In the roundel, the Johnston typeface and the tube map, Transport for London owns three very powerful and very valuable icons of the city. Those icons are licensed by TfL for merchandise available worldwide. In addition, the London Transport Museum shop commissions its own range of products which further capitalises on the equity of the London Transport brands so that, together, licensing and merchandise sales bring in over £5 million a year to the organisation.
But exploiting the network’s brand is not a new phenomenon. Michael Walton, who is head of trading at the London Transport Museum, explains that it goes back “to the early 1920s. Arguably, this was the heyday of poster art. Because of litho printing, the posters stood out on what was a pretty drab system.” Tube travellers began to request copies of the posters they had enjoyed seeing on the network and the Underground responded by selling a small range of them via the information desk at its St James’s Park headquarters.
“It didn’t begin to formalise until the 1960s when there was a more concerted effort [to sell posters] through a shop which was connected to the publicity offices at 280 Old Marylebone Road,” Walton explains. By the late 70s, Walton says, there “became an increasing awareness of the power of the brand, particularly as more and more people began requesting copies of the map to include in their own publications, diaries, guidebooks and so on. The advent of mass travel in the mid-1970s meant that there were an awful lot of independent publications.”
“The organisation is clearly there and was always clearly there to run, as an absolute priority, buses, trains and so on – that’s what it’s there to do,” Walton continues, “but there was a slow realisation through the latter part of the 1970s that the brand was becoming increasingly internationally powerful.” The impetus for exploiting this increasing power was provided by the local politics of the day. “London Transport was viewed to be eating up far too much of the taxpayers’ money,” Walton says. “There was the beginning of a push to create more value for money through things such as the outsourcing of bus procurement etc. Part of that was that there should be more of an outcome for the brand in terms of exploiting it and earning money.”
Even today, Walton points out, the financial contribution from this activity is relatively small but it has an importance beyond mere money in promoting the organisation and its aims. Since 2000, the activities of both London Transport and the Museum have fallen under the umbrella of TfL. While TfL itself is concerned mostly with the present and the Museum primarily with the past, both, Walton says, are also very much focused on the future of the organisation and work closely together on projects.
“We are always slave and must be slave to TfL’s aims and aspirations,” Walton says. “We don’t run away and do stuff that does not support and enhance brand value.” He also stresses that the organisation is highly aware that it is dealing with public money. “We operate a very efficient machine in terms of the mechanism to drive the brand forward and we are totally aware that every penny that we earn [in profit returned to TfL] is the equivalent of [that money] coming off fares or subsidies. The whole operation has to make money,” he stresses. “We operate under what I might describe as the Evening Standard test – if they suggest we have done the wrong thing, we need to be able to utterly justify it as something which is improving the organisation, that is of public benefit and is making money. All those things are implicit in everything we do.”
While TfL looks after brand licensing, Walton’s operation at the Transport Museum sells around 2,500 product lines. Browse around the shop or online and it is evident just how strong the London Transport brands are. While there are, of course, ranges of posters (the map is the perennial best-seller), model buses and trains and books galore on every aspect of LT operations past and present, there are also ties and watches in the colours of tube lines, cushions bearing the Johnston typeface and reconditioned luggage racks rescued from decommissioned Metropolitan Line trains. While the books and models are bought in from other suppliers, the more imaginative items are usually those commissioned by the museum itself. Perhaps the most impressive of these is the range of furniture and accessories which utilise the distinctive ‘moquette’ upholstery fabrics which are used on tube train seating.
The moquette fabrics are almost entirely made in Yorkshire. Walton and his team apply them to a range of modern furniture which includes items such as sofas and dining chairs. The scrap from that process is then used to make a range of accessories such as iPad cases and wash bags by Shropshire cordwainer Matt Fothergill. Again, Walton stresses the financial prudence of his organisation: the furniture is made-to-order so that no risk is taken in building up stock that doesn’t sell, the moquette is often left over from fitting out the trains themselves and, by using off-cuts to make the accessories, it is used very efficiently.
What is perhaps surprising about the Transport Museum products, in our present-day world of branded tat, is the high quality of most of it. Walton says that this is a result of the Museum’s understanding of its role in supporting TfL as a whole and of the fact that good design has always been in its DNA. “For TfL and its predecessors, ever since the first illustrative poster in 1908, the ethos has been to observe the highest standards of art and design,” he says. “In my view it’s not about money but the intellect behind it. Good design costs the same as bad design. It’s the intellect in it, the people working with it and the ethos of the organisation that makes it good rather than indifferent. People at TfL understand that.”
The current activities around the Underground’s 150th anniversary illustrate Walton’s view of how his department’s role goes beyond just having a nice shop. Throughout the coming year, TfL’s 150th activities (which are almost entirely funded by sponsorship and out of existing resources) will shift from a focus on the past, to the present and then the future. For the Museum shop, he says, the project, has three objectives. “Number one is to serve the aims and objectives of the organisation to deliver a project in a really good way and to have the sort of merchandise that clearly reflects the quality and aspirations of TfL at 150. Number two, off the back of that, is to make money and number three is to show that we are forward-looking and that we want to work with really brilliant current designers to do wonderful things … ‘150’ has multiple outcomes [some of which involve merchandise] but it’s really a colossal engagement tool with our customers to say we keep moving on and making things better. It’s not just a great big birthday cake and steam trains, it’s a lot more sophisticated than that.”
Despite fare rises and the seemingly never-ending maintenance work that plagues travellers’ lives, Walton believes that Londoners are proud of their tube system, even if they will never admit it in public. Design continues to play a vital part in that. As Walton says, “We have a brand, we have a design DNA that helps make that hard task of moving billions of people every year that bit nicer, that bit better.”
A range of London Underground merchandise is available online from the London Transport Museum shop, ltmuseum.co.uk