Steel magnetism Article icon


When London mayor Boris Johnson unveiled plans for a monument in the capital’s Olympic Park, he claimed with characteristic swagger that the design would ‘boggle’ the minds of the Romans and Gustave Eiffel.

Johnson was just about the only observer to be publicly boggled by the ArcelorMittal Orbit tower, however.

The Independent newspaper described the 114-metre edifice as ‘a continuously looping lattice’, while critics said it looked like a giant ampersand. Others nicknamed it the Helter Skelter, Hubble Bubble and the Offal Tower.

At least the giant sculpture could not be called a monumental waste of public money, since only £3 million of the £22 million construction costs came from the Greater London Authority.

The remainder was supplied by ArcelorMittal, the company founded by magnate Lakshmi Mittal that is now the world’s biggest steel manufacturer.

With 130,000 visitors able to admire the views from the ArcelorMittal Orbit during the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, when the sculpture also featured extensively in worldwide television coverage, it may be said that ArcelorMittal has already derived value for money from its £19 million donation.

Yet, the company believes that the greatest value from the benefaction of this rusty red twisted mass of steel lies in the community work around the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in Stratford, east London, which is striving to create a lasting legacy through Britain’s biggest urban regeneration project.

As part of that plan, The Orbit reopened in April amid a sizeable marketing campaign aimed at promoting it as an indelible icon on the greater London skyline.

That task comes with its challenges for communicators. ‘It’s a big thing and a funny-looking thing so it’s difficult to talk about,’ admits Ian Louden, head of brand at ArcelorMittal. ‘But it is not fully understood yet. Its creator Sir Anish Kapoor says that how it looks is not important. It is how it makes you feel that’s important.’

Now owned by the London Legacy Development Corporation with ArcelorMittal retaining sponsorship and naming rights in perpetuity, the Orbit claims to be the UK’s tallest sculpture – almost six times higher than Gateshead’s ‘Angel of the North’ and 22 metres bigger than the Statue of Liberty.

Styled by artist Sir Anish and designer Cecil Balmond using distinctive concave mirrors designed to ‘flip perspectives and turn the horizon on its head’, it whizzes tourists to an outdoor gantry and two indoor viewing platforms in just 32 seconds.

It contains 2,000 tonnes of steel, 35,000 bolts and 19,000 litres of paint and has the capacity to accommodate about 500 people per hour, or 5,000 per day.

However, while red was chosen as the colour scheme because of its connotation with luck in the Far East, Louden is aware that Britain’s largest public piece of art might end up viewed as a white elephant unless it can be skilfully sold to a sceptical public.

A PR offensive has therefore begun, billing the Orbit as the only work of art which visitors can enjoy inside and out.

The campaign stresses the 20-mile panoramic views that can be enjoyed on a clear day, the ‘i-view’ technology on the Orbit’s digital telescopes enabling guests to get close to the views and the interactive digital content on the lower deck telling the sculpture’s story.

However, it is the Orbit’s legacy-building activities that Louden believes will enable the sculpture to engage with its community and bring lasting value to the donation and sponsorship.

So far, these activities have been four-pronged. ArcelorMittal is sponsoring five undergraduate students to study at the new Stratford campus of London’s Birkbeck University, which aims to encourage applications from entrants who missed the chance to study for degrees in their late teens and early 20s.

The sponsorships will help three undergraduates, one Masters student and one pupil studying for a doctorate to pay for academic courses that they will study for in the evenings.

The chosen students are all currently in employment and meet qualifying criteria that they are paid less than £25,000 a year.

ArcelorMittal is also sponsoring the Theatre Royal Stratford East, a building dating back to 1884 which was revived as a community theatre in the 1950s under artistic director the late Joan Littlewood, who worked on productions including Oh! What A Lovely War.

The company is supporting the theatre’s work with young people who are not in education, employment or training. ‘These are kids who might possibly go off the rails without something like this,’ says Louden.

In addition, ArcelorMittal has sponsored 500 schoolchildren to visit the Orbit and take part in creative activities, making hats and banners with the help of artists.

Finally, the company has a scheme whereby it visits schools in south east London, teaching schoolchildren about the role that steel plays in their everyday lives.

‘Ninety per cent of the world’s metal is steel,’ says Louden. ‘All the other metals used in everyday life comprise the remaining ten per cent. Steel is in the cars and trains we travel in and the knives and forks we eat with. People take steel for granted but our lives would be very different without it. And 60 per cent of the steel in the ArcelorMittal orbit is recycled steel.’

For Louden, all this is central to the brand of ArcelorMittal. Founded as Mittal Steel in 1976, the company has increased in size through acquisitions and organic growth.

Mittal Steel merged with Arcelor in 2006 to create ArcelorMittal, which now produces more than 93 million tonnes of steel each year – about ten per cent of the world’s total output of the metal.

The group employs 260,000 people in more than 20 countries, including 800 staff at distribution sites in Wolverhampton, Manchester and South Wales and at offices in Berkeley Square, London, from where the company is largely run, despite its formal headquarters being in Luxembourg.

That the company still does not have a high media profile in the UK is perhaps due to the fact that it has no British manufacturing operations or stock market listing, with factories in 20 countries all over the world and offices in 60. Its shares are quoted in Paris, New York and three stock exchanges in Spain.

Louden says the Orbit celebrates steel’s beauty, strength and versatility and ArcelorMittal’s continuous commitment to innovation and a dedication to ‘transforming tomorrow’.

The sculpture is therefore a conscious part of the company’s brand, he argues. ArcelorMittal hopes the Orbit will also elevate the company’s public image.

‘When I talk about our brand, I don’t mean the logo,’ says Louden. ‘The logo is just the symbol of the company. It’s just a name and shape in people’s minds. The brand is much more about who we are and what we stand for.

‘Yes, we would like to be better-known. It is difficult for a steel brand to be well-known when you’re a business-to-business company.

‘Most brands that are involved in sports sponsorships tend to be consumer goods companies. We have a long way to go to become as well-known as that but we are hopeful.’