Spare a thought for the team developing corporate identity for a privatised rail operator. You are attempting to rebrand a service which was largely inherited and where any investment in that service is likely to take months or years to feed through.
You are shackled to a company – Railtrack – which is generally perceived not to be doing its job, and is fair game for media trashing on everything from safety to overcrowding and from staff uniforms to locked toilets. And you need to establish that identity fast, because you have just seven years to make your mark.
The danger is that at a critical moment in the process of relationship building between brand and customer you allow sheer lack of substance to undermine identity. Some at least of the newly privatised train operating companies (TOCs) lay themselves open to that charge.
But the current activity in the UK transport sector provides neat illustrations to other questions, such as how far corporate identity stretches, how identity can be protected until the service is up to standard and – in more general terms – what exactly is the role of identity?
Connex Rail, nursing an image under sustained assault from TV documentaries and comedy shows, evening papers and franchise regulator reports, claims to have answers to many of these questions. As the holding company of Connex South Central and Connex South East ern, it addressed the problem of identity earlier than most TOCs and, as part of an international transport group, required a flexible brand.
“We specified that we needed a name which we could use in other countries,” explains Connex Rail director of corporate communications Michel Quidort. “There is still a possibility that we may use the Connex name abroad.” The parent CGEA group was awarded the Network South Central franchise in June 1996 and, in September, the CGI consultancy began work on the Connex South Eastern identity.
Quidort is adamant that the company promotes a strong corporate image in association with its best services. “We introduce our livery only for trains and stations where the service has improved or where a new service has been created,” he says. This means that the Connex identity is highly visible on, among others, the Metro and Express services and on the South Central Brighton line.
CGI’s version of events is slightly different. “Do you wait for new rolling stock, or do you signal change before it happens?” asks managing director Stephen Thomas. So for example, the reasoning that staff were a key point of contact, and a signal of change, led to the choice of highly visible uniforms across the network.
Thomas is the first to acknowledge the dangers of such an approach. But he is proud that, unlike other TOCs, Connex had its trains branded and ready for the franchise’s official launch.
For many operators, the possibility that a franchise will not be renewed after seven years (15 in the case of Connex South Central) brings the identity challenge into even sharper focus. But Quidort is not to be discouraged. “The seven-year limit could be a problem. But we should make it positive,” he explains. “The fact that we hope to develop good customer relations and a strong identity can be an argument in favour of having our contract renewed.”
CGI’s list of applications for the Connex identity is impressive: stationery and literature as well as train interiors and exteriors, stations and staff uniforms. But views differ as to how far identity reaches, and where it begins. “As consultants, we’ve preached that corporate identity includes product, service, cultural and behavioural dimensions for years,” says Chris Ludlow, director at Henrion Ludlow & Schmidt. “Clients seem to be years behind, but maybe present events will shake their belief that a lick of paint will change an image.”
Similarly, Clare Fuller, director of the Bamber Forsyth consultancy, sees the development of identity as starting with consumer perceptions and dealing with the specifics of a logo and a livery only at the end of the process. “It’s not about designing a logo but creating an experience,” she says. “It’s very closely linked to the company’s service offer, the feelings generated – even about what sort of food you serve.”
Bamber Forsyth has applied this analysis to clients including Gatwick Express. Apart from allowing the service to stand out, brand building can be critical in terms of future expansion, says the consultancy, possibly into other types of travel or different businesses. Meanwhile, deregulation of coaches and buses, followed by privatisation of rail, has meant that a fairly limited visual language including “go faster” stripes and arrows has been put under severe strain, says Fuller.
With Gatwick Express, the opportunity to reposition the brand came with the company’s decision to buy new trains. Bamber Forsyth researched the negatives as well as the positives associated with the brand. Future possibilities were also explored through panels of specialists from research backgrounds, industry, psychology and communications. “Consumers are not as good at seeing round corners,” explains Fuller.
It is easy to understand why rail franchisees should, like a government with only a five-year term in which to engineer its re-election, want to establish the brand as quickly as possible. But many consultants advocate other approaches.
“If corporate identity is considered as a logo, the colours of the trains or the interior design, it will fail to shift perceptions,” says Ludlow. “It may even worsen them by inducing cynicism.”
According to Ludlow, services with problems of overcrowding and punctuality would do better to protect the brand rather than to flaunt it. “Virgin is experiencing these problems in an extreme form,” he says. “Hamstrung by ancient infrastructure and forced by contract to identify the trains as ‘Virgin’, they can only bleat about future promises. In the meantime, the service fails to meet expectations and the brand suffers.”
Virgin Rail’s 1.85bn order for tilting trains for its West Coast and Cross Country services could, of course, provide a hi-tech solution to all these problems from the year 2000.
Unlike Connex and Virgin, the majority of TOCs appear to have weighed the arguments for strong branding against the basic shortcomings in their services and opted for a lower profile. Some, such as Heathrow Express, have gone to even more sophisticated lengths to protect the brand, introducing an interim service with a different name – FastTrain.
The FastTrain identity has for the past two years allowed Heathrow Express, owned by BAA, to carry out trials and improve services through a combined coach and rail link. The Glazer consultancy has developed promotional material using the Fast- Train name to ensure the Heathrow Express brand was not tarnished before its official launch this summer. The identity uses the same colours and style as the Heathrow Express identity originally created by Wolff Olins and has clearly stated that it is an interim service.
While some parts of the network offer a choice between different TOCs, most do not, largely undermining the argument in favour of incisive identity which says that the brand has to be strong to compete. Unless, that is, competition is not for the individual consumer but for the individual franchise period or for travellers using alternative transport.
Operators like Connex and Gatwick Express may need to plan for future diversification, but Virgin and Stagecoach (operator of the South West Trains franchise) were established names before they took their first steps into rail. Virgin clearly hopes to build on positive consumer loyalty, but Stagecoach presumably chose to avoid possible Wild West jibes by embracing an altogether different identity.
Stagecoach Holdings company secretary Derek Scott suggests that if the coach company identity had been stamped on to the South West rolling stock, the company would have been responsible for repainting the whole fleet if the franchise was not renewed in 2003.
With legislation promised on local government in London, a new battleground for structure and identity for transport has opened up in the capital. “London Underground and London Transport Buses are seeking to retain an integrated network,” says London Transport (LT) head of design Jeremy Rewse-Davies. “And we are trying to promote the idea that there is a network in existence that will take you door to door.” This may include late-night taxi services.
The LT identity now reinforces the integrated nature of the service, and interchange signage is being introduced with a clear hierarchy of the different transport options, not only those run by LT. Bus deregulation in central London has already shown how the break-up of a system can affect clarity of branding. According to Rewse-Davies, it brought with it a compromise whereby 80 per cent of bus “redness” had to be retained by operators.
Of course, there is more than one way to develop corporate identity, and BA was not the first operator to involve the wider public in its image when it introduced a design competition as part of its aircraft rebranding exercise. Some 18 months ago, rail freight operator English Welsh & Scottish Railway (EWS) took the unusual step of involving its own staff and rail enthusiasts (through Rail Magazine) in a competition for the choice of a logo. This was then combined with the colours of US parent company Wisconsin Central and integrated with text in-house.
EWS may not have the sexy-looking rolling stock of Eurostar but the freight company does at least know where its corporate identity came from.
Eurostar, asked about its high-profile image, jointly developed in the late Eighties by British, French and Belgian railways, could find no one who knew anything about it. Perhaps a company can be too fast moving for its own good.