Earlier this month, Three Ireland announced an eight-year sponsorship deal with Ireland’s historic Olympia Theatre, a new brand partnership designed to secure the future of the venue in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic.
In theory, it should have garnered public praise and admiration, cementing Three’s longstanding support of the Irish live music and entertainment industry at a time when it was needed most.
In reality, it was received by many as an unwanted attempt to commercialise one of Ireland’s most treasured concert halls and theatre venues.
So, what went wrong?
For over a century the Olympia Theatre has been home to live music and arts in Ireland, attracting names such as Charlie Chaplin, David Bowie, and Laurel and Hardy.
Originally opened in 1879 as ‘Dan Lowrey’s Star of Erin Music Hall’, the theatre underwent a series of name changes until it became the Olympia Theatre in 1923. It has earned a time-honoured reputation as a venue where world-famous acts perform intimate shows for their Irish fans.
However, as Three Ireland becomes the new primary sponsor of the theatre, the historic name is set to change to the 3Olympia—the first time a commercial brand has been included in the venue’s name since its establishment.
This decision immediately sparked public backlash. Critics on social media described the rebrand ‘ridiculous’ and ‘nonsense’, with calls to ‘leave the name alone’. The name change was also subject to widespread media analysis with coverage across The Business Post, The Sunday Times, and even The Guardian. After the unveiling, Sunday Times columnist Cristín Leach said that Three had ‘already lost the crowd’.
Tara and Fiona Sinnott, whose father Gerry Sinnott ran the venue for almost two decades, also shared their thoughts, branding the rename as ‘cultural vandalism’. In a series of tweets, Fiona made a public plea for the decision to be reversed: ‘I understand the need for sponsorship, but the name is sacrosanct. Please change it back.’
But is this all a case of short-term backlash for long-term gain?
Learning by example
Commercial sponsorship rebrands are not a new concept. Just as recently as 2009, Lansdowne Road was renamed the Aviva Stadium under a 10-year agreement.
Two years following that, Bord Gáis secured the renaming rights for the Grand Canal Theatre in a sponsorship deal worth €4.5 million. Nor is Three Ireland a stranger to the space, with an ongoing sponsorship of the 3Arena (previously the Point Depot).
Despite the financial and resource commitments agreed in each of these sponsorship deals, all three brands were subject to public criticism. In the words of Irish print and broadcast journalist Vincent Browne at the time of the Lansdowne announcement, the decision to rename a stadium or venue under a corporate sponsorship ‘is in an act of spectacular deference to corporate power’.
Writing for the Irish Times, Browne noted that the underlying issue with an announcement such as the Lansdowne rebrand is that ‘we have managed to monetise the very essence of what it is to be part of this community’, raising the question of ‘how is it we collude so easily and unthinkingly in such obsequiousness to corporate interests?’
However, in these cases public retaliation was relatively short-lived, and while some dedicated supporters still refer to them by their original names, the majority have grown to know the venues by their rebrands. Objective achieved, some might say.
Commercial vs cultural
If we consider the Three/Olympia sponsorship under this lens, then yes, perhaps the benefits of the name change do outweigh the initial pushback from consumers and the general public.
Commercially speaking, having your brand identity visible on signage, ticketing, and in the media is a significant win, and if that is the only objective of the sponsorship then the right decision was made. But reputationally, was the risk worth taking?
Three’s sponsorship of the Olympia Theatre further grounds the brand’s claim to be ‘Ireland’s number one live music sponsor’, and credit must be given for their eight-year commitment to supporting the venue as it reopens its doors for the first time in 18 months.
However, judging by the public reaction, the motive behind the sponsorship has been called into question. Was the deal made in good faith or was it another case of corporate interests overriding the cultural?
From the outside, it may seem as though it’s the latter. The decision to change the name of a theatre that has been built on over 100 years of Irish heritage is what makes this case so different to the others: a rebrand that shows no sensitivity towards the venue’s deeply rooted history and nostalgia.
As a result, the decision has completely overshadowed the corporate’s commitment to the cause.
The two sides of the coin
Although previous examples show that public outrage does die down over time, a rebrand serves as a permanent reminder of a corporate agenda.
While it’s important to note the value of the sponsorship in terms of keeping the venue operational and contributing to the ongoing restoration of the building, it’s the ‘how you do it’ that’s the glaring issue.
For corporates looking to get involved in the arts and culture space, there are subtler, less vulgar, and more meaningful approaches. As a sector built on strong heritage, tone matters—and it should be at the heart of any sponsorship or CSR strategy.
In the case of the Three/Olympia sponsorship deal, this was not just another corporate sponsorship of a live music venue, but rather a brand partnership with a valued cultural site, integrating an element of CSR and requiring unique empathy, sensitivity, and awareness.
What could have been done instead?
From a communications perspective, the missed opportunity was demonstrating that Three was conscientious in its approach and genuinely invested in the process.
As a well-known sponsor of the live music and entertainments industry in Ireland, Three has a reputation to maintain. Releasing a reactive statement to say ‘we are very mindful of the rich history of the venue’ is not enough. As the saying goes, actions speak louder than words.
As a significant player in the entertainment sphere, Three could have kept the big corporate branding for bigger venues and stadiums (such as the 3Arena) while opening up a separate stream of activity for smaller, more culturally significant spots.
For example, an announcement introducing the ‘brought to you by Three’ series, a new sub-brand of sponsorship and CSR that supports Ireland’s rich history of art and culture, might have made for better headlines.
In practice, this strategy requires no controversial renaming of the sponsored venue. Instead, it creates a new tag line that maintains brand awareness for the third party, and more importantly, stays true to the heart of the home.
‘The Olympia, brought to you by Three.’ Simple but effective.
About the author
Combining both her journalistic and public relations backgrounds, Lauren utilises her industry knowledge to develop and maintain positive corporate identities for 360’s clients. Through message development, campaign creation, and media relations activity, she builds communications strategies that allow our clients to share their story in a creative and engaging manner.