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July 17, 2009

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Sears Tower now 'Big Willie'

It took two years to erect what was once the tallest building in the world. It may take a bit longer for Americans to take to its new name.

Yesterday, the 36-year-old Sears Tower became the Willis Tower, named after the world's third-largest insurance broker, Willis Group Holdings Ltd.

Public relations experts, academics and local historians said it could take decades for the new name of the 110-story skyscraper to take its place in the public consciousness.

"The Sears Tower is not just a Chicago landmark, it's a national landmark that's known around the world," said Aaron Perlut, a managing partner of St Louis PR agency Elasticity. "We see it on our TVs, in movies and magazines, so it is part of pop culture. Gaining public acceptance of renaming the Sears Tower will be extremely challenging. Even with a very long, integrated marketing campaign we could be looking at a 20- to 30-year period."

Protesters of the name change started a Website,, boasting 34,000 signatures on an online petition.

Chicago landmark

Willis' chief executive said he understood the fuss after the original name-change announcement in March, but said the firm, which has leased 13,000 square meters in the skyscraper, is committed to Chicago.

Joe Plumeri, the CEO of London-headquartered Willis Group, acknowledged it could take time to win over Chicagoans.

"Nothing big is easy," he said.

The 442-meter sleek, black skyscraper was commissioned by Sears Holdings Corp, once America's largest retailer, at a cost of US$175 million.

Sears left the tower for a new suburban Chicago headquarters in 1991. In the meantime, Sears has lost ground to retailers like Wal-Mart Stores Inc and Home Depot Inc.

Even after Sears departed, the tower that tops Chicago's impressive skyline kept its name, attracting thousands daily to gape from its observation skydeck, the highest in the Western Hemisphere. This is the prize Willis seeks.

"When you have the chance to have your name attached to a building of that stature, it really says something about your company," Plumeri said.

Plumeri, for one, said he does not mind tongue-in-cheek references to Willis Tower as "Big Willie."


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