City or celebrity? Branding goals fuel airport name changes

Key Points
  • Louisville International Airport was recently renamed Louisville Muhammad Ali International Airport, but the decision to name the airport after a celebrity isn't a move universally agreed upon.
  • Other airports are moving away from celebrity names in favor of stronger geographic branding, including Hollywood Burbank Airport. 
  • Some other airports have gently tweaked their names in the interest of better branding.

Louisville, Kentucky is well known for bourbon, the Kentucky Derby and Louisville Slugger baseball bats.

It's also the city the late, legendary boxer Muhammad Ali called home.

In his honor, Louisville International Airport was recently renamed Louisville Muhammad Ali International Airport and a new logo honoring The Champ and his famous praise, "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee," was adopted.

The logo of the Louisville Muhammad Ali International Airport
Source: SDF Airport

In addition to honoring a native son, the airport name change is expected bring economic benefits to Louisville, by boosting Ali-related tourism to the city.

"Even three years after our city's most famous son's passing, Louisville continues to see people coming from across the globe to discover and trace Ali's legacy," Karen Williams, president and CEO of Louisville Tourism said in a statement. "The airport rebranding supports current marketing efforts to engage in Ali's 'Footsteps of Greatness' as a reason to inspire visitation to Louisville."

Location, location, location

While Louisville added the name of a local icon to its airport's name, other airports are moving away from celebrity names in favor of stronger geographic branding.

In 2016, the Allegheny County Airport Authority declined to change the name of Pittsburgh International Airport to the Fred Rogers International Airport.

An online petition seeking to honor the late star of the locally produced "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" PBS TV program was signed by more than 15,000 supporters. But airport representatives said vacation planners were more likely to search online for "Pittsburgh Airport" than for "Fred Rogers."

Bob Hope Airport
Source: Jim Moomaw

In southern California, regional Bob Hope Airport is now Hollywood Burbank Airport.

The switch came in 2017 after airport officials realized that while the general public knew that the late Bob Hope was a comedian, few outside the region knew the airport was located so close to Hollywood and many top Los Angeles-area attractions.

"Some thought the airport was in Palm Springs," said airport spokeswoman Lucy Burghdorf. "Others thought it was in Vietnam," because Hope had hosted annual USO Christmas tours to entertain troops during much of the Vietnam War.

To help solve the airport's identity problem, "we studied what other airports had done and why," said Michael Fiore, co-founder and chief brand officer of South Pasadena, California-based branding firm Anyone Collective. "And for the most part, we found the same answers: those with a geographic identifier attached to them were performing better than others."

The Hollywood Burbank Airport
Source: Lucy Burghdorf

The name-change, coupled with branding and marketing efforts that include everything from new signage at the airport and on highways to online advertising, has garnered the airport national awards and, more importantly, more passengers, said Fiore.

Some other airports have gently tweaked their names in the interest of better branding.

Lambert-St. Louis International Airport was renamed St. Louis Lambert International Airport in February 2017. The move was made "to improve marketing positions locally and globally while also expanding connections with the St. Louis region," according to the airport's strategic plan.

A luggage cart at the STL International Airport
Source: STL International Airport

And Milwaukee's General Mitchell International Airport now uses the brand name Milwaukee Mitchell International Airport.

"This decision was made to better identify our geographical location to travelers who are not from this region," said airport spokesman Harold Mester. "Our new brand adds the name of our anchor city while still honoring our namesake, Brig. Gen. Billy Mitchell, who is considered to be the father of the U.S. Air Force."

Next up may be Connecticut's Bradley International Airport .

"As we continue to market the airport in international and West Coast markets, we have found that these populations are challenged to locate us," said Kevin A. Dillon, executive director of the Connecticut Airport Authority. "Accordingly, we are undergoing a review to be completed by the end of the year to determine if it is feasible to change the airport name, and, if so, how we can continue to preserve the memory of Eugene Bradley at the airport."

Bucking the trend

New sign at Daniel K. Inouye International Airport
Source: HDOT

While the benefits of geographic branding are convincing some airports to change or tweak names, at least one airport is bucking the trend.

In 2017, the Hawaii Department of Transportation changed the name of Honolulu International Airport to the Daniel K. Inouye International Airport.

The much-beloved Inouye served as Hawaii's first representative in Congress in 1959 and went on to represent the Aloha State in both the House and Senate for a combined 53 years.

This is the fourth name change in the airport's history, according to the state's transportation department.

When it opened in 1927, the airport was named the John Rodgers Airport. After surviving the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1947, the airport was renamed Honolulu Airport. "International" was added to the name in 1951.

It is too soon to tell if the name change will boost the local economy or increase tourism to Honolulu. But HDOT pegs the cost of new signage, parts, materials, labor and other tasks associated with this latest name change at $1 million.

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