Irrespective of the predictable industry bleating about the ‘Brand for London’ competition, the fact that it has highlighted London’s need for a properly defined brand is reason enough for it to be necessary. That it may provide the impetus to bring about some important changes, for a city that must now represent its branding better than any other global city, is vindication with a capital V.
If it transpires that the process just delivers a nice little logo, then it will have been a complete waste of time, but if it signals the beginning of a thoughtful and inspired curatorship of our capital city’s image and assets, then it could be a global benchmark for others to follow.
Over the past few decades, London has been subjected to a slow and stupid erosion of its assets and currently there are no signs of a visionary patronage that will protect its future.
Let me explain. When thinking of an image of London, what do you think of? St Paul’s, the Houses of Parliament, the Millennium Wheel, Battersea Power Station and any number of other ‘fixed’ assets? Sure, but there is also the ‘glue’ that holds it all together, that is just as responsible for creating and representing valuable inputs regarding the perception of the brand. Taxis, buses, the Tube system, the parks, signage and, deep breath, the gateway to the city itself – Heathrow Airport.
Let’s start there. As the first point of contact to this great city – the initial hello and handshake – what does it say about who and what we are? What type of introduction does Heathrow offer to London? Clearly, we are a nation, if not a city, of shopkeepers. Crammed full and crammed in, shop after shop competes for attention, and the advertising shouts and bellows from every available surface – every last square inch pimped for a price. And what of the latest jewel in the Heathrow crown, Terminal 5? It’s just more of the same, only with extra gloss and a lot more shine. An uncanny twin of the Westfield shopping centre, it is modern and white with a myriad shops, cafés and car parks. Terminal? Yes. First class? No.
Transport is integral to every major city, but in London it delivers more than the functional. Is it too much to ask that we return to the iconic age of black cabs? The commercial value of selling space for advertising is, of course, a reality, but why not preserve the worldwide recognition of the black livery? The one-time proud street icons are now little more than whores to the aesthetics of advertising.London needs an integrated transport system and it should clearly be the blood of the body it serves and an integral component of the brand.
The proud and iconic design tradition of the London Underground could and should be more clearly visible – the commute perhaps slightly more tolerable by being more obviously a part of the tradition. And then there was the Routemaster bus. Loved, lost and lamented. Chucked on London’s asset scrapheap by former Mayor Ken Livingstone in favour of the ‘bendy’ buses. Apparently, the Routemaster conductor was too expensive, its open back too dangerous, the stock too old – the list of supposed failings goes on and on, and the bureaucracy involved too boring. Fundamentally, Londoners loved those buses, tourists loved them and they were an important part of ‘Brand London’. The key, surely, is in creating a powerful sense of membership by knitting together all of the elements – including the parks, public spaces, events and so on – that go way beyond a dumbed-down decorating process or lightweight logo-fest.
In managing such a brand, the portfolio of ‘sub-brands’ should be meaningfully arranged for the benefit of the end-user – not the leader of the quango in question. It would be a complex, but valuable exercise to create clarity around the complicated communication hierarchies, one that could make the city far more navigable to all concerned.
In 2012 the spotlight will be brought to bear with the Olympics, and what greater stage do we need? It provides the perfect platform to celebrate the city and create a real sense of pride, and, if not now, when? The creative resource on tap in this city is among the best in the world and, as people start to consider life post-recession, its influence on London could and should be prolific. The [commissioning] process for the new logo has been deeply flawed, but the important issue is the wellbeing and the progressive future of our city. Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner that I want it sorted, but I do, and I want it managed properly by someone who knows how.
The brand of London has to be, and needs to be, more than a transitory, trivial PR circus. After the fuss that Boris Johnson and the Greater London Authority have made with the process, let’s hope that they are taking the whole issue seriously, and that it’s more, much more than just lipstick on the face of a blonde gorilla.
Peter Knapp is executive creative director for Europe, the Middle East and Africa at Landor Associates