Metrocard Ads: The MTA Drives Smart Branding

From ad-plastered NASCAR uniforms to Vogue magazines, much of the world is a blank canvas for advertisers. From an advertiser’s perspective, how can you know which platforms actually pay off?

In mid-July, two companies joined the sponsorship game: the NYC Metropolitan Transit Authority and the National Basketball Association. The MTA is opening up the Metrocard to advertisers, aside from the black magnetic strip, while the NBA will begin selling jersey space (about 2.5 inch by 2.5 inch squares) to corporate sponsors.

After mulling over the recent announcements, I’ve done something I never thought I would: side with the MTA. As a daily subway rider, I’ve had my fair share of frustration with delays, weekend “service” and indecipherable conductor announcements. These frustrations are why I welcome advertising on Metrocards.

It’s estimated that by 2030, the MTA’s debt will be $3.5 billion a year. Swallowing ads is more palatable when a company needs revenue to provide better service to its customers. Compare that to the NBA, with annual revenue of $3.4 billion, whose priorities rarely include customer experience.



The MTA’s offer is noteworthy because of the terms. The MTA is taking an unprecedented route and letting its own branding and logo become completely obscured. As a design and strategy professional, this is the last thing I’d recommend to a client. But in the MTA's case, allowing service to decline further, or raising rates due to lack of funds, would be far more detrimental to the brand than covering the logo. 

Strong brands must first have a strong product. The MTA made the difficult choice to do what's best for its product versus what's best for its visual identity. 

What the MTA loses in logo recognition, it could gain in brand perception. Though the area the MTA is offering is miniscule for advertisers accustomed to using bus shelter ads and billboards, it is a potentially powerful spot. Millions of New Yorkers and tourists view these cards daily. By teaming up with smart advertisers, the MTA could use this platform to improve perceptions of the brand as innovative or even friendly, if leveraged in the right way.

For example, Jamba Juice could use it to offer a coupon. Starbucks could make a map of the neighborhood showing its nearest location. Whole Foods could feature in-season produce. The MoMa could commission artists to create limited-edition designs. TKTS could create a lottery where 1 in 50 cards has a voucher for a Broadway show.

The MTA can raise revenue and simultaneously help the brand if it encourages advertisers to use the ad space for interesting and useful purposes. 

In today’s ads-all-over environment, providing a piece of property, whether Metrocard or team jersey, is no guarantee advertisers will respond. Still, the MTA has two things on its side the NBA doesn’t: the sympathy vote (or the hope of improved service) and real space for creative opportunity. Let’s hope it leads us to an innovative destination.

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