Coca-Cola town: how corporations sweeten city's bottom line

Whether it's corporate donations, building naming rights, or exchanging services for advertising, the city is open for business to companies who want to hitch their brand to Ottawa’s star.

City of Ottawa made almost $9M from corporate sponsorships and other arrangements in 2016

Coca Cola has had exclusive pouring rights with the City of Ottawa since 2011.

No matter where you go in Ottawa, you won't be able to buy a Pepsi in any city-run building.

Officially speaking, Ottawa has been a Coca-Cola town since 2011, when the cola giant paid for exclusive pouring rights in arenas, cafeterias and vending machines in municipally owned premises across the capital.

Funnily enough, the only exception is city hall, because of a long-standing contract with Pepsi in Café 111, the cafeteria in the building.

Look closely, and you'll notice any number of corporate names and logos sprinkled on government property.

The city has aggressively courted brands for the last several years and though progress was slow at first, it's now getting some real traction.

"We're always looking for partners," said Richard Barton, manager of corporate partnerships.

Whether it's corporate donations, naming rights for city-owned buildings, or exchanging services for advertising, the city is open for business to companies who want to hitch their brands to Ottawa's star.

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The city raked in $8.8 million from major corporate sponsors in cash and services in 2016, the last year from which the city has sponsorship figures.

Barton said that's money the city either would have had to raise in taxes or other revenue, or else cancel programs if not for "corporate partners."

For example, last summer you might have seen City of Ottawa vehicles sporting large Myers Nissan logos on their sides.
A City of Ottawa vehicle was spotted with a Myers Nissan logo in Oct. 2017. The vehicles were loaned to the city as part of a corporate sponsorship deal. (Philip Ling/ CBC)

The dealership donated the use of its cars so the city could run an aquatics program. Without the donation, the city would either have to spend the $30,000 to rent or lease the cars for the summer, or go without the program.

The goal, according to Barton, is to use corporations to help cut city costs wherever possible.

So what do these companies get out of the deal, besides ad space?

A place in your fondest memories, according to Michael Mulvey, an associate marketing professor at the University of Ottawa.

"Some of the most precious memories of my childhood growing up in Ottawa are spending time in local community facilities," Mulvey said.

"The city really has a presence in the things that matter to us, not only in the moment but also things we look back fondly on."

He said corporations can capitalize on the city's place in our daily lives and, in exchange, the city gets some small relief from the pressure on its bottom line.

'You're judged by the company you keep'

But the partnership is not without risk. The city's Coca-Cola deal caused a little bit of trouble a few years ago when the city allowed Coke to stage a publicity stunt at city hall.

The event involved quietly installing a vending machine that dispensed Coke in exchange for hugs. The giveaway attracted a long line of students from nearby Lisgar High School, irking the local health authority that would eschew sugary soft drinks, especially for young people.

"You're judged by the company you keep," Mulvey said. He said generally, corporate sponsorships are a win-win, but the city has to be careful about who it partners with. He says most cities, and Ottawa in particular, have good reputations and dedicate staff to making sure there are no sponsorship gaffes to sully it.

Barton said there are brands that glamorize violence or unhealthy lifestyles that the city won't partner with at all, for example.

"Any of our partners have to abide by city policy," Barton said.

He said the policy is also clear that just because the city signs a sponsorship deal with a brand, it shouldn't affect city council matters.

So if Coke comes along and asks to build a new factory, city council can't approve a rezoning just because the company contributes $271,445 to its budget. With a multinational corporation like Coca-Cola, that sort of conflict of interest likely won't be a problem, but council does have to check itself when it comes to more local companies and developers.

The companies are only supposed to reap the benefits they agree to in their contracts — typically exposure and the opportunity to soak up some of the golden glow of the city's well-established and enviable brand.