The Brand Radar: Network Rail, Thomas & Friends and how brands bolster safety campaigns

Start Licensing’s Ian Downes looks at how brands like Thomas & Friends, Space Invaders and Shaun the Sheep have successfully been used to support safety campaigns.

I was wandering across the concourse at Waterloo Station earlier this week when I caught sight of an electronic sign featuring Thomas the Tank Engine. You could say no great surprise to see Thomas at a train station, but on closer examination I was quite intrigued by the context of this appearance…

The sign was promoting a safety campaign presented by rail operator Network Rail. The campaign is aimed at children and seeks to educate them about rail safety. Called Stay Safe with Thomas, the campaign first launched in 2018. It was initially centred on a book which saw a mischievous Thomas misbehaving on the railway – putting both himself and his friends in danger.

Network Rail distributed the specially developed books to schools, libraries and doctors surgeries. The book was also available as a free download and is still available to download via the Network Rail site here.

The Brand Radar, Ian Downes
When the book and campaign was first launched, a representative of Network Rail stated: “By offering parents an engaging and fun way to talk to their children at a young age about safety on the railway, we hope children will grow up knowing the dangers and keep themselves and their friends safe.”

A brand like Thomas the Tank Engine is, of course, relevant to the subject, but it’s also a trusted brand and one with sufficient in-built awareness to achieve cut through with consumers and wide uptake from media partners.

“The campaign’s aims and objectives also dovetail with Thomas & Friends’ key values of friendship, teamwork and safety.”

The brand clearly resonates with younger children and as noted by Network Rail, the link creates a forum for parents to start a conversation about the subject. The book is a great learning aid in this context.

For brand owner Mattel, being part of a campaign like this is a very positive thing to do and involves them in the wider community in a positive way. The campaign’s aims and objectives also dovetail with the brands’ key values of friendship, teamwork and safety.

The campaign was also supported by celebrity parent Joe Swash who was featured reading the book. Involving a celebrity in the campaign helps with PR and makes it more relatable for parents.

The Brand Radar, Ian Downes
The campaign promotion I saw at Waterloo was linked to a new version of the campaign which included the launch of a bespoke episode of Thomas & Friends. The episode is available to view online below.

Further to this, Network Rail created three launch events at London stations in the Easter holidays to promote the campaign and partnership. Talking about the episode, Network Rail mentioned that: “The exclusive episode of Thomas and Friends, aimed at three to six year olds, raises awareness of the dangers of misusing the railway. It gives parents a useful way of starting a conversation about this important subject.”

Content and story-wise the message is delivered in an age appropriate way and is ‘on brand’.

This campaign is a really good example of how a well-known and established IP can be used to help get an important safety message across; it highlights how properties like Thomas & Friends can achieve cut through in a cluttered market.

It’s good to see a company like Mattel recognising that one of their brands can help deliver an important safety message. Being involved in a campaign of this kind would be an initiative that I’m sure was carefully considered by Mattel, but they are probably reassured that by participating they are enhancing the value and reputation of their brand.

This is not the only campaign where a well-known IP has been used to help convey important safety information to the public. Gaming brand Space Invaders has been used for a number of years to help educate drivers about keeping a safe distance between themselves and the car in front.

The ‘Don’t Be A Space Invader’ campaign has featured on posters and in a TV campaign; it’s a very effective use of the IP. Check out the ad below.

Road safety charity Brake has an ongoing partnership with Aardman and Shaun the Sheep. Shaun the Sheep is used to help theme Brake’s Kids Walk. The walk, which takes pace on 22nd June this year, is a short supervised walk which seeks to create an opportunity for schools to share important road safety information with children.

The Brand Radar, Ian Downes
Schools can register to receive a free Action Pack from Brake which includes lesson plans, assembly ideas, activities and posters featuring Shaun the Sheep. The campaign is supported by insurance firm ESure.

In this context, Shaun the Sheep helps Brake to build and develop content in a fun and effective fashion. Shaun the Sheep helps capture and keep children’s attention, and for Aardman, it’s an opportunity to be associated with a worthwhile campaign that gets one of their most popular characters into schools in a focused and structured way.

The partnership with Brake has run for some time, which is an indicator of the campaign’s effectiveness. For organisations like Brake, they are looking for consistency and will use IP like Shaun in a considered way. It’s not in their interest to chop and change things.

Equally it’s important they have access to a character and IP owner that they can work with in a balanced and efficient way to best deliver their campaign objectives.

All three of these campaigns are great examples of how well-known brands can help get difficult to deliver messages across to the public. It’s good to see that IP owners recognise brands have a role to play in campaigns of this kind.

Being involved in them undoubtedly enhances their brands, but the campaigns also create great testimonials for the brand owners to demonstrate the effectiveness of their brands in delivering campaign messages.

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