Next stop: Wonga Circus? The argument against branding Tube stations


This week it emerged that London Underground stations may be allowed corporate sponsors under plans being considered at City Hall. The money-spinning idea, which some predict could raise £136m a year, would see landmark stations renamed and Tube lines given a corporate makeover, paving the way for Burberry by Bond Street, Virgin Euston and the Vodafone Line.

Here brand expert Daniel Todaro presents the case against branding the Tube…

Against – Daniel Todaro, MD, Gekko
Brand sponsorship is one thing, but forgive me if I’m wrong, isn’t the premise of naming a station based upon its location?The idea has been proposed and rejected before for a number of reasons, so it’s difficult to see why anything would have changed. As has been rightly pointed out, I’m sure this map is well-intentioned, but a Tube map is to show people where a station is and how to get to their destination. Can you imagine how obstructive this would be to tourists who are unlikely to speak English fluently? Our trains struggle to run smoothly at the best of times, thus I imagine it would not be wise to discourage tourism further.Some may argue it opens up an interesting debate, but I feel it offers the opportunity to open the corporate floodgates. TfL has insisted they’re against names being sold off “to anyone waving a cheque book and offering a bad pun”. However, selling naming rights aggressively across the public transport network would raise an estimated £136m according to the report. This would pay for just a one-year price freeze, not even a discount for London commuters, just a temporary measure against price inflation.

So while in the initial stages TfL may maintain integrity with brand sponsorship, what happens after the initial three year sponsorship deals finish? The station name changes again (or reverts) causing more confusion, and perhaps a bidding war emerges. Perhaps then we see a lucrative bid from Wonga (which has already sponsored free travel) TfL are unable to turn down and before you know it, we’re travelling to Wonga Circus for a spot of retail therapy.

Back in 2011, winemaker Oxford Landing very nearly exploited London Underground’s need for cash by offering a reported £10m for a station takeover for a minimum of three months. It may sound unbelievable to imagine Virgin Euston, but the only thing that prevented a realisation of Oxford Landing was a niggle over intellectual property law regarding the famous roundels.

The cost of such a rebrand would already be substantial with the need to change media, signage, leaflets, and of course the iconic map. But the greatest impact would be felt through London losing its iconic location identities to brands. Yes we’re in a recession, but has the greatest capital city on the planet really come to this?

Instead of seeking to profit from cultural and historical landmarks, and outraging the London public whilst doing so, brands should be focusing on charity and wider social responsibility. That’s how they can give back to the community, rather than compromising the capital’s heritage.

It’s not the first time we’ve seen this argument crop up and I’m sure it won’t be the last. Admittedly it’s not as absurd as brands sponsoring police uniforms, but like that issue, it can become a very slippery slope.

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