As qualitative researchers, we constantly strive to get beneath the surface of what’s really going on. And we constantly strive to get ourselves — or our insights — a place at the boardroom table.

This article outlines the details of a research programme undertaken for London Underground (LU) that did exactly this. Its lynchpin is an insight that has been carefully managed through the organisation, and that now resides within the ‘collective unconscious’ of LU’s management team.

As one of the most recognisable — and most used — brands in the world, LU is under the magnifying glass at every turn. Management is under immense pressure to achieve consistent performance while the system is effectively being rebuilt. LU has high visibility, with media and public both always ready to criticise the inadequacies of the management and the system.

It is currently undertaking its biggest ever programme of improvements, in order to achieve its vision of being a ‘world-class Tube’. For the world’s oldest underground, carrying a billion passenger journeys a year across 253 miles of track, 275 stations and with 13,000 staff, this is a considerable challenge.

The key issue for research was to understand the discrepancy between high customer satisfaction and low brand advocacy scores. The in-going hypothesis was that there was another factor at play, outside of the day-to-day journey experience.

In such a complex network with such a diversity of issues, the idea of a uniform brand experience is unrealistic. Rather, the question becomes how to manage each of the pillars of the system more effectively, and identify which touchpoints within them punch significantly above or below their weight in terms of their contribution to brand associations.

What lies beneath the surface

Our approach used ‘bricolage’ to weave together three strands of enquiry:

  • Passenger journeys accompanied by researcher and cameraman in order to experience journeys in real time through the eyes of one person

  • A broad range of passengers were asked to keep photo diaries of their LU experiences in order to understand key touchpoints, mindsets, etc., in an unmediated way

  • Video intercepts to zoom in on key touchpoints of the LU experience

But the approach is not the crux of the story. Rather, it rests on a model of thinking designed to expose people’s deeper psychological resistances to the Tube. The model is known as the Iceberg of Psychological Resistance. For reasons of space it can’t be shown here, but imagine the tip of the iceberg as visible and immediately obvious. In psychological terms, it is the equivalent of rational, top of mind defences. In this case, ‘it’s always late’, ‘the system doesn’t work’, ‘they don’t care about me’.

The next layer down only becomes evident on closer investigation. It is the emotional response to the brand. Passengers’ first line of emotional defence is that the Tube is too ’enclosed’, ‘claustrophobic’, ‘dank’, ‘dusty’, ‘crowded’, ‘depressing’, ‘dangerous’, ‘dirty’ and ‘dingy’.

Some 90% of the iceberg lies below the surface, which is where the real weight of resistance lies. This is never articulated explicitly but seeps out through ‘language leaks’. It is the deep psychological underpinning — in this case, people’s inherent fear of being underground. Due to the frequency of D words used to describe the brand we coined this underpinning ‘D Psychology’. These fears are exacerbated by the sensorially deprived environment underground, both physically and emotionally.

D Psychology is a high potency insight, one that instantly seems obvious but that elicits an ‘immediate, exultant response: ‘Yes, of course! That’s exactly how it is!’. (1) A high potency insight has emotional and social currency — it is accessible, has impact, kick, snap.

D for Doing

D Psychology is clearly not solely the sole catalyst for change — the organisation is far too complex for one piece of research to have such an effect — but it is a key underpinning to the organisation’s thinking across four of the pillars of its system: staff behaviours, the physical environment, communications and information. Initiatives under each of these have been informed by the research, for example:

  • Staff are also being redeployed from ticket halls to walk through the stations, becoming more approachable and accessible

  • Fewer trains now stop in tunnels but when this does happen, driver announcements are more frequent

  • New trains will give a better sense of space

  • The busker programme has been expanded

  • Transforming the Tube campaign clearly sets out what is being done, by when and the associated benefits.

  • The brand — from ‘The Tube’ to ‘Your Tube’ — gives a shared sense of ownership

Brand Tracker research shows a shift in overall advocacy scores, up from -7 in 2003 to 0 in 2007 (2). While these measures are moving in the right direction, a sizeable shift will take time, in such a complex organisation and after years of negativity and the current threat of terrorism.

LU was never going to win fans with operational excellence alone. What the research showed is how a high potency insight — D Psychology — has become a powerful force within the organisation, providing a new lens through which LU is now run.


1) Bullmore, Jeremy (2005). Why is a Good Insight Like a Refrigerator? Market Leader, Issue 29 Summer 2005
2) MORI Brand Tracker, 2007