Is Boris’s new cycle hire deal with Santander all it’s pumped up to be?

“As everyone knows, London buses, phone kiosks and post boxes are red”, said London Mayor Boris Johnson, welcoming yesterday’s news that Spanish banking giant Santander is to be the new sponsor of the capital’s bike hire scheme. “In Santander Cycles, we have a new red icon symbolising the Capital to Londoners, and the world”.

Santander Cycles Announcement - LondonSo: the right colour scheme for London’s bike hire scheme. Whether the re-painted bikes will become quite as iconic a symbol as Big Ben and Tower Bridge remains to be seen, of course; and some would argue that one of the main justifications for championing cycling rather than motorised transport is a green one. But there’s no doubt that, for the sponsor, the move is consistent with its strategy of playing on images of health (Jessica Ennis and Rory McIlroy) and speed (Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton).

Santander have been deeply involved in promoting the idea of a London Grand Prix, even producing a spectacular concept video for a circuit that would include a start grid on The Mall and a 192mph Santander Straight in the run up to Buckingham Palace. Any association with speed and efficiency, whether motorised or via pedal power, has got to be positive.

But if the scheme is such a great idea, why was it ditched by Barclays?

You will no doubt recall that that other bank were the first to get involved, as we reported back in July 2010.


The first year of the contract was dubbed “a huge success”, with Barclays’ high-ups so pleased that a further twelve months down the road they extended the sponsorship through to 2018.

But things began to go wrong. There were mutterings about the relationship between Boris Johnson and Barclays’ then-CEO Bob Diamond.

And November 2013 saw a sudden spate of fatal accidents involving cyclists and HGVs. Six fatalities in two weeks clearly raised concerns in the marketing department at Barclays.

It can’t have been a coincidence that the very next month Barclays announced that it was pulling out of sponsoring the bike hire scheme.

Now it is reassuring to know that the number of cyclists fatally injured per journey in the capital has decreased significantly over the past decade: by about a third, in fact between a baseline figure covering 2005-2009 and 2012, according to the Mayor’s Cycle Safety Action Plan. A lot of effort is being put into transforming the cycling experience in London via the development of the East-West and North-South Cycle Superhighways.

But there were 489 cyclist KSIs (KSI = “Killed or Seriously Injured”) on London’s roads in 2013, representing 21 per cent of all KSIs in London that year.

bigbangThere was a time when banks were seen as stuffy, highly conservative and risk-averse institutions. As someone who worked on the original re-positioning of the Lloyds Bank brand (too embarrassingly long ago for me to quote a date), I know that the ice slowly began to melt all around the City and in bank branches after that campaign. In 1986, Margaret Thatcher‘s government deregulated the financial markets as part of a global chain reaction that became known as the Big Bang. Risk-taking soon became de rigeur. Twenty-two years after the Big Bang came the financial melt-down of 2008.

So this Santander move is interesting. Just as riding a bike is all about balance, so is the framing of a sponsorship strategy. This new deal offers the new incumbent some great positives – high brand visibility for the Spanish institution as its red imagery is seen everyday all along the capital’s transport arteries; a valuable association with speed and efficiency, health and environmental benefits; and the provision of a welcome service that is available to all.

But there will always be an unquantifiable risk associated with road traffic in such a hugely busy urban environment.

And, as Barclays may well have concluded, events can impact suddenly on even the best-laid plans. The value of a sponsorship investment can go down, as well as up.



Picture credits: Bishopsgate, at the junction with Camomile Street and Wormwood Street, in the City of London, with Tower 42 and 99 Bishopsgate looming overhead – Wjfox2005
Other images: Santander, Barclays, Getty Images.

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