The red AEC Routemaster is a British icon. Introduced by London Transport in 1954 and built by the Associated Equipment Company and Park Royal Vehicles, the double-decker bus remained in service in London until 2005—outlasting multiple replacements. Even now, the original Routemaster lives on, delighting commuters on a single heritage route in central London. Of the 2,876 Routemasters built between 1954 and 1968, only 1,230 exist today. But as luck would have it, you can find it right here in Japan.
The Routemaster is a key part of the out-of-home (OOH) advertising options offered in Japan by event and promotion firm Tokyo Ride Group. As Shinya Yamamoto, the firm’s chief producer, told ACUMEN, “The Routemaster is a symbol of Britain, but its design is perfect for Japan”.
Yamamoto had been dreaming of seeing the British icon cruising Tokyo streets since he was a young boy. He saw a chance to make that dream come true 35 years ago when he came across a retired Routemaster in Asakusa. “It hadn’t been used for a long time. But I envisioned the bus driving on Shibuya streets, making people happy”.
Yamamoto rebuilt the bus and started his first campaign in 2006. At first, he found operating the Routemaster difficult. Parts were difficult to find in Japan, and “there were many financial setbacks and tough moments,” he said. “But, I just kept imagining seeing the bus on the streets of Shibuya, like London’s Piccadilly Circus”.
Yamamoto’s determination paid off. In 20 years of operation, Tokyo Ride Group has signed more than 15,000 contracts with businesses that see the Routemaster as a fun, inventive way to attract new customers and boost awareness.
Tokyo Ride Group offers custom wrap advertising that leverages the full body and eye-catching nature of the red double-decker to get key messages in front of large groups. The interior can also be customised for expos and events. “People get worked up when they see such a historical icon in Japan,” Yamamoto said. “It’s an exciting way to increase consumer awareness”.
Indeed, research supports this. Bus advertising is the most-seen outdoor advertising medium according to the London-based research group Transport Focus, and the Out of Home Advertising Association of America has found that vehicle marketing reaches 30,000–70,000 people daily in major cities.
In some cases, Yamamoto explained, campaigns could generate more than 300,000 shares on social media. “There is a tendency for us to spike on social media wherever we go. There is a lot of reach,” he said.
“This is what separates us from other advertisers. Passengers genuinely enjoy their experience. It creates organic buzz. They post videos and pictures with positive comments and messages, using hashtags such as #londonbus and the name of the advertiser. Their happy experiences become authentic, positive branding for the firms that use Tokyo Ride”.
Case in point
In one promotion for IBM, the Routemaster was driven to universities in Tokyo, Kobe, Kyoto and Osaka, where it was set up on campus. The bus was fitted with an artificial intelligence system designed to detect job aptitude and give students a chance to discover new career opportunities.
In another successful campaign late last year, Google LLC offered passengers free rides on the upper deck through the streets of Omotesando to view winter illumination. A Google Pixel terminal mounted on the bus linked the street displays with passengers, letting them change the colour of the lights as the bus passed.
Campaigns such as these make Tokyo Ride Group a powerful ally for businesses looking to build brand awareness. Thanks to Yamamoto’s childhood dream—and a chance encounter in Asakusa—firms today can promote their products and services in iconic British style on the streets of Japan.