Battling over Beverly Hills' shield

October 19, 2005|By BOB POOL | BOB POOL,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BEVERLY HILLS, CALIF. --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 Global Icons of West Los Angeles, a 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 said 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."

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

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 California State University, 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."

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."

Bob Pool writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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