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A Branding Trainwreck

A transit initiative's identity goes off the rails


Sometimes, a name is all we have. Names help us navigate the world, relate to others and make quick decisions. For brands, a name is perhaps the most critical element of identity. Beyond a logo, color palette or tagline, brand names are how consumers remember and relate to a product or company.

From the Metro to the Tube, the L to the BART, city transit systems stoke hometown pride with their nicknames. For municipalities, naming can be a tricky balancing act of accessibility, creativity and relevance to its citizens.

Atlanta has long prided itself as being the city that’s “too busy to hate,” but it’s also been mocked for being “too busy to solve” a looming infrastructure problem: unrelenting traffic and unmitigated urban sprawl. However, a recent transit initiative presented a huge opportunity to unify a diverse population and region under a common cause. From a brand perspective, it was a chance to really stick the landing. However, it was no Simone Biles and unfortunately fell short.

In March 2018, the Georgia State Legislature approved a move to create a regional transit governing system comprising 13 counties within metro Atlanta. The existing alphabet soup of individual county transit (MARTA, GRTA, SRTA, CATS, and others) would now operate under a single system and name, the Atlanta-region Transit Link Authority, or — wait for it — The ATL.

First and foremost, a brand name should be both clear and distinct. While “the ATL” is clear enough, it is absurdly indistinct. Those three letters are everywhere around town. It’s what we call our fair city, it’s the location identifier for the world’s busiest airport, it’s even the title of a 2006 roller skating film starring rapper T.I. There’s simply no shortage of “A-T-L” in the ATL, making it hard for locals, tourists, travelers and the general public to discern what’s “the ATL” versus “The ATL” transit system.

It’s never a good idea for lawmakers to double as branding experts, and “The ATL” is proof. From a pure naming perspective, MARTA (the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority) is a more distinct and a perfectly fine brand name. At issue is decades of negative associations with the name in suburban areas outside the city, dating back to the 1960’s. Officials felt that a new name would be the best way to get wider adoption of the transit system throughout the region.

Second to clarity and distinction, a brand name must be ownable, particularly through trademarking. It’s pretty hard to trademark something as generic as “The ATL,” which is a major liability for the transit system. This could open them up to copycats and make it hard to enforce proper usage of the logo and brandmark.

Contrast The ATL’s lack of ownability with another prestige project in the city, the Atlanta BeltLine. The BeltLine has its bases covered with more than 40 registered trademarks for its various projects. Because of this, the organization is able to protect their image and how it's used around the city and beyond.

Finally, “The ATL” signifies Atlanta proper, not the exurbs and suburbs of the 13 counties within the transit system’s purview. If the true vision and change for this transit system is regional, “The ATL” causes additional confusion by keeping a focus on the city.

No matter how clear, relevant and unique a brand name is, it can’t do all of the heavy lifting if there’s a bigger problem to solve. Any negative perceptions riders have with MARTA will easily transfer to The ATL.

Unfortunately, The ATL train is out of the station, but we can hope that as more branding opportunities arise, our state and city will get its identity on the right track.