Can rebranding get trains back on track?

The rail industry has suffered a lot of bad publicity in the past few years, causing many operators to rebrand. But a new name alone won’t bring back the passengers, says Branwell Johnson

Train operators are embarking on a flurry of rebranding this year as franchises change hands. Customers will find new names on their platform timetables and new livery on the carriages – but if the passengers are still crammed on trains with broken toilets and a buffet car that runs out of hot drinks half-way through the journey, it’s debatable whether will they care what colour the logo is.

The industry has suffered massively from bad publicity in the past decade because of the rail disasters such as those at Southall in 1997, Paddington in 1999 and Hatfield in 2000. However, passenger confidence and numbers have returned, with Virgin Trains, for instance, carrying 33 million passengers for the year ending March 2003 after a dip to 29 million following Hatfield.

Scotrail is the latest franchise set for handover by the Strategic Rail Authority (SRA) following the tender process first introduced in 1995 after the break up of British Rail. First Group now has “preferred bidder” status for Scotrail and should take over running the UK’s largest service by track mileage from National Express in October (MW last week).

Earlier this year trainspotters saw South Central, formerly Connex South Central, resuscitate a heritage brand, Southern. Three train operating companies (TOCs) have also been subsumed into a Greater Anglia “super franchise” run by National Express, which will now be called One (MW April 8).

Observers wonder what motive there is for investment in train branding. Most TOCs run a monopoly between destinations, meaning there’s no need to differentiate the product. Train franchises are put up for tender at maximum once every seven years, which means brand investment is being potentially wasted. For instance, Anglia Railways, scored as the most reliable company, named train operator of the year at the Rail Business Awards, and famed for stunts such as on-board wine tasting, was folded into the Greater Anglia franchise as part of a change in the SRA’s strategy.

Landor Associates director of brand consulting Ian Wood says: “Most passengers have nothing to say about their journey. The expectation is that things are going to go well – it’s very hard to build up a relationship with a train brand. The out-of-the-ordinary events that stick in the memory are likely to be wholly negative.”

Wood points out that “the power to differentiate is very limited” because introducing tangible changes in rolling stock beyond new livery and badging takes time, and can be very costly.

However, train marketers fire back a number of reasons for putting an emphasis on branding, some of which are company specific and some of which are general to the sector. The operators all point out that developing a brand has internal as well as customer benefits. It helps to generate loyalty among staff and encourages pride in the business – very important in a service industry where staff are often the first point of brand contact for customers.

Southern head of marketing Andrew Ayers points out a strong train brand built on good service can actually attract business investment into an area and draw people – in other words new customers – to buy in the locale.

The train operators are also mostly involved in other transport ventures, so a strong brand that customers recognise and trust benefits all their networks. The commitment demonstrated is also a helpful card to play with the SRA for future bids.

First Group plans to call its service First ScotRail, not a radical change, but the new branding fits into First Group’s overall transport strategy. The company also runs a sizeable part of Scotland’s bus network and has other rail franchises, including First Great Western. Head of marketing Shona Byrne says: “We think it’s important that customers recognise the brand. We want to build First into a household name and it’s important that we are recognised as a leading transport company.”

When it comes to competition, Virgin Trains marketing manager for direct marketing and design Sarah Copley says that the companies are fighting for customers with other modes of transport from cars to airlines. She also points out that Virgin is battling “for the disposable income that our customers spend on enjoying themselves”. Potential customers might go to the local theatre or shopping, but it’s Virgin’s job to help persuade them to go away for the weekend – using the train of course.

The choice of brand name is driven by different reasons. Southern rebranded partly to distance itself from the franchise’s former incarnation as Connex South Central, which had a poor reputation for reliability, but also because the new name harks back to a golden age of pre-nationalised rail. The Southern name existed until 1948 and was a byword for stylish trains and comfortable service – Southern’s new logo is a deliberate retro design. Ayers maintains that the company is forward-thinking, but adds: “The reason we called ourselves Southern was to bring back some of the values of the old Southern railway.

On the other hand One was created as a means of welding four different brands – Anglia Railways, First Great Eastern, West Anglia Great Northern (WAGN) and Stansted Express – together. It’s a departure from the norm as, alongside Virgin, the name has no geographical reference. Martin Lord, managing director of One’s branding agency Lawrence & Pierce, says that the name conveys a number of meanings, including an overall high standard and the fact that the TOC is now the sole operator running out of London’s Liverpool Street. One sales and marketing director Martin Dean agrees that TOCs are not like mobile phone operators that “have to plaster their name everywhere” but they do want to develop a brand “that people can associate with”.

Lord adds that, as with Virgin, the company is trying to develop as a brand that fits with “consumer lifestyle aspirations” in terms of design and style. Virgin Trains, of course, can leverage the cheeky, youthful and slightly irreverent brand values of its parent company. The train company is the headline sponsor and co-promoter of the Move music festival in Manchester, now in its third year.

However, Wood has his doubts and says that when it comes to choosing transport, consumers are still driven very much by price and convenience – as demonstrated by airlines – rather than the brand.

It’s a great British pursuit to grumble about the state of the nation’s railways. To engineer a major shift in perception will take huge vision and investment.

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