Mind the (branding) gap
Before I begin, let me confess that I have a bit of an obsession with the London Underground – particularly the Metropolitan line. I have a few treasured items of memorabilia from the recently discontinued Met line trains (which have been replaced with shiny new air-conditioned versions). These include an old luggage rack (I love to imagine all the bags, suitcases and trunks that have been stowed away on it and the stories of each journey) and a cushion made from seat fabric that formed part of the line's old identity. But I digress…
For me, these items are more than just merchandise – they are part of the heritage of the Underground and an opportunity to own a piece of history.
Transport for London (TfL) runs a successful business – and that's despite thousands of Londoners grumbling their way through their daily commute. From being squashed on a Tube carriage with our coat stuck in the doors to being kicked off a train halfway home with no hope in sight of a continued journey, there’s plenty not to like about TfL – and the Underground. Yet there remains a real affinity with the Tube in London and further afield. We are enchanted by its history and character.
Like companies such as Red Bull or Nike, TfL has become a cultural brand, delivering and supporting projects, content and products that complement its core business. From backing musicians who busk across the network to cultivating art and design through collaborative projects that promote TfL services and make the Tube a little bit prettier, there is far more to buy into than whether your train arrives on time or not.
I've been travelling to and from London on the Tube for nearly 15 years. Sure, I have my moments of despair – but ultimately I love it. And as a designer I love that for more than 150 years this brand has been the source of so much art and iconic design – from the tiles on a station wall and the design of a Tube carriage to the posters outlining service information and the organisation’s official typeface. And let's not forget the iconic Tube map (or the roundel for that matter).
But I'm not the only one who's a little bit in love with the Underground. Nor the only one who buys into it – culturally and financially. TfL’s gift shop alone supplies enthusiasts with everything from furniture and books to posters and souvenirs.
For those looking for the novel and the nostalgic, TfL has hosted heritage days, running old steam trains along the Metropolitan line to celebrate the Underground’s anniversary and giving people the opportunity to travel back in time. And independent ventures enable transport enthusiasts to dine out in old Tube carriages or double decker buses.
And last year (the 150th anniversary of the Tube), Nike's eighties-inspired Air Max trainers were married with the District line's geometric-patterned fabric to create the Nike x Roundel by London Underground Air Max collection – fusing two urban icons and creating an object of desire for fans of both.
But what is it about the Underground that keeps us hooked? Perhaps it's because the brand is so engrained in our culture and touches the lives of so many different people and industries: commuters, tourists, engineers, station staff, drivers, designers, artists, writers and musicians, to name only a few. Perhaps it's because the Tube has such a rich heritage (it was the world's first underground railway) and we all love a bit of nostalgia. Perhaps it's because we're British, so we can be fond of something while still having a moan about its imperfections. Maybe it's clever marketing.
For me, it's because I've been travelling on the Underground for so long it’s inherently part of my life; I fell in love a long time ago with the typography, posters, tiles and more. The Telegraph lovingly captures some reasons we might be fond of the Tube here. Or if you’re after something more extensive, there’s a list of 150 things on a blog here. I quite like this list though (particularly where it affectionately refers to mice as “urban pets”).
As a public service we probably give the Underground a bit of a hard time, but improvements are happening and the Tube is going through a massive overhaul. And TfL is doing a lot right with its brand – desirable merchandise, Art on the Underground (check out Labrynth by Rose Design and Turner Prize-winning artist Mark Wallinger), Poems on the Underground, new trains (which triggered this blog) and a lovely, responsive new website...
Given that TfL's primary “product” is transport, its service will have to become more reliable in order to fully bridge the gap between the things we love (the art, the nostalgia, the quotes of the day) and the daily experience of its somewhat frustrated passengers. But if the next 150 years of the Underground are as pioneering as the last, there’s certainly light at the end of the tunnel.
So, what else would I like from the Underground? I wouldn't be unhappy to own a roundel from one of my favourite stations. Or to design an Underground poster. Well, a girl can dream...
- Brand value
- London Underground
- The Tube