Two recent news reports give some useful insight into the commercialisation of trade marks and its relevance to public utilities.

The first report was in UK newspaper The Guardian. Entitled “Mine the Gap”, it dealt with the fact that Transport for London (“TFL”), the authority that’s responsible for London’s tube and bus network, is involved in an ambitious trade mark licensing project. The authority recognises that it has some very valuable trade marks. Think, for example, of the famous tube map, the Routemaster bus map, and the iconic tube roundel logo. In fact, think even of the expression “Mind the Gap”.

Many readers will know that it’s long been possible to buy all sorts of merchandise featuring TFL trade marks in the UK. This includes merchandise by fashion brand Roundel London and licensing deals that the authority has done with various companies to create merchandise, including with an online furniture store, the games maker Mattel, and a fabrics company called Kirkby Designs.

Branded TFL merchandise is particularly popular with tourists, so the idea is to take the products directly to the countries where the tourists come from. To license its brand in other countries, TFL has signed a global licensing deal that it hopes will create a GBP100-million branding business. The report says that TFL “is seeking to generate cash to reinvest in its tube, train and bus services, using these design classics to sell branded products overseas”.

Geographical areas of interest include Japan (where a pop-up shop has already proved popular), China, North America and Europe. Product areas of interest include fashion, accessories and homeware. As for specific goods, there’s talk of chairs featuring tube-seat patterns, lamps inspired by London bus headlights, underground maps on tea towels and special edition Scrabble sets.

TFL clearly understands the value of trade marks. The report says that it enforces its rights assiduously – it apparently has some 90 infringement cases on the go around the world, and it receives approximately seven warnings of unauthorised attempts to register TFL trade marks every week. A TFL spokesman said this: “We have spent over 100 years building our assets, we have to protect our brands.”

So, how do South African utilities compare? Not very well if the talk that branding expert Thebe Ikalafeng gave at the 2017 African Utility Week conference is anything to go by – there was a report of his talk on Bizcommunity.com entitled “Why utilities need to build better brands”.

In his talk, Ikalafeng referred to Brand Africa’s 2016/17 Most Admired brands in Africa list, and pointed out that only 30% of the most admired brands are African, and not one of them belongs to a utility. Yet, says Ikalafeng, it is the public sector that should be driving Africa’s economies.

Ikalafeng explained the basics of branding, saying that a brand is more than a logo, but also “the stuff you communicate about yourself and the stuff you communicate despite yourself.” He further explained that brand owners must “[b]e careful of the promises that [they] make because it is through those promises that [they] are held accountable.”

It is this accountability on the part of brand owners that makes for strong and enduring brands. While the need to have clear brand communication is essential, the need for brand owner accountability, especially in the context of utilities, is critical to creating valuable brands.

There are probably many African utilities – and indeed commercial companies – that could learn lessons from TFL and Ikalafeng.