Louisa Coward considers the benefits reaped by Barclays Bank in sponsoring London's new cycle hire scheme
Louisa Coward is the editorial intern at CorpComms Magazine
If you travelled to London in recent months you may have noticed that the city's mayor has been busy reinventing the wheel. Rather like a modern-day Noah, Boris Johnson would rather commuters voyaged two by two. Whether you came across a rack of freshly installed cyan-emblazoned bicycles, or were almost on the receiving end of a single solitary journey-maker zipping in and out of the capital's traffic, the bikes probably left an impression.
The 'Boris bikes' were already in the pipeline well before a sponsor had been alighted upon. But in May, Barclays, which already sponsors football's Premier League, agreed to pay £25 million in a five year deal that gives the high street bank naming rights for the new London cycle hire scheme.
The sponsorship proceeds will be put towards maintenance charges, while total running costs are estimated at between £114 million and £140 million over the coming five years.
Anthony Snow, senior campaigns officer at Transport for London (TFL), which operates the scheme, said it would have gone ahead even without the company cash, but it was identified as 'a very good opportunity for an appropriate corporate sponsor'.
TFL declined to comment on whether other big British names, such as Durex or London Dry Gin, might ever have graced the cycles had they stumped up the funds, though Snow did tantalisingly mention that 'companies deemed inappropriate might have been dissuaded from taking their interest further'.
In the end, Barclays' offer was 'the most competitive' and the details of the 'significant number' of other companies petitioning for the opportunity are 'commercially sensitive'.
The sponsorship deal entitled Barclays to name the scheme, design the bikes' branding space - each features six Barclays logos - and brand all accompanying marketing and communications material.
The bank's corporate insignia will also be stamped on maintenance support vehicles and uniforms. Even the TFL cycle hire roundel was, as Johnson put it, 'part of the package'.
According to TFL, the sponsorship 'will also give Barclays the benefits of being associated with one of the largest sustainable public transport systems in the UK, with high visibility on the streets of London'.
High visibility means 6,000 bikes, 400 stations and 10,000 docking points plus 12 cycle super highways - commuter links, stretching from the suburbs into central London, painted Barclays' very particular shade of blue - cyan. (The bank is also keen to extend the scheme to Canary Wharf, home to its global headquarters, and the Olympic Park in Stratford.)
David Haigh, chief executive of global brand valuation consultancy Brand Finance, notes: 'I suppose if you want to calculate what the bikes are worth, you've got to think how much it would have cost for equivalent ad space over the next five years on other mobile media - the sides of cabs and buses, say.'
Andrew McDougall, senior sponsorship PR manager at Barclays, says: 'Obviously the cycle hire is a good piece of sponsorship from a corporate point of view but it's also giving something back - helping people see the city, get fit, enhance their commute. Barclays has been in London for 300 years - we want to affirm our right to operate in these markets.'
Bankers have undergone something of a PR roasting in recent months, fuelled by the stubborn survival of big bonuses and a newly acquired reputation for irresponsible investment. In contrast, this is a scheme targeted at people who would like to diminish their carbon pedal-print and save cash. Perhaps it is a way of reminding customers of the traditional image of the local bank manager with a social role within the community and the bank as a place with a public duty, providing loans for new ventures.
Haigh adds: 'It's a strong corporate and social responsibility message. Barclays isn't just sponsoring some Formula 1 car; it's sponsoring bicycles.'
Not only that, he says, it is also an investment in London's infrastructure showing Barclays 'together with the government of London, together with the government of Britain. Barclays had a fairly good crisis. They didn't get refinanced by the government. Before, they were perceived to be a large, monolithic organisation. Now they are seen to be more user-friendly and better managed. Barclays as a brand is growing. Their ads have got better. They've got rid of those dreadful ones with Samuel L Jackson waffling about Barclays as an international bank, which no-one gave a damn about.'
Taking London to the next level
Fred Burt, managing director of international branding consultancy Siegel+Gale, says: 'I think this sponsorship is a particularly clever move because turning London into a cycling city is a very modern idea - smart Londoners are increasingly trying to get on their bikes and cycling has become modishly visible. Setting the zeitgeist there is no bad thing for Barclays. So it's not just a sustainability issue, it's about taking London to where it needs to be.'
With so much marketing activity going online and embracing social media to screen, filter and target very specific groups with personalised advertising, there is something almost old-fashioned about this campaign, taking to the streets and painting roads and bicycles with the Barclays corporate livery. It could almost command a little nostalgia.
Adrian Day, managing partner of brand communications agency Further, insists that brands should not focus on new media tools only to overlook the traditional marketing arenas. 'Whilst more and more people are spending more time online they still live in the real world - and innovative use of outside media will always get attention,' he says.
Barclays argues that, far from being a guerrilla marketing exercise, carpet-bombing the city's streets with cyan, the campaign has a particular, if very large, target group: visitors to the capital. McDougall notes: 'London is one of the most visited cities in the world and Barclays operates in 50 countries worldwide.'
Day reiterates: 'This is a great way of raising the bank's profile amongst London's residents, workers and visitors. The bikes are visible throughout the City and the West End and will be seen by retail, business and institutional clients and prospects.'
The Mayor sees the Barclays bikes becoming as iconic as London's black cabs, and red double-decker buses. It is not the first time advertising has been built into the cityscape. The iconic Art Deco windows of the Oxo Tower, formerly home to the makers of the eponymous stock cube, on the South Bank of the River Thames were reputedly built to sidestep an advertising ban imposed by London County Council.
But blue bicycles and cyan superhighways have not received a universally positive reception. Shortly after the introduction of the scheme, demonstrators took to London's Hyde Park Corner posting stickers on the bikes in protest against defence investments made by Barclays.
Some Londoners have also expressed concern at the aesthetic impact of having Barclays blue emblazoned on cycle superhighways. Siegel+Gale's Burt adds: 'The strength for Barclays in cyan is that it's instantly identifiable. You're able to leverage that recognition whenever you use it. If you have it slapped on your road however, it can be rather invasive.'
But 'Barclays blue' is a telling phrase in itself. 'There are very few brands that can claim ownership of a colour,' Burt continues. 'Orange in a telecoms context is immediately recognisable as the phone brand but in an airport, say, it might suggest easyJet. Choose a slightly more distinctive colour and it can pay dividends. T-Mobile has this with magenta. Barclays has it with cyan. It should be used sparingly but when used well it can be highly effective.'
Clearly, it is early days. The bikes are a new feature on the London landscape and any scheme this big and this much in the public eye and public hands is entitled to a few teething problems as it gets on its wheels. But Haigh notes that even familiarity may breed contempt. 'The bikes are stationed in very noticeable, prominent places. At the moment they are brand spanking new but, as time goes on, there are huge opportunities for embarrassing photos. Bikes ending up in the river, bikes with tyres going flat, the guy falling off his bike, the guy going for a ride while drunk, vandalised bikes. There are so many potential banana skins. More seriously someone might fall off and get killed. And the trouble is, if the scheme flops, it reverberates on the brand.
'I can't say whether or not this is a good move. It could come out excellently for the Barclays brand and I wouldn't want to be the one who said otherwise. All I can say is there's a very high variation around the norm. Their sponsorship of the Premier League rather than any individual team was very clever. So this piece of branding could be an aberration or it could be an inspired move.'
The Barclays bikes have already even received a favourable comparison in the fashion stakes with the French equivalent - the Vélib. And when you're keeping the French on their couture toes, you have to be doing something right, n'est-ce pas?