When Liverpool became the birthplace of passenger rail in 1830, an audience looked on in awe as the first train made its way between the city and Manchester. But today, consumers tend to view rail journeys as a necessity rather than a luxury and travel brands must work hard to persuade leisure passengers to use their services.
Virgin Trains rose to this challenge last year with a digital “talking” poster at Liverpool Lime Street Station that chatted to passing consumers in real time. Rather than relying on traditional outdoor advertising formats, the company decided to use this interactive tool to reflect the brand’s reputation for innovation.
The Liverpool Wall, created with Elvis Communications, was set up on a key site at the city centre station and is the biggest digital site in Europe. With a surface area of 206 square metres, it was seen by about 980,000 pedestrians and 560,000 motorists.
Steve Seddon, advertising and partnerships manager at Virgin Trains, explains that the wall could talk to customers about the brand in a way that was more engaging than other posters. He says: “We wanted to make potential customers in Liverpool aware of our new journey times and prices. But with the proliferation of outdoor advertising and the amount of messages our potential target market is exposed to, it was not enough to just use traditional advertising techniques.”
An improvement in Virgin Trains’ service levels had led to a journey time of just over two hours from Liverpool to London and it wanted to showcase that prices for these journeys started from £11.
With the Liverpool to London route key for the brand, Elvis Communications’ creative work at Liverpool Lime Street was part of an integrated drive to promote rail travel as the superior mode of transport.
In 2008, Virgin Trains sponsored the Liverpool Capital of Culture event and the follow-up Liverpool Wall campaign, executed in 2009, allowed it to maintain a presence in the city. The campaign also gave Virgin the chance to speak to more people than a traditional advertisement would, while communicating its innovative, forward-thinking brand values to an audience of leisure and business passengers.
“We wanted to execute the campaign in a way that cut through to customers and could really make them stop, take note and consider or reconsider Virgin Trains,” says Seddon.
“As with all advertising, we wanted a relatively modest budget to work hard and get people and the press talking about the campaign online or among friends during and after the campaign.”
Agency Elvis developed a bespoke online tool that allowed the brand to deliver personalised messages to Liverpool residents in a characteristically humorous Virgin way. These one-to-one style communications were intended to create brand awareness and stimulate people to book in advance at Virgintrains.com.
The campaign used new technology to interact with the digital screen as if it was a giant computer monitor targeting individuals or vehicles as they passed by with, in effect, a giant mouse cursor. This was created by an Elvis copywriter being on site and combining the quick thinking of a stand-up comic with traditional headline writing skills. He wrote lines that not only reacted to live events around the poster, but also back to the Liverpool to London journey time message.
The quips included pointing at a passing bus and saying: “By the time you get to Warrington we’ll be in Euston” or as a street cleaner wandered past: “Hey there Mr Road Sweeper, you can get to London in a tidy two hours seven minutes.” Commuters and passers-by, amazed to see this huge media wall addressing them personally and commenting live on the scene, cheered, laughed and even talked back to the poster.
“Agency employees and I stood 500 metre from the screen and sent messages over walkie-talkies to a copy writer who was situated over the road in a spare room of a hairdresser,” explains Seddon.
“Executing the campaign in this way allowed us to achieve the key objectives of showcasing journey time and price, but by producing around 100 different lines it allowed us to talk about onboard services such as free wi-fi, which would have been difficult to achieve using a more traditional approach.”
Virgin saw a significant increase in sales in the week that the campaign ran for both immediate travel and future bookings. As an undeniable talking point, it also achieved significant local and national press coverage and consumer blog entries.
The brand claims the work represents a new train of thought for the operator’s marketing initiatives in future. “Now we feel we can maximise the relatively expensive outdoor spend as a medium that can be picked up by word of mouth, viral and PR,” comments Seddon. “It has changed how we are thinking about outdoor advertising and we will be using some of the thinking in future campaigns.”
“The Liverpool Wall is the biggest outdoor site in Europe and we wanted a suitably big idea that was ownable by Virgin Trains and fitted with its brand. Once we’d decided to make the poster “talk” to its audience, we worked closely with our team of developers and programmers to test how the poster would react to the events going on around it.
We were thinking about ways to demonstrate speed – it was Virgin Trains’ fastest service between Liverpool and London – and we realised that there would probably be some traffic stopping in front of the poster. The idea developed after thinking: “Wouldn’t it be funny if the poster pointed out how much faster the train would be over the car?”
We had no idea if we could actually make the poster talk and our team of developers had to write a new piece of software to enable the poster to be used in this way.
The fact that Elvis has always been a multiple discipline agency is very much behind this innovation. We have digital, direct marketing and promotional experts who all sit around the same table.
This enables us to quickly come up with innovative creative solutions, as we can pick each others’ brains and bounce ideas off people from different disciplines without having to go through layers of process.”
Highlighted innovators: Steve Seddon, advertising and partnerships manager at Virgin Trains, and John Treacy, creative director at Elvis Communications