Should TfL sell the names of its stations to brands?

London mayoral candidate believes it would be a good way to raise funds.

Wulfsohn-Dunkley, Patel, Seymour-Hyde, MacCallum, Camden Town station (Photo by John Keeble/Getty Images)
Wulfsohn-Dunkley, Patel, Seymour-Hyde, MacCallum, Camden Town station (Photo by John Keeble/Getty Images)

Elephant & Carlsberg. Greggs the Baker Street.

If Shaun Bailey has his way, those groans you just made are only going to continue. The Conservative mayoral candidate for London has proposed a plan to sell £100m-a-year sponsorship rights to raise money for Transport for London, meaning some Tube stations could be renamed to make reference to brands. So you might soon be alighting at Harrods instead of Knightsbridge.

Resistance to this proposal is understandable and expected, with objections along the usual lines of undue commercialisation, messing with a proper London institution, and so on.

Naturally, Twitter is having a good old laugh about it. Can Londoners imagine themselves saying they’re popping to Ken & Barbican for a concert or BabyBelsize Park for a stroll?

Jokes aside, this is not an entirely radical idea. Sponsorship already exists for the transport systems in other cities, such as Dubai and Madrid. In London, stations have been renamed before, albeit for a short period of time: to coincide with the 2015 London Marathon, Canada Water was rebranded Buxton Water; and in 2018, Visa worked with TfL to turn Southgate into Gareth Southgate for 48 hours to celebrate England’s (relative) success in the World Cup.

And, frankly, TfL needs all the money it can get. In May, the organisation had to accept a £1.6bn government bailout after it almost ran out of money, as the lockdown resulted in a 90% plunge in passenger income. TfL’s ad revenue also plummeted by 90% in the three months to June.

Moreover, branding is already prevalent in places such as football grounds and music venues, with examples including the Emirates Stadium, its Manchester-via-Abu Dhabi counterpart the Etihad Stadium and The O2. So, really, what’s the difference? Indeed, for some time, Spurs has been trying to come to an arrangement with TfL to change the name of White Hart Lane Overground station – the nearest to its ground – to Tottenham Hotspur.

So is it a good idea for TfL to sell off station names?

Naren Patel

Founder, Media for All; former chief executive, Primesight

Naming rights have had limited success for transport networks because they disconnect a location from its urban landmarks, causing confusion for commuters. They have been successful in places like Dubai, where the networks are relatively new and lack the connection with the city.

Most importantly, naming rights for a prime London Underground station will disrupt all the existing advertising in a station and across the network, and cannibalise existing outdoor spend across the TfL estate.

TfL generated £150m from advertising in 2017/18 and is the largest owner of outdoor advertising sites in the city. Suggesting that naming rights for a few stations can increase revenue by 66% is unrealistic. The naming rights will have a value, but TfL will need to think hard about the impact on existing revenues, the commuter and whether this is really a worthwhile, long-term revenue-generation opportunity.

Zoe Wulfsohn-Dunkley

Head of brand marketing, Camden Town Brewery

If TfL were to sell Tube station names to brands, we'd have a distinct advantage as Camden Town Brewery because we've already bagged one, sponsorship-fee free. However, we might have a fight on our hands if a competitor wanted to snap up Camden Town. Plus, we're actually closer to Kentish Town West station – if we renamed that, it could really confuse people.

Also, remembering when we started out, it would be a real pity if small brands weren't able to use place names in their marketing due to big brands owning and renaming them.

Looking back to the history of our own industry of brewing, in a way this isn't a completely new idea – there are already six London Underground stations named after pubs that have come and gone, which must be the ultimate in brand legacy.

Joel Seymour-Hyde

UK managing director, Octagon

Yes, with caveats. There is the genesis of a good idea in what Mr Bailey has suggested, but it’s probably lost a little in the media reports fearful over Green Park being renamed by Sports Direct.

To keep that analogy going, what we have seen in the world of sports is that naming rights work well for both parties (brand and owner) for new-build stadiums (think the Emirates Stadium or Allianz Arena). However, where they struggle, or often don’t get off the ground, is with older, established stadiums, where a naming-rights deal would cause mass fan revolt and negative coverage for the brand (hence it’s not really explored seriously in the boardrooms of Manchester United and Liverpool FC, for example).

Back to TfL. It it was managed carefully – pick new(er) stations only, without strong emotional connection or historical significance, and match them with carefully considered brands with local relevance – then it could be a useful revenue source. Which, let’s face it, in light of current commuter figures, TfL most certainly needs.

Alistair MacCallum

UK chief executive, Kinetic

This feels very much like a pre-mayoral election soundbite. Although clever campaigns by brands such as The Times, Amazon Prime and Buxton Water have seen Westminster, Piccadilly and Canada Water stations renamed temporarily as part of a campaign, the idea of a long-term rebranding could be seen by many as a cultural step too far. Boris bikes, in contrast, were a great new blank canvas for sponsors.

Nevertheless, Transport for London is facing an acute financial crisis due to Covid and should be considering new and innovative ways for brands to use the London Underground in the future. A key step might be to reduce the bureaucracy involved in reviewing commercially creative ways brands can immerse themselves in what is an amazing physical environment. London Underground passenger numbers are far lower than normal right now, but they will recover and represent a hugely valuable audience asset.

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