Wednesday, 4 April 2018

In Defence of Local Brands

Almost a year since my last post (I know, but I’ve been busy) I’ve decided to bring the old blog roaring back to life, as I feel moved to respond to an article by the Creative Director of MHD Partnership, published in the most recent issue of Passenger Transport magazine.


This magazine is about the only thing that arrives in the post these days that I actually await with excitement, bringing with it every two weeks an engaging mix of news and comment about current issues in the industry that gives it its name.  They have a habit of hitting nails firmly on heads, due to a combination of good editorial insight and a range of knowledgeable regular columnists.

But it’s a guest article that has prompted me to write on this occasion, on the subject of brand management.  This is a subject very dear to my heart, because I believe it’s an area where large parts of the bus industry display a scarily basic lack of understanding of what a brand actually is, and how to build and nurture one.

I should make it quite clear that I have no formal training in the subject – my views are very much my own and open to challenge, but it’s a subject I’ve become passionate about in my twenty seven years in the bus business, and I try to keep abreast of developments in the wider world of brand management and marketing.  The passenger transport industry does not operate in a vacuum.

The article that has spurred me into action is a piece by Roland Scull, Creative Director of MHD Partnership.  It’s clearly a deliberately provocative piece, designed to elicit a reaction, and I’m quite sure he and Passenger Transport will not be disappointed.  Indeed, the author’s bio states that MHD aims to “improve public transport by challenging the status quo”.

Personally I’ve never worked with MHD so I can’t vouch for that statement, or otherwise, but as clickbait for bus bosses, the article certainly lives up to the slogan and if their article finds them some additional clients I’m sure they won’t be complaining.

As my post is a reaction to their article, by definition it’s less than ideal if you haven’t read that.  I can’t and won’t reproduce it here, because it’s not my copyright and more importantly it’s a paid for magazine – and it certainly isn’t my place to redistribute their valuable content free of charge.  Instead, if you haven’t already seen a copy, you need to get hold of one, and ideally you need to subscribe – it’s worth every penny. 

But for those who don’t have the opportunity to avail themselves of a copy, I’ll try to provide the gist of Roland’s views as I go, to provide the context for my responses – so at least you can hum along with the tune even if you don’t know the words!

The main thrust of the article is to challenge the proliferation of local route brands in the bus industry, stating that companies shouldn’t indulge in route branding targeted at very localised markets, but should instead focus their efforts on building equity in the overall company brand.  His main target is not the ‘traditional’ approach to route branding that simply involves listing the places served, but instead the more creative approach to branding that involves the use of distinctive brand names, liveries and/or logos to differentiate individual routes from others in a network.

As Roland says in the article, “Whether it is an animal, a jet, a line or a coaster…, we believe that this approach of having separately branded routes that run under one company mother-brand is fundamentally flawed”.

Roland quite rightly cites market leaders such as McDonalds and Andrex as examples of companies that have developed a virtually unassailable market position as a result of a clear and unambiguous customer proposition.  This is not led by the ‘hard’ aspects of their product – the quality of the meat in the burger or the luxury of the material used to make the toilet paper – but instead by their consistent and effective application of the principles of good brand management, to create a relationship of trust with consumers, who understand exactly what the brand stands for and what they are going to get.

By contrast, Roland asserts that the bus industry’s reliance on very localised brands is flawed for the following reasons:

1.       Inability to leverage brand equity across a network:  Positive sentiment created by one brand is limited to that brand, and won’t transfer to other routes operated by the same company if the buses look different and carry different brand names

2.       The excessive cost and time involved in creating and maintaining a host of different brands, with their constituent assets such as publicity, roadside infrastructure and social media profiles for example

3.       A perceived over-reliance on customers’ stated preferences for local names, identities and images – believing that customers will act on their conscious wishes and desires, whereas in reality people’s buying decisions are usually based much more on subconscious emotional reactions

Finally, Roland concludes by observing that reports of increased patronage and revenue in response to branding exercises miss the point, and are not the result of the branding itself but instead the avalanche of publicity that inevitably accompanies such a relaunch simply raising awareness of the product.  He considers that if the time, effort and money spent on such local brands were instead to be invested a good overarching company brand, the overall benefit would be much greater.

Roland makes some valid points - we’ll come back to these in a moment - so my objective in writing this post is certainly not to denounce him as being wrong on every count.  But the main thrust of his thesis – that local brands should not exist and we should all focus on building equity in our company brands – is one that I think betrays a lack of understanding of what bus brands are designed to achieve.

Far from believing that it is always right for the focus to be on the company brand, an enlightened operator would approach this from a much more fundamental starting point, asking themselves what is the right solution for the market(s) they’re trying to serve, and not simply accept Roland’s ‘one size fits all’ approach.

The key point here is that demand for bus travel is usually what economists call ‘derived demand’.  In other words, people only need it because it’s a means to an end – not an end in itself.  If you want to go the shops (to buy Andrex or go to McDonalds) you have to decide how to get there.  You’ve already selected the destination, so you’re not in the position of choosing between a range of different bus companies, you’re actually choosing between a range of methods of getting from where you are to where you want to be.  That might involve a choice of modes – car, bike, bus etc – but rarely more than one bus company.

Of course Costa or Starbucks or McDonalds or Burger King will want to maximise equity in the mother brand, because when you want lunch or a cup of coffee they are destinations in their own right and your choice will therefore be which of these familiar brands is most likely to offer the kind of experience you want on that occasion. 

But if you fancy McDonalds and your favourite bus company doesn’t go there, it doesn’t matter how much positive emotion you may feel towards the bus company brand, you can’t buy from them because they simply don’t have a product available.

The intelligent question for the bus operator to answer therefore, is not how to differentiate themselves from other bus companies overall, but how to differentiate themselves from other travel possibilities for the journeys the customer wants to make.  That’s a much more subtle question, and the answer will vary from place to place and from company to company.

Perhaps the most famous proponent of route branding in the UK bus industry is trentbarton.  Since the creation of the Rainbow Routes in the early 1990’s, they have followed a clear strategy of branding almost every route.  But they don’t just do it for fun, they do it because market research has told them that that’s how they can generate the most profitable growth across their network.  And we’re not talking about some low budget home made market research of the “do you like nice things or nasty things?” variety.

Thanks to the inspirational erstwhile Marketing Director Melvyn Hopwood, supported by the intellectual might and searching scrutiny from industry icons such as Brian King and Ian Morgan, they are the only bus company I’ve encountered so far that does proper scientific market research that gives decent insight into people’s emotional response to brands.

Take the residents of Spondon, near Derby, as an example.  Rightly or wrongly, trentbarton’s view is that they don’t really care whether Spondon residents feel an affinity with buses in such far flung places as Alfreton or Mansfield, because they will probably never have reason to use them – derived demand etc.  But they do know that in the Spondon to Derby travel market, a strongly branded express bus product stands a far better chance of attracting custom than a random red bus with a random number on the front.  Try it:  Spondon Flyer or trentbarton 197?  Which one oozes customer appeal and which one sounds like a chemical formula?   (I made the number up by the way, but any number will do).

Spondon Flyer  (By Stephen McKay, CC BY-SA 2.0)
In my time at Wellglade I was delighted to embrace that approach because it was absolutely right for their situation.  By contrast, when I was running Velvet, a different approach was needed.  We were fortunate to have a good reputation and brand recognition that extended far beyond our true size (“oh, those are the purple buses I keep seeing everywhere”).  In that case it was absolutely right to focus on Velvet as the only brand and put all our effort into promoting that, because that’s what attracted the emotional response that delivered year on year organic growth for most of the time it was around.

Roland picked a very surprising target when he chose to take a swipe at Transdev’s 36 (or maybe not so surprising if he was enjoying the role of pantomime villain trying to draw the loudest “boo” from the audience).  Okay, it has a number rather than a name, but in this case we can live with that because the number itself has become a brand over the fifteen years since the Blazefield of Giles Fearnley and Stuart Wilde first decided to give it special treatment.

The overriding mission of the 36 is to grab the largest possible share of the Harrogate – Leeds travel market for the bus.  It’s a relatively affluent town, with few other really strong travel flows, so the well heeled commuters are unlikely to have their heads turned by a glittering array of other destinations.  The train offers a small speed advantage but they’re quite old and uncomfortable.  The 36 offers frequency and luxury.  For the market it’s trying to serve, it really is all about the 36.

Unsurprisingly, given CEO Alex Hornby’s attention to detail and Best Impressions’ design skills, this has resulted in a brand so carefully pitched to the target clientele that it has delivered continuous growth since it was relaunched and has captured the imagination of the local population in quite unprecedented ways.  Local artist Robbie Burns has even taken to including 36 buses in her paintings…!

Painting by Robbie Burns.  Note 36 bus in top right hand corner

When a community embraces a brand in that way, it's the kind of relationship that money can't buy and shows a deep seated connection.  But as if that wasn’t enough, the brand is designed to strict companywide design principles so that for those who are interested, it’s easy to relate it to the company’s offerings elsewhere in Harrogate and further afield across the north of England.  The Coca-Cola Corporation seem to have worked out that consumers can cope with Cherry Coke and Coke Zero, in much the same way that most of Harrogate’s bus users seem to be able to identify the 36 with the Harrogate Bus Company.  So it doesn’t have to be all or nothing.

If Roland had his way, the 36 would just be a standard Transdev bus in a standard Transdev livery, so that the good folk of Harrogate would have no way of knowing it was a good way to get to Leeds – where many of them go all the time – but would jump for joy and leap aboard for an impromptu bus ride if they happened to spot an identical vehicle in the highly improbable event that they should find themselves with an hour to kill in Blackburn or Bridlington.

All these approaches work in their context and so far from any particular approach being flawed, as Roland suggests, it’s really a case of understanding the market you’re trying to serve and identifying the best approach for that market.

I did promise that I’d mention the areas where I agreed with Roland, and he is right to point out that whatever branding strategy one adopts, it is absolutely critical that all assets reflect the brand absolutely – including colours, logos, typefaces – everything.  It simply shouldn’t be an option to allow any element of the visible manifestation to wander off brand.  To use Roland’s own analogy, you would never ever ever see a branch of McDonalds with the logo missing, or applied using a non-standard font, or with a part of the shop fascia a random different colour.

So it should be with buses.  If the resources don’t exist within the business to support the brand strategy you’d prefer to adopt, the answer isn’t to do it badly – the answer is to do it a different way completely.  And here the backstop is of course to focus on a simple company brand, because this will always be the most straightforward approach to maintain.  It’s an admission of failure really – the tail wagging the dog – but if you can’t do it properly, don’t do it at all!

I also agree with Roland about the dangers of trying to curry favour with the locals by getting them to do your marketing for you.  He is quite right to assert that the way people actually behave is very different to the way they think they behave, so just because locals may purr with delight at seeing a familiar name or landmark on their bus and promise you that this will spur them to use the product more, it won’t.

Even worse is using competitions to create brands.  The public may mean well but they are not marketing experts.  The PR that such competitions generate will only ever reach a tiny proportion of the market, and once the initial story has passed you’re left with a mediocre product and precious little chance of doing anything about it without causing offence to the very people you wanted to befriend in the first place.

I’m no engineer, so as much as I like my local bus service, it is far better that I don’t have the chance to vote on which gearbox or engine the bus should have.  Let’s leave the marketing to the experts too!

But in a nutshell, in my opinion Roland makes the staggeringly basic mistake of trying to treat a bus brand as if it were a household name consumer brand.  Of course I’m sure we’d all love if that were the case, but when you’re meeting derived demand and you’re not a destination in your own right, it just can’t work like that.  We are a means to someone else’s end and the best route to profitable growth and community engagement must be to work out how we can fulfil that function most effectively – and that will be different in every market.  Follow the approach that Roland advocates, and we would end up with an industry full of professional, well designed brands that are entirely irrelevant to the markets they’re trying to serve and would just shrink into the background.

What should we really be worried about?

I’m all for a good debate, but I think in this case Roland has simply picked the wrong target.  He shouldn’t be getting upset about local branding, he should be getting upset about bad branding.

Good brand building requires far more than just a talented designer or a clever data analyst.  It needs a range of insights thrown into a pot, smashed around the room a few times and debated to death, and continually tested against the overall objective of what you’re trying to achieve.

Ask a good designer to come up with something nice, and you’ll get a work of art that will look beautiful but won’t create the emotional stimulus that good brands need.  Ask a good commercial analyst to come up with something clever, and they’ll tell you everything you could possibly want to know about the market you’re trying to reach, but will lack the creativity to reach them.

That’s why I’ve always enjoyed working with Ray Stenning and his team at Best Impressions.  Ray is adamant that he’s not just a supplier – he’s an integral part in the brand building operation, driving the creative process.  But it works because he questions your assumptions and you challenge his work at every stage, and between you, you come up with something amazing.  But it’s critical to have that debate and challenge at every stage, to ensure everyone really is contributing their best.

There are far too many examples of bad brands in our industry, though I’m not brave enough to name them here.  But they’re not hard to find.  Potentially good ideas that have been badly executed; bad ideas that have been well executed; or even bad ideas executed poorly.

Going back to my engineering analogy, very few people would try to fit a bus gearbox without the required qualifications, but it’s amazing how many industry professionals think they’re branding experts just because they saw a livery they liked when they were on holiday!

So just to conclude, here are my top three tips for how to avoid bad brands: 

1)      Make sure your brands are names that people are happy to say out loud and proud.  Remember that your potential customers will have to be comfortable using it in normal conversation with their friends.  When I hear people say they’re catching “Bluestar 1” or (back in the day) “Velvet A” – two of my past creations – it fills me with pride, because they’re clearly memorable and flow naturally off the tongue and I know people are saying it without thinking about it.  But if you think your customers are going to sit in the pub and tell their friends they go to work on the Ambridge Aardvaark, it just isn’t going to happen.  They’ll give it a miss!

2)      Simple ideas work best.  As the aforementioned Melvyn Hopwood is fond of saying, “throw me an orange and I’ll catch it, throw me three and I’ll drop all of them.”  In other words, focus on the core proposition that you want to get across – whether it be luxury, speed, frequency, low fares or whatever, and build your brand around that.  Don’t let it be cluttered by too many messages because they will just pass people by.

3)      Remember that good communication is about what the other person hears, not about what you say.  You may well have a mate who’s a great designer, but if he doesn’t have the insight into your target market to understand what words, colours, shapes images and ideas will stimulate the right subconscious emotional response from them, you just end up with a pretty picture.

I’m not claiming to be the industry’s most accomplished marketing professional – far from it.  But I do feel strongly that gaining an understanding of the markets you’re trying to serve, what makes them different from each other and how you can create a proposition that works most effectively for each and every one of them – rather than trying to be McDonalds or Andrex – is far more likely to put you on the road to success!


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