Desperate for cash, TfL is offering to rebrand landmarks. Is everything up for grabs?
Look carefully at Transport for London’s latest pocket map and you’ll see two new stations, called Emirates Royal Docks, next to Royal Victoria, and Emirates Greenwich Peninsula, next to North Greenwich.
The names are part of Emirates £36m ten-year sponsorship of the Thames cable car, due to open before the Olympics.
What next? Start from Nike Neasden, change at Apple Aldgate then Kindle Kennington for the Spearmint Rhino Battersea Extension experience?
Not quite, says TfL. While sponsorship of actual stations is out, as is any sponsor of questionable taste, TfL is open to sponsorship for pretty much anything else.
The cable car and the Barclays cycle hire scheme are two best-known sponsorships.
What next? Start from Nike Neasden, change at Apple Aldgate then Kindle Kennington?
Some have already caused controversy, such as the New Year Eve 2010 sponsorship of free travel by short-term loan firm Wonga, and the abandoned proposal last summer by Australian winery Oxford Landing to rebrand and makeover Oxford Circus station in its own name.
Getting your brand name on public infrastructure is a great opportunity for a company, particularly if, as with Barclays, it subconsciously links you in the public mind with desirable things like health and the environment.
There are also pitfalls. TfL is such a high-profile part of London life that it cannot afford a deal with a company that might damage its reputation.
And it is not always easy to see which ones might. Would TfL, for example, have wanted an association with the original RBS bank when it came crashing own in 2008, or to be embroiled in a row such as Dow Chemicals’ sponsorship of the Games, owing to its links to the 1984 Bhopal gas disaster?
These issues have led the London Assembly to investigate TfL’s work with sponsors.
That might be timely as branding experts think linking with TfL is attractive to brands, and that the downside dangers lie almost entirely with TfL.
Allan Biggar, chairman of All About Brands, says: “Sponsoring TfL would be quite attractive because you are getting your brand in front of a wide cross-section of people, but if I was TfL I would be very careful who I chose.”
Biggar says there is quite a track record of things going wrong when politicians get involved in commercial decisions they don’t understand or haven’t thought through.
“There is a lot of pressure on TfL at the moment to find new finance and if they just go for the money rather than get it right there are more reputational issue dangers for TfL than for the brands,” Biggar says.
Pete Champion, a director of brand consultancy I-Am Associates, says sponsoring TfL presents “an interesting opportunity as it blurs the boundary between commerce and public services.
“From the brand point of view there are lots of wins and it allows brand to go beyond the traditional advertisement and engage with consumers in a more experiential way.
“Research on brand psychology shows that you get a much deeper and more embedded consumer engagement, and make subsequent recall more successful, when a brand is identified with an experience, like Barclays and cycling.”
Champion points out that a firm would need to be large and rich to sponsor TfL.
Sign with the wrong business or deface a much loved public institution and the outcries will be deafening.
“TfL needs to be very careful. Wonga was a problem because some see it as making its money from people’s negative situations,” he says.
“It is the big brands that almost feel like public services anyway that might be best, such as Royal Mail, BA, Virgin, or those that people already love like Apple and Nike.”
When the London Assembly questioned TfL deputy chair Daniel Moylan and commercial development director Graeme Craig members looked in vain for clear rules governing who can sponsor what.
They were told that apart from money, TfL would look at whether a proposed sponsor matched its own corporate values.
That would rule out, for example, committee chair John Biggs’ light-hearted observation that Spearmint Rhino might be a sponsor.
Moylan said: “I do not think we would allow sponsorship of stations because the tube map is an iconic brand recognised around the world and we would not want it cluttered with sponsors’ names and logos.”
He said sponsors preferred their name on new infrastructure, and gave the example that if Chelsea Football Club did move to Battersea the new station could be named after it.
Craig told the committee that the rules governing sponsorship were scattered across different parts of TfL but would soon be consolidated. He said last year’s deal with Wonga had gone ahead because TfL had looked only at the narrow point of whether it was a legal business.
But committee members felt that approach cast the sponsorship net too wide and could court trouble. Sign with the wrong business or deface a much loved public institution and the outcries will be deafening.
As Biggar warns: “The public sector cannot mount a defence that it has done an OK deal just because the sponsor is running a legal business, because the public may not see it like that.”