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A landmark building emblazoned with a logo can put a company on the map: Look across the evening skyline of any major Canadian city and you see the glowing names of banks, accounting firms and telecommunications companies - signs as iconic as the buildings they're stamped on.

"It certainly helps their identity," said David Bowden, president of Colliers International in Canada. "For companies that are relatively small, if they're able to secure building signage it can help them have an image that's bigger than, in fact, they might be."

As opposed to third party advertising - where a company pays to put its name on a stadium or billboard - "on premise" advertising is signage on the building where a company resides.

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Although it often comes with a big rent bill, an office tower sign can be a substantial value, says Julian Brandon, vice-president of client advisory services and office leasing at DTZ Barnicke. Such a sign "can be an advantage for branding, way-finding, customer identification, brand loyalty, all those things," Mr. Brandon said. "I've been told by some landlords that a sign like KPMG's [at the Bay Adelaide Centre in Toronto]should be equal to a million dollars a year."

Using Toronto as a test case, here's how iconic signs get atop office buildings.

To brand or not to brand

Signage can attract big-name tenants but there are risks. If a building becomes branded by a particular company, competitors can be discouraged from leasing in the space. As well, even if a tenant leaves a building, the name might not.

"There's a couple of examples in Toronto of towers where the tenant left and the name stuck," said Mr. Brandon. For example, 77 King West was formerly the Royal Trust Tower, and though it's now unnamed, people still call it RTT. And though 181 Bay Street - formerly called BCE Place - is now called Brookfield Place, the BCE name has stuck. "It's almost like a nickname for a junior hockey player - when he gets to the NHL he has a tough time getting rid of the nickname," Mr. Brandon said.

Buildings can also take on the identity of the tenant, which can have disadvantages. "Once the building is branded under a corporate entity, then the building is influenced by what kind of a corporate citizen that entity is," said Mr. Bowden. "So leasing would be more challenging in a building called the Enron Building, for example."

Signage or naming rights?

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There are three ways a landlord can allow a tenant to put a sign on a building. First, the landlord could offer signing rights as part of the occupancy deal, as with KPMG at the Bay Adelaide Centre. Second are naming rights, meaning the building is officially named after the tenant, such as Toronto's Telus Tower. Third are complex naming rights, in which a series of buildings are named after the tenant - one example is Toronto's TD Centre.

In recent years, owners have moved away from naming rights, Mr. Bowden said. "Landlords are providing signing opportunities for tenants but not naming buildings after them," he said. "I think part of that is the nature of the ownership has shifted over the last 15 to 20 years. The conventional private developer is less common."

According to Mr. Bowden, while private developers tended to buy and sell properties more quickly, the large institutions that own these types of buildings hold on to them for decades, and so want to have more influence and flexibility over the identity of the building.

Sign design

Once a deal is struck between landlord and tenant, the business must decide on the size, load and mounting options, said Paul Kenny, president of ID Inc., a Toronto-based company that designs, manufactures, installs, leases and maintains these kinds of signs, which can cost "seven figures," he says.

"You can't put your sign too high up in the facade, or it will appear to trail off into the sky and you won't get a proper backing of legibility," he said. In the case of the KPMG sign, the initial design conceived by the architect was so small that Mr. Kenny suggested they would be better off spending money on a billboard on the Gardiner Expressway, as the sign would look like a postage stamp 55 storeys up.

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Big but not heavy

For signs as big as these - KPMG's, for example, is more than 5 metres tall, 14 metres wide and weighs 900 kilograms - safety is a major concern. In 2008, Bay Street was shut down by police after high winds caused part of a Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce sign to fall off a building. Partly because of that incident, Mr. Kenny created the KPMG sign mostly of aluminum, with faces made of Panaflex, a flexible material from 3M that's like the skin of a drum, instead of plastic, to avoid breakage.

As well, because of the massive weight of a sign of this size, Mr. Kenny and his team needed to bypasses the "curtain wall" (or glass exterior) of the Bay Adelaide Centre and attach the sign directly to the inner steel structure of the building.

Beware of bylaws

Municipal bylaws dictate how large a sign can be as well as where it can be placed - though the city doesn't dictate how bright a sign can be. For example, no roof signs are allowed in the city of Toronto. "They know signs on roofs lead to roof leaks," said Mr. Kenny. "It requires a lot more engineering, and people were trying to put roof signs on roofs that weren't designed to withstand them."

Beyond the bylaws, landlords and tenants also have to be aware of their neighbours. "You don't want a big lit sign flashing in other tenants eyes," said Mr. Brandon. "If you do own a complex, you have to be very cautious about what side you put signs on, because you don't want to disturb the neighbourhood."

Neon vs. LED

Traditionally, signs on office buildings have been lit using neon. But Mr. Kenny says the industry is rapidly moving toward more environmentally friendly light-emitting diode technology (the KPMG sign is illuminated with LEDs). The majority of signs in Toronto's downtown core are still lit with neon, Mr. Kenny said, but a switch to LED could substantially lower their energy consumption. "Let's say their neon sign draws 1,000 amps," he said. "If you take the neon out and put the LEDs in, you can lower your energy consumption by 80 per cent. And often you don't have to change the sign, only the light source."

Special to The Globe and Mail

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About the Author

Shelley White is a freelance writer, editor, video producer and mother of twins. Before taking the plunge into the wild world of freelance work, she produced educational programming at TVO, explored digital culture at the late lamented Shift magazine and entertained young minds at MuchMusic. More

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