Santander Cycles are in danger of being forever branded Boris Bikes

High profile sponsorship deals like Santander's sponsorship of TFL bikes might create brand recognition, but do they actually result in positive measurable brand impact? Asks Matthew Bennett, chief creative officer at ZAK Media Group creative agency, Wolfpack.

Santander: cycle sponsorship will enhance recognition, but will it enhance consumer perceptions of the brand?
Santander: cycle sponsorship will enhance recognition, but will it enhance consumer perceptions of the brand?

The recent news that Santander is to sponsor the iconic Boris Bike scheme raises the question of whether the £43.75million deal will really have a positive impact on the bank’s reputation. But in reality, do sponsorship deals of this type really enhance the consumer view of a brand?

Organisations are forever looking for innovative and dynamic ways to engage consumers across a multitude of touch-points. But yet, so many continue to splash the cash on what are arguably vanity projects, promoting corporate one-upmanship rather than focusing on brand value and experience.

Santander is effectively paying £7.25m a year for a sustained outdoor advertising campaign

In recent years, consumers have seen some of London’s major landmarks and icons go through brand takeovers, the most memorable being Coca-Cola’s daring sponsorship of the London Eye, which effectively turned the giant wheel red.

But whilst you couldn’t miss it, has it really changed the consumer experience of the brand? And are more people tempted to crack open a can after riding the "Coca-Cola London Eye"?

The announcement of Santander’s win has also been plastered across every newspaper, with pictures of a smiley Boris riding one of the cycles.

When the scheme goes live later this month, brand awareness will certainly increase as we see the red cycles weave through London’s busy roads. 

But it's key to note that brand awareness is very different to experience.

From a financial perspective, it isn’t actually a bad deal. If we split the total £43.75m over the seven year period that the sponsorship will run for, and add on the yearly £1m reserve, Santander is effectively paying £7.25m a year for a sustained outdoor advertising campaign.

The name is the elephant in the room

In one of Europe’s most populated capitals, that equals a lot of people seeing the brand for a rather reasonable sum. Some of the world’s biggest brands competed tooth and claw for their chance to ‘rebrand’ London’s cycle scheme.

Brand awareness may increase, but there is a lot more that Santander will need to consider, including some of the challenges its predecessor, Barclays, faced. 

Before we even get onto the issue of the name - and whether the 'Boris Bikes' link will ever be lost - it is worth considering that Barclay’s tenure over the London cycle scheme was marred by news around road-traffic accidents.

Is that something a financial services organisation, or any for that matter, wants its brand identity to be connected with? 

The elephant in the room 

That brings us onto the name – the so-called elephant in the room. The scheme will be renamed ‘Santander Cycles’, but even Boris Johnson himself isn’t convinced the colloquial name of the scheme will change in response to the hefty deal.

He humorously offered to change his own name to ‘Santander Johnson’, to give the sponsorship a fighting chance to really own the cycle scheme. For £43.75m, I would want to ensure that my brand name was synonymous with it.

My main concern is whether consumers’ experience of the brand will be enhanced through the sponsorship. The most obvious link is that this meets some of the brand’s CSR requirements - promoting a healthy lifestyle to Londoners.

Could this be amplified through other apt sponsorships? We know consumers are turning more and more to 'honest' brands; those which claim to do what they say, those that consider their customers, their impact on the environment and on society.

But in order to deliver real benefit to its customers, Santander will need to offer something more than just the promise of a healthier heart. The bank has already introduced an app, which should make it easier for customers to find a bike and pay for the hire charge, but more could be done with this.

Could, for example, the app allow customers to build up loyalty points that could be cashed in at partner retail chains, giving them a tangible and even commercial experience of the initiative and the brand in unison? I believe only when the bank manages to really engage consumers will people begin to refer to it as a ‘Santander Cycle’ over a ‘Boris Bike’.


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