Approaching transport brands

Although transport companies are sensitive to charges of wasting money on branding when they could be investing in trains or buses, they still need a visual identity.

And changing it is a complex process, explains Dominic Murphy

How do you solve a problem on the Metro – Tyne & Wear’s answer to the London Underground? If the recent work of Gardiner Richardson is anything to go by, it’s with an affable cartoon figure called Ken.

The Metro, a train system that joins the major urban centres of the North East, is beginning to show its 20-something age. As a result, its owners have embarked on a £600m revamp of stations, rolling stock, signage and uniforms to be spread over the next 20 years. ‘It is in need of a little bit of a haircut, some attention,’ says Gardiner Richardson creative director Darren Richardson.

Naturally enough, the project will involve some disruption for the 133 000 passengers who use the network each week. As Richardson puts it, ‘You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.’ Which is where Ken comes in, acting as an animated ambassador for the Metro, popping up on the walls of stations and communicating to travellers what is happening.

Now, instead of a disembodied voice coldly announcing you are going to be late, Ken will be there smiling down at you, talking you through the difficulties, feeling your pain. ‘He might be wearing a hard hat if there is building work, or walking up the stairs to show that an escalator is broken,’ says Richardson.

Ken is only part of a wider branding exercise for the new-look transport system, which links Newcastle, Gateshead and Sunderland. It is telling, however, that the M of the Metro logo remains – albeit spruced up and redrawn, says Richardson, to bring it up to date. ‘You want to create a consistent image of the organisation. How you do this is by keeping it simple.’ Retaining the essence of the logo gives the network a ‘timeless quality’.

A similar philosophy has been followed by CHI & Partners in its recent rebrand of another transport giant, National Express. Continuity is the watchword, even under circumstances where the client is exploring new pastures – as the bus and coach company has done with its takeover of the East Coast mainline franchise, formerly run by GNER. Gone is the double roundel that used to appear in the National Express logo, replaced by a ‘connections’ device that symbolises the routes and terminals. However, the words and colours remain, tweaked rather than radically made over.

‘To have “National” and “Express” in a name is phenomenal,’ says CHI design partner Dan Beckett, who nevertheless admits it briefly flirted with NX as an emblem for the company. ‘As designers, we were at first not too keen on the colours. But after working with them, we warmed to them. The blue says “establishment”, the red “dynamism”,’ he says.

What a lot of people don’t realise, says Beckett, is that rebranding is about much more than changing logos, and can be a logistical nightmare. A carriage that is being repainted is going to be out of commission for several weeks. Do you change the seating fabric at the same time or – as is the case with some brand new rolling stock inherited from GNER – do you work with what you’ve got?

Richardson concurs. ‘They are incredibly complex projects and in some ways the design becomes secondary to the process.’

The ideal with transport rebranding, says Beckett, is that people don’t notice any changes. Branding should be subtle and sophisticated, not in your face. ‘It also has to pass the Evening Standard test/ if you do something fancy and frivolous, the public are going to complain about the cost of the fares they’re paying.’

Subtle is not the way you would describe the school buses of The Green Transport Company, conceived by Design Bridge. These shout ‘Look at me’, like playground graffiti or the class swot with a new peroxide hair-do. Interestingly, there are no taglines about saving the planet by using the bus, or any other similarly predictable devices, despite this carbon-conscious company having ample reason to preach – thanks to the pupils of one school taking the bus, there are now 600 fewer cars on the road in the morning.

‘It’s all very well to take the high ground and be moral about it, but why would the kids want to get on the bus?’ says Claire Parker, creative director of Design Bridge. ‘It’s almost like they’ve started school before they got there, so it was very important that the buses didn’t feel like an extension of the school. Of course it’s about the environment, but parents are putting their kids on the bus because they know they’re safe and secure.’

In this way, The Green Transport Company has much in common with National Express and the Metro. All three want to reassure their passengers that daily routines will not alter. In spite of climate change, hiccups in service and your train being run by a bus company, business for carried and carrier is much as it was before.

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