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Leaders Want a Bigger Yield From the Shield

A paltry sum from marketing the Beverly Hills sign has city officials asking why it is not making a whole lot more.

October 06, 2005|Bob Pool | Times Staff Writer

Break out the swords and battle-axes. And don't forget the shields.

The fight that's brewing in Beverly Hills, in fact, is about shields.

Officials are trying to make money off the iconic brown "BEVERLY HILLS" signs that mark its city limits. But to the dismay of some, revenue has been thinner than a millionaire's trophy wife.

That is provoking debate among leaders in the city of designer boutiques and movie star mansions over how best to market the distinctive shield.

It was designed in the 1930s by the Warner Bros. Studios art department at the request of boss Jack Warner, a local resident and a friend of longtime Beverly Hills business leader Warren Ackerman, now 88.

The city owns the shield signs, and municipal workers maintain them along five major streets entering town. It also owns the shield design: In early 2002 officials registered it as a trademark.

Sensing the value of a symbol that conveys wealth and class, officials contracted with the local chamber of commerce to sell the shield to merchandisers and others willing to pay a licensing fee to display it on such things as clothing, coffee mugs and key chains.

The chamber, in turn, farmed out the job to an out-of-town marketing firm.

The venture's first-year profit was a paltry $54,000, however. And much of that apparently came from settlements reached for previous "infringements" by unauthorized shield-users who mistakenly figured the sign was a landmark, not a trademark.

City Councilman Barry Brucker believes the city should be raking in about half a million dollars more.

"It's been absolutely shameful," Brucker said. "The shield is tremendously valuable. Just the name 'Beverly Hills' has international cachet. Any way you cut this pie, it is so low in proportion to the potential dollars the city could be making."

The city and the Beverly Hills Chamber of Commerce share profits with Global Icons of West Los Angeles, which represents such "brands" as the Hollywood Sign, Pep Boys Auto and exercise guru Richard Simmons.

In announcing the chamber deal, Global Icons hailed the shield as "one of the most recognizable city signs in the world," calling it a symbol that "adds to the mystique of Beverly Hills as a place of ultimate glamour, wealth, and beauty that continues to grow today. No other symbol in the world encapsulates prominence, prestige and status more than the Beverly Hills Shield TM."

The firm said it would seek out "quality-oriented programs, including apparel, and accessories, health and beauty, gift and collectibles, and home furnishings," to use the shield.

Marketing experts said they are not surprised that things haven't taken off as quickly as some Beverly Hills boosters hoped.

"There's a lot of clutter in the market," said Deborah Cours, a Cal State Northridge marketing professor who has studied the value of Los Angeles-area place names. "Is 'Beverly Hills' as exciting as 'Rodeo Drive' or 'Armani'? Most boutiques have put a lot of money in their own brand names. They don't want to market someone else."

Cours suggested that tourists -- particularly those from abroad -- might be Beverly Hills' ideal target. "In the international market Beverly Hills has a reputation of being trendy."

Assessing the marketing value of a government entity can be tricky, Cours said. She noted that she once took part in a study of "Los Angeles County" as a brand and found its main appeal was its connection to "Baywatch," a TV show about county lifeguards.

Beverly Hills is one of several cities that has attempted to make money marketing what makes them unique. Huntington Beach has been battling Santa Cruz for years over which town can claim the "Surf City" moniker. Last November, Huntington Beach trademarked the name "Surf City USA," and Santa Cruz quickly followed with the trademark "Original Surf City USA."

Bill McClinton, Global Icons' vice president for marketing, and Mee Won Maddox, the firm's president, did not return repeated phone calls seeking a comment.

Dan Walsh, chief executive of the chamber, said the firm's work, so far, has mainly involved sniffing out infringement violations. He refused to discuss revenue generated by the shield or to identify those caught illegally using it in advertising, clothing decoration or filmmaking.

"The first thing is, it has to be protected," Walsh said of the shield. "It's hard to say if it's going to be a big moneymaker."

Brucker said that's exactly what the Beverly Hills shield should be.

"The chamber does good work here, but they're not merchandisers," he said. "The premier marketers in this country are right here in Beverly Hills on Rodeo Drive and Wilshire [Boulevard]. We have people here in town who are brilliant and really know how to brand merchandise. We should use their expertise "

As a trademark war nears, it's shields up.

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