The other day I wrote about a marketing technique that the French call “Cherchez le Creneau”. In that post I ended up talking about the London Underground¹. Well, coincidence is a fun thing: two days later I came upon a fascinating little story over at BBC Magazine. Called The map that saved the London Underground, the article explains how in 1914, facing major challenges including overcrowding and general discontent with service, the London Underground turned to some marketers (for lack of a better term) to save the day:
“…at the London Underground’s Electric Railway headquarters in Victoria, the network’s newly appointed commercial director, Frank Pick, is perhaps leafing through the complaints letters on his desk. Passengers are moaning about unpunctuality, about overcrowding, about confusion and dirt. The Tube, crammed on workdays (some 400,000 people now work in the heart of the city) is virtually empty at weekends and holidays and the company is fast losing money and public support. What we need, thinks Pick, is stronger branding.”
The post continues…
“He’s already commissioned a calligrapher, Edward Johnston, to create an iconic typeface for the Tube―the Johnston Sans lettering still spells out London’s Tube stations today. But now Pick wants some eye-catching posters, distinct from general advertisement bills, that will make Londoners of all social classes proud to journey around their city and visit its attractions.”
And there’s some wonderful serendipity right there, as it was only two days before reading this article that I even discovered that The Tube’s signs have a proprietary font. You can go to the article for a terrific image showing the font’s original design specs.
But a font alone, although we see today how recognizable that particular branding has become, wouldn’t be enough to save the London Underground. Enter the map.
In early 1914, a map called “Wonderground” (that is totally the name I would’ve come up with in the same situation), crafted by Macdonald Gill, was hung at every station.
The map was the tactical means by which a couple of goals were accomplished:
- To increase ridership during the weekends – when The Tube was virtually empty – the map promoted London’s attractions
- To make time fly by while waiting for trains (and therefore decrease dissatisfaction when trains were late), the map was both fun and jam-packed with jokes and trivia that required a keen eye and mind to discover
Wonderground played on a number of themes: current events, class divisions, and seemingly contradictorily on the British sense of superiority coupled with a long history of self-deprecating humour.
Personally, I took a few minutes (OK, maybe more than a few) to check out the map in detail, and used the BBC’s handy zoom feature to inspect every single part of the image. I got some of the jokes, and others went right over my head. Then I shared the article with some Londoner colleagues, spawning an extensive email thread. In short, I got a big kick out of it.
A brief explanation of my excitement: I’ve ridden the London Underground more than I’ve ridden any other subway system in the world (see the handy list, below), and actually carry an Oyster card at all times. Plus I love fun marketing stories.
I just think it’s remarkable (and inspiring to me as a “marketer”) that a whimsical map helped solve real business issues that threatened the entire London Underground system. I mean, that is neat. Plus, obviously subways aren’t the only systems that are engineered for peak time but go relatively unused for long times (e.g., your ISP’s network, Amazon’s servers, the highway system, etc.), and also aren’t the only systems prone to user dissatisfaction (e.g., your ISP’s network, the highway system).
I’ll concede the obvious that it’s a stretch to say that all problems can be solved with creative, outside-the-box, purposeful marketing, but some can! The map didn’t make the trains run on time, and it didn’t create any new city attractions, but to London’s citizens it had the same result.
I just think it’s remarkable that a whimsical map helped solve real business issues that threatened the entire London Underground system. The map didn’t make the trains run on time, and it didn’t create any new city attractions, but to London’s citizens it had the same result.
¹Subway systems I’ve used, listed in order of most frequently to least frequently: