it failed in its bid to open a super-casino at the site. Freud’s relationship with AEG made headlines when it emerged that chairman Matthew Freud had hosted AEG boss Philip Anschutz and culture secretary Tessa Jowell at the same dinner.

Elephant tracks
The two-strong in-house PR team is headed by former Financial Times PR manager Lucy Ellison. The AEG group also uses The Corporation (headed by celeb PR veteran Gary Farrow), whose clients include Sir Elton John and Gordon Ramsay, on a consultancy basis.

‘The O2 is a different proposition to the Dome,’ explains Ellison. ‘Our strategy has been very much “seeing is believing” – all the journalists, opinion for­mers and visitors we have taken around have been astounded by the transformation. The Dome’s exterior remains the same but inside a unique entertainment destination has been created.’

A key message is to remind people that the venue is now privately-owned and is being looked after by a company with extensive experience in running some of the world’s best music and sports venues. Among the numerous venues owned by AEG around the world is the Home Depot Centre in Los Angeles. ­Despite its rather incongruous name, that venue is soon to become the home ground of David Beckham. An association with one of the world’s most famous footballers will certainly not harm AEG’s reputation in the UK either.

The fruits of this approach can already be seen in some of the recent newspaper coverage, lauding the transformation into a huge mixed-use entertainment centre. This comprises: the arena, smaller IndigO2 live venue, 11-screen cinema complex, exhibition space and over 20 bars and restaurants.

The Dome appellation is still proving stubborn to shift from headlines, but Ellison and her team point out the marketing campaign is yet to crank into top gear. With over a million tickets already sold, and the buzz around stories such as Prince playing 21 gigs at The O2, things certainly seem to be moving in the right direction.

‘As it is essentially a purpose-built arena, I’ve got high expectations,’ says Observer Music Monthly magazine editor Caspar Llewellyn Smith. ‘London has been crying out for a new music venue of this size and I’ve been impressed with the PR so far.’

Frank PR founder Graham Goodkind also takes the view that a good communications job has been done to date. He argues that O2 will benefit even more from its third-party endorsement of the ­respected acts and events that are booked for The O2 in the ­coming months.

PR is one element of a £10m integrated marketing communications launch plan activated by O2. There is also a focus on direct communications with its 18 million customers. Textmessages and bill inserts are being used to highlight ‘pre-sale’ tickets available up to 48 hours before they go on sale to the general public. Customers attending events at The O2 also have further options, including an upgrade to the VIP area and free tickets for other events.

O2 head of PR Nicola Green says the company understands it will take time for the rebranding to stick. But she points to the success O2 has already had in this field, having successfully shed its previous identity as BT Cellnet.

‘We have seen a massive sea change since we began promoting gigs and events,’ says Green. ‘When the venue is talked about politically or as history, it is always referred to as The Dome. However, we have found that when talking about the up and coming content it is referred to as The O2.’

WHAT'S ON AT THE O2?

MUSIC

June 24
Bon Jovi
June 28
Snow Patrol
June 30
Andrea Bocelli
July 4-5, 7-8, 10
Justin Timberlake
July 18, 22, 25
Barbra Streisand
July 21
Keane
July 26-28
Scissor Sisters
August 1 to Septem­ber 13 (21 different nights)
Prince
August 21, 23, 26
Rolling Stones
November 29 to December 8
Take That

SPORTS

July 14
Amir Khan versus Willie Limond
September 29-30
NHL Ice Hockey
October 10
NBA Basketball

FAMILY ENTERTAINMENT AND EXHIBITIONS

October 17-28
Disney on Ice
November 15
Tutankhamun and the Gol­den Age of the Pharaohs
December 22
War of the Worlds Live

IN THE PRESS

Actual number of press citations for both the Millennium Dome and The O2 (25 May 2005 – 21 May 2007)


SHARE OF VOICE

Percentage of coverage from 450+ sources attributed to both the Millennium Dome and The 02 (25 May 2005 – 21 May 2007)


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