One of my long-standing criticisms of the bus industry - and one of the reasons for setting up my own company, although we are barely out of the starting blocks ourselves - was because I have always felt that bus companies get the relationship with the customer entirely the wrong way round.
For any retail business, the process of designing a product ought to start by developing an understanding of what the likely market is, what are the expectations of that market, what are the important factors that will drive purchasing decisions, and then how to position the product to take best advantage of the opportunity that exists.
In other words, good product design should be a response to the market signalling what it wants. The marketing and branding strategy for that product should then follow through in one seamless process, communicating to the market how the company has met the perceived demand.
Sadly in too many cases, bus companies fail to understand that they are retail businesses and look at product design through the wrong end of the telescope. Faceless bureaucrats in remote offices (and by the way, that used to be me) decide what the market shall have. There is no research base or evidence base to substantiate their decisions, the whole process is based on educated guesswork.
The role of marketing in this case is reduced to dressing a pre-determined product, which is entirely wrong. Marketing (and within that, branding) is seen as a bolt-on activity, designed to make the output of the faceless bureaucrats look somehow appealing to the potential users.
Because this is not marketing in the true sense, it doesn't necessarily attract people with the right skills or motivation. Their efforts may therefore be limited to short run promotional campaigns, that are not applied consistently to all media, or may rely too heavily on one-off photo opportunities and press releases, and fail to understand the need for sustained (and 'open all hours') dialogue with users.
Now I'm not saying that this never produces the right result. As luck would have it, the faceless bureaucrats are often very experienced, skillful, talented people who may know have a good understanding of what they are trying to achieve; and the marketing people may well be very creative, inspired communicators who know how to bring life to even the most mundane of products.
So all is not lost. But to achieve success in this way is to achieve it despite, rather than because of, the business's approach to product design. Because of this, I would argue that the results are generally harder to achieve and inferior to what would be achieved if the company understood and implemented the process properly from the start.
One company that epitomises how to do it properly is trent barton. At this point some readers will groan and think "not them again", as they are no strangers to the trade and local media. But yes, them again, because the reason they achieve the success they do is precisely because their whole business is aligned to understanding the needs of their customers and then designing products to address those needs, rather than designing products in isolation and then trying to make them fit the customers.
I mention them because they are currently in the process of relaunching rainbow 4 as i4, and a more comprehensive approach to refreshing a product it would be hard to find anywhere. In my opinion, they have taken product design in the bus industry to the next level with this project.
You can read more about the actual relaunch here, but the real purpose of my post today is to draw attention to a new blog, transportdesigned, which looks very promising and has got off to a great start today with a really insightful post analysing trent barton's approach to product design, with particular reference to the relaunch of i4. Strongly recommended reading - you can do so here.