Tuesday, 8 March 2016

The Way Ahead for Bus Advertising?

While it may not be the highest profile issue confronting the industry today, the merit of on-bus advertising is a subject about which many industry professionals hold strong opinions, and occasionally the debate gets an airing in public.

This has been the case in the last few days, prompted by an interesting article in Passenger Transport magazine by Jason Cotterrell, Managing Director of Exterion Media UK.  Exterion is one of the leading owners of "out of home" advertising media in the UK, so if you want to advertise on the side of a bus or a tube train, on screens in shopping centres or pretty much anywhere else it's feasible to promote something, the chances are they'll be able to make it happen.

I'm not going to reproduce Jason's arguments in huge detail - you have to subscribe to Passenger Transport if you want to know what he said, but basically he was making the case that advertising on buses is...

  • Highly effective for advertisers
  • Welcomed by passengers and passers by
  • A valuable source of income for operators

This prompted an interesting rebuttal by industry commentator Phil Tonks on his blog, setting out the reasons not to like advertising on buses.

The case against bus advertising is strong, and one that I find myself most often supporting.

It's an argument about confidence, and the bus industry not allowing its own strong brands to be drowned out by third parties promoting their products.  We are retailers operating in a highly competitive environment.  Our buses are our mobile shops, and not only are we are competing for business with other operators and other transport modes, but we're also trying to encourage people who maybe wouldn't have travelled at all to come into our shops and buy a trip somewhere.

This relies on projecting strong, confident brands that people can identify with and understand.  Our billboards - the buses themselves - have not only to be superficially attractive, but also to make a statement about the product and its qualities, relying on all aspects of good design to sell the positive message.

It is inconceivable that a high street store would allow the name above its door to be overshadowed by a sign promoting a different store altogether, yet not only do we do that routinely but sometimes we're actually promoting a competitor, even if the days when car dealers would routinely advertise on buses do seem to have waned somewhat.

Strong, attractive branding that not only gives just enough factual information to lure people in, but creates an impression of quality.  Photo: Matt Burley
With apologies to Newport Bus - this happens to be the photo that I have to hand that best illustrates the point.  At a glance, how would a passer by appreciate that this is a high frequency service linking two of South Wales' biggest cities every 20 minutes, including such benefits as free wifi?  Would they even register who the operator is? 
If buses are such valuable advertising space, why not advertise our own products?  Photo: Matt Burley

I don't have recent figures, but when I was running Bluestar back in the mid-2000s, on bus advertising accounted for around one per cent of total revenue.   My view was that if this space was worth so much to these advertisers, it must be worth as much to us and if we couldn't generate more than one per cent growth by using it creatively, we weren't worth the T-side we were written on.

The issues get much worse when you step inside the bus.  Enterprising operators that care about their interiors and customers use the ceiling cove panels to convey interesting and useful information about the route, ticket and fare offers, even sometimes points of historical or geographical interest to look out for.  Those that allow advertising agencies free rein tend to find their cove panels plastered with adverts warning of the dangers of sexually transmitted infections, telling passengers where they go for help if they have dodgy waterworks or find blood in their poo, or inviting them to consult marriage guidance counsellors - all genuine recent examples observed on my travels.  All useful services, argue the advertising agencies, and surely they are - but hardly a welcoming and relaxing environment to pass a twenty minute journey.

Back to Bluestar again, and I fought a particularly acrimonious battle with the agency that controlled our on-bus advertising - a legacy contract I had inherited from the previous management.  They started installing adverts in all our buses, on the bulkhead at the front of the lower saloon, showing a graphic image of a teenager snorting drugs.  Because it was designed to warn of the dangers, it was a detailed and unpleasant image in close up showing the physical damage that this practice could do.  And bus passengers were expected to stare at this deliberately disturbing picture for anything up to an hour at a time.

I stopped them putting them up and banned the agency from putting up any more.  Because the organisation seeking to get the message across had bought the space in good faith, the agency brought them into the discussion and I found myself being accused of interfering with the government's efforts to stop drug abuse and that I would have the poor health of drug taking youngsters on my conscience.  Rubbish!  I just refused to have my passengers subjected to such graphic imagery.  The agency just thought selling space for money was a good thing - they had no concept that they might be damaging my business in the process.

However, despite all this, I'm not actually a hardliner, completely opposed to the idea of bus advertising.

Being a commercial animal, I understand that different solutions work in different markets and one size definitely doesn't fit all.  Just because there are some occasions where I would vehemently oppose plastering adverts on buses, there are others where it's difficult to find an argument against.

Clearly if the operator is looking to promote a strong brand, it seems folly to dilute this by promoting third party products.  But this isn't always the case.  In some cases, the bus brand isn't as important, and may not even be relevant at all.  For fleets operating largely contracts - whether they be schools, local authority tendered work or whatever - where there's little or no value to be gained from selling the bus journey to passers by, why shouldn't the operator generate extra revenue from the vehicle by selling advertising space?

In London, rightly or wrongly, TfL take the view that the way to make buses stand out is to make them red.  The bus brand in London is defined by the colour red.  There's no competition between bus services, and they're part of an integrated system so they're meant to all look the same.  And if you accept that the brand is red, once you've established the redness of the bus, I can buy Jason's argument that a red bus with an advert on is more interesting than one without.

Moreover, given the prominence of buses in the London cityscape, I suspect that the advertising generates meaningful revenue, all of which helps to keep subsidies down.

So that's it then - commercial advertising on buses is good for London and a few low value contract fleets in the provinces.  Or is it?

Well actually no, I'm here to argue that commercial advertising on buses could have a bright future, and it's time for some of the industry's best brand builders to look again at the opportunities it could offer.  But it will also need the agencies - if they are to have a role at all - to abandon their "never mind the quality, feel the width" approach of the past and engage much more intelligently with their audience.

Those of us who like to think we really understand brand management in the bus industry, understand equally that the bus brand is not an end in itself, but a means to an end.  With few honourable exceptions, most people don't catch buses for the sake of it, but because it's the best way to get to a destination. 

In a more environmentally conscious era, where our fastest growing age group is reported to be those in their late teens and twenties, previous social stigmas about using buses are gradually being pushed aside and public transport is now seen as a much more socially acceptable means of getting about.  Indeed, research of bus customers at trentbarton often shows that between twenty and thirty per cent could have used a car for their journey - so the idea that people only use buses because they have to just no longer applies.

It's a fairly obvious principle of brand building that one way you get people to like your brand is to associate yourself with other brands that they like.  It's how product endorsement in the sporting world works, as well as programme sponsorship on television for example.

Until now, if we humble bus operators - the transport providers of last resort - wished to associate ourselves with the kind of places that attracted the kind of customers we'd like to carry, we'd have to give them lots of free publicity by promoting their name in our leaflets, on our timetables and on the sides of our buses for example.  We'd get nothing for it, other than hoping that a few people might catch the bus as a result of knowing it went to a particular supermarket, shopping centre or cinema for example.

You can bet that the same arrangement would never work the other way round.  A shopping centre might have a timetable rack but purely for information only - never for promotion - and the bus stops would be hidden out of sight behind one of the shops while all the signs directed you to their vast car parks.

However, my sense is that things are starting to change.

Firstly, a more enlightened view of public transport within society as a whole seems to be encouraging retailers and other destinations to be more accepting of buses as a valid means of arrival for their visitors.  On the other hand, congestion around shopping centre car parks at busy times of the day, week and year are becoming a deterrent to people travelling there by car.  My conversations with shopping centre operators and retailers over the last two years make it clear that they have a growing understanding not only of the number of people arriving at their front door by bus now, but also the potential of the bus in combatting congestion.

But the real game changer is the transformation of what we might call the "in vehicle experience", brought about by the mobile internet, wifi and charging points

Once upon a time, time spent travelling on public transport was dead time - time wasted, with little to do other than stare out of the window or read the adverts and contemplate the state of one's waterworks.

Now, time spent travelling on public transport is time gained - time that can be used productively by a connected generation to get work done, chat to friends or catch up on social media.  There is clear evidence - including some recent French research that I've been meaning to summarise here for a while - which shows quite clearly that time spent on public transport is now seen as an opportunity rather than a problem.

So how is this of value in the world of advertising?  Well one thing I definitely agree with Jason Cotterell about is that people - young people especially - like advertising, provided the content is high quality and relevant.

So, dear town centre retailers, each of my buses is bringing thirty or forty people into town, and they might be on the bus for typically 15-30 minutes while they get there.  Often they will be with friends and family, and they will be talking about what to do when they get there.  My bus, with its ready, willing and digitally aware audience, has free wifi and  around twenty metres of available interior cove panels.

It shouldn't be too much of a stretch of the imagination to believe that there will be destinations out there - whether it be shopping centres, cinemas, gyms, theatres, coffee shops or whatever - who would place a financial value on the ability to talk to this captive audience during their journey and try to grab their attention to encourage them to prioritise a visit to their particular venue.  High quality coves, branded and sponsored by the retailer, and properly designed, not vinyls plonked on at strange angles, encourage people to use the wifi to find interesting and engaging content.

And if this content is only available to bus customers, not only does it create a positive association between the operator and retailer, but itself provides a stimulus for more people to travel by bus, benefitting both parties in the process.

To me it's inconceivable that there are not destinations who would place a financial value on this kind of opportunity, and if it strengthens the bus brand by association, why wouldn't we welcome it?

It's not just the interiors either.  While heading towards the town centre, the bus is in a queue of cars doing exactly the same.  If clever rear advertising can link a popular retailer with the benefits of arriving by bus, why shouldn't that have a value for both parties?

In their time, witty rear slogans such as this were a clever and creative use of the space.  Is there now scope for a harder edged commercial approach, finding partnerships with key destinations that have value for both parties?  Photo: Matt Burley

Of course this is all harder to maintain than traditional bus advertising because it requires more closely targeted content and doesn't suit the traditional scattergun generic advertising that the agencies have been used to selling.

It will depend more on operators being clear about the kind of organisations that we wish to partner with, and putting the effort into selling the benefits of the relationship.  It will also mean that our commercial teams will have to get much cleverer at understanding who's travelling on our buses, when and for how long, and what they're doing during the journey, as this is the kind of insight that marketing-savvy, professional retailers will expect.  I suspect we might find that we already have more data than either we or they realise and it's a case of sharing the knowledge, but it brings the importance of market research - a poorly understand science in the bus industry - firmly into the foreground.

Whether there's a role for the traditional advertising agencies in all this is something that would depend at least in their part on a willingness to embrace new business models to get close to enlightened operators.  I suspect it means fewer but higher value relationships.

Either way, while I would largely stand shoulder to shoulder with passionate colleagues who have argued the case against bus advertising up to now, it seems to me that it maybe time to re-evaluate the potential, and see whether the improved social status of the bus and the opportunity to engage with a captive but willing audience allows the industry to find new sources of revenue while strengthening our own brands.


  1. Bear in mind the cost to a retail park for the land (not used for sales space etc) and facilities to park cars say £1000/space/year to light,clean,ventilate, write-down construction costs (possibly more) for a car park often offered free to customers, and the substantial number of staff (many forced to struggle to run a car to get to work)

    It may make sense for a large journey generator to have discussions which buy in a base-level bus service for the lower cost of this compared to provision of car parking and other car-based site costs. Tailoring public bus services to replace the hired minibus shuttles which can cost a large University a 6 to 7 figure sum annually to buy in as a private bus service, when a deal to carry staff with a company pass between sites on service buses with an agreed annual level of use. Many tunes can be played, especially when a typical regional hospital will be generating 30,000-50,000 trips per day - could you benefit from even 10% of that as core business on a route.

  2. Are you going to rename this halfway to Harrogate now Phil :)

  3. I understand that Phil has left TM Travel and is now a director with CityFox Group. With that, I wish Phil all the very best with his new venture.

    He's certainly turned the image of TMT around in lots of ways.

  4. I understand that Phil has left TM Travel and is now a director with CityFox Group. With that, I wish Phil all the very best with his new venture.

    He's certainly turned the image of TMT around in lots of ways.

  5. I get a horrible feeling that someone as respected as Phil will fall on his sword for this move. Please prove me wrong Phil.

  6. MMMMM. Sense of Humour bypass ?. I notice the comment about halfway to Hengrove has been removed. Come on Phil. Please update us with your thoughts and reasons for leaving TM and Joining Fox. Thanks.

  7. No sense of humour bypass here. I was going through deleting a load of trolling comments from someone claiming to be a TM Travel employee and the Halfway to Henbury post just got caught up in all that I'm afraid! Not a bad title but I think a more radical rethink may be required (not least because the Halfway bit is redundant!) I will bring the story up to date along with the title of this blog and my bio when I get a few minutes to do it - can't promise exactly when!

  8. Good luck with the new venture, Phil.

  9. Thanks Phil. Bloody good luck. A change is as good as a rest as they say.

  10. Halfway to Henbury, did I miss that?