When Corporate Sponsorship Backfires

BicyclePhoto: Ian Sane

From the Wall Street Journal:

When British bank Barclays PLC agreed to shell out ?25 million ($39 million) to sponsor London’s new public bike-rental program, it envisioned the marketing benefits of seeing its sky-blue logo draped on thousands of cycles around the city.

But this week Barclays’ prime marketing opportunity quite literally turned into a curse.

Londoners woke up Friday morning to find obscene stickers affixed to a number of the rental cycles. Attached to the bikes just above the bank’s logo, the decals delivered a one-word message that, combined with the bank’s name underneath, succinctly conveyed many Britons’ anger toward the banking sector: “F- Barclays.”

“There are fairly resourceful people out there, even if they’ve got potty mouths,” said Matt Brown, a spokesman for Transport for London, which runs the city’s extensive network of public buses, trains, boats and now bikes.

Even more powerful than unbranding, it would appear. I particularly like the Transport spokesman’s comment. The Brits do have a different sense of drollery, don’t they? I cannot see a U.S. spokesman waxing quite so entertainingly …

Ian Callum

The bigger story here seems to be the animosity that's expressed toward the sponsor. There must be some very deep seated feelings toward this company. They might want to examine why people dislike them so much before they engage in any kind of public relations effort.


makes me feel proud to be british.

Chris Markl

Is this necessarily a bad thing for Barclays? Ofcourse people at the company will think its terrible, but I imagine that

1) Significantly more people will notice the Barclays sponsorship.


2) This might create sympathy for Barclays. Perhaps many people will say that Barclays was trying to do something good by sponsoring bike rentals and they deserve some sort of break.

Ian Kemmish

Barclays have long been a bete noir - when I was at Cambridge in the 1970's, the local branch occasionally got picketed over the banks investments in South Africa. And they've been in and out of favour ever since. This, presumably, is one reason they felt the need to polish up their image by putting money into Boris's bike scheme. One suspects that the number of riders actively avoiding the bikes with the new logo will nearly have been cancelled out by the number of riders actively and proudly seeking them out.

And Anglo-Saxon is after all an old and noble language.....

Tom Calver

Chris Markl has a point- this will probably make more people notice Barclays sponsorship. Though possibly not in a good way.

Their problem to date has been that their prime marketing opportunity has been anything but. The bikes have become know as 'Boris Bikes' after the mayor rather than 'Barclays Bikes' after their sponsor.

I'd love to know if London having a mayor with an alliterative name was even considered as a risk by Barclay's marketeers...

Nate C.

Are you sure it backfired? I'm an American. I believe in the bicycle as part of the future of American transportation. I never would have heard about Barclays' sponsorship of cycling if there were no obscene stickers.

Calvin Graham

At the same time, the Labour party desperately/comically suggested that Barclays were politically chosen because their corporate branding is blue (the same as the Conservative party who introduced the cycle scheme). It's as if a Republican instigated system was sponsored by Staples and then the Democrats went mad and accused them of choosing a republican red coloured partner for poiltical purposes.


Indeed the Transport spokesperson was both entertaining and diplomatic. Bravo to the grafitti-ers. Reading about Barclay's actions made me ill. The next time we help an elderly lady cross the street, be sure to shove a bunch of business cards in her hand. I mean really, how immodest.

You want to do something nice for the planet, for wildlife or for other people? Do it and then walk away. Should the rest of us expect promotion as a reward for every good deed? This corporate trend needs to be challenged, especially by U.S. citizens.

Guy Blaskey

I just love the fact that the official response from TLF uses the phrase 'potty mouth'.


Ian (#1) nails it.

Why is the title of the blog post, "When Corporate Sponsorship Backfires?" Why is it not something more accurate? Perhaps, "When Generating a Culture of Ill Will Produces the Predictable Response that a Shallow Name Recognition Initiative Fails to Dissipate"


They got publicity, didn't they? That's hardly a backfire. It would be different if the story was about a drop in Barclay's stock or loss of customers because of the prank. Most of us walk around in a virtual stupor and don't alter our behavior based on these messages. Corporations know this. That's why Michael Moore can still get funding to make his anti-corporate films, and why the pro-environment, anti-corporate message in many Disney films can be so antithetical to its own practices.

Martin Seebach

I'm not familiar with British feeling, or lack of same, towards Barclays, but stickers showing up one morning on a number of bikes is more indicative of one or a few angry individuals, not any kind of indication of sentiment.

How this is a "disaster" or "backfiring" in any way is hard to see. It the entire concept of McDonald's backfiring because anti-capitalist protesters routinely smash their windows? Is the entire fashion industry a disaster because t-shirts mocking their brands are popular?

I sort-of expected better from the WSJ than uninspired sensationalism.


Agree w/ Ian. I would wholeheartedly seek one of the "fixed" bikes.


#8...isn't Freakonomics mostly about incentives and how there is no such thing as altruism?


I love it. Resourceful indeed. Perhaps Barclay's should parry with stickers that read "Please do not..."

Drill-Baby-Drill Drill Team

Graffiti happens. Poster faces grow mustaches and gap toothed smiles overnight.

A well managed bike company would detected the vandalism and dispatched one or two teenage clerks to scrape the stickers off all public bikes. They could have erased the graffiti before sunrise.

The reality is graffiti, magic markers and foul stickers exist. A good manager deals with it promptly and efficiently. A bad manager calls the press, mayor, police, Homeland Security Department and national guard.

Abe Stalin

One would not expect that a bicycle would have enough surface area to properly display a sponsership. Perhaps better to display on a bumbershoot or outer sides of a glass-walled lift?


If Barclays was open to giving away such a great amount of money, one would expect they had previously agreed what the arrangement would be in regards to the advertisement being used. Barclay should've seen what the final results of the bicycles would've been because their approval is needed since it is their company being publicized.

Although these stickers weren't supposedly placed by the bicycle company, they should've been aware of what they were offering the consumers, which turned out to be obscene.

Also, by many this can be considered as a tad bit humorous, so the bank does get recognition. To be fully honest, I hadn't heard a lot of Barclays since this incident, so this publicity turned out to be beneficial since it turned into an international scandal. People now are more informed of this corporation and now know that this false and offensive sticker was not placed on purpose, therefore the opportunity cost now decreases, since more benefits seem to be surfacing, yet only time will tell what actually occurs.



Britons detest banks for numerous reasons. Exceptionally poor customer service, penalty payments used as income and the 'cut-corners' mentality of high street banks are among the costs of working with them.

Despite these reasons (and others), people are very unwilling to change their account holders. It's also common for people to stick with one company for savings, loans, etc. Because of this, banks can get away with obstinate behaviour.

Added to this, the recent recession has been blamed squarely on the shoulders of irresponsable lending and horse-trading between banking institutions. With banks going back to what many regard as obscene bonus payments at a time when the public sector is forced to cut back spending (ultimately through debt accumulation from propping up banks), I'm surprised only Barclays' bikes have been graffed.

Greg Gardner

Kudos to Barclay for their sponsorship, yet no US government-owned (bailed out) bank should consider doing the same here for a long while.