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Transport companies ignoring their brand heritage

The arrival of the author’s tickets for next weekend’s steam on the London Underground specials has prompted some reflections on the value of history as a part of the marketing mix for today’s transport industry. The bus and rail industries are unusual in that it’s possible to see earlier incarnations of their product in use in their original environment and many of the major players in the UK (TfL and Stagecoach for example) are active in maintaining their history. Clearly the companies concerned see the value of such expenditure both in terms of good PR, employee loyalty and potentially as part of their CSR obligations.

However, at the same time, the industry seems increasingly to ignore the other side of its legacy which is the brands that were built up over many years and the liveries which characterised them.  Three of the major bus groups now have single national liveries and at the same time many local identities have been replaced  with bland corporate legalise (are customers or employees really going to feel loyal to Arriva Scotland West?).  More recently, even TfL has moved to supress almost any sign of distinctiveness amongst its contractors with the move to a bland 100% red livery.

Yet this is in stark contrast to many other retail industries where niche brands have been created to serve different customer segments – in many cases by re-introducing previous names (albeit sometimes in a different context to their original market position). Ford’s recent re-launch of the Lincoln brand is one the highest profile examples at the moment, not least because the work appears to extend right through to the design ethos of new product launches.

Perhaps the nadir for this approach in the UK has been the brand churn amongst the rail franchise operators and in particular the destruction of the unified InterCity brand, which perversely is so strong that its used in English by several major continental rail operators. In the decade or so since privatisation, the East Coast mainline has been through three completely different corporate identities and will soon acquire another, each one no-doubt requiring significant expenditure of time and management effort to introduce. With the possible exception of GNER none of these have come close to the effectiveness of the original InterCity brand.

Of the major transport groups in the UK, Go-Ahead stands out as the outlier.  Go-ahead has tended to restrict its re-branding to where there were major problems with the previous identity and has focused on building strong local brands in each area it serves. In many cases this has allowed Go-Ahead to embed its brands as part of the local community and appears to have contributed to sustained growth in passenger numbers and numerous awards. This approach has been taken to its extreme by its multi-award winning Brighton and Hove Buses company where the corporate web-site even details the history of the brand and its marketing materials.

Obviously there are operational efficiencies to having a national brand for the major transport groups, but for a (retail) product which is local in nature and increasingly dependent on partnerships with local authorities for its delivery, the seeming disregard for historic brands which were often deeply embedded in the local community is surprising.

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