One benefit of a strong brand is that customers will pay more or go out of their way for their preferred brand of product or service. How else do you explain basic items like sunglasses priced at more than $1,000? In marketing the social good, is branding public transportation the answer to getting drivers off of jammed highways and onto public transit?
Public Transit and Brand
Brand is part of the design component of marketing. It’s something that you consciously create and promote. In the end, brand is a promise that resides in the mind of the audience. Your brand is the experience your audience thinks they’ll have if they engage with your organization, buy your product, or use your service.
If brand is a promise, than public transit must be one of the biggest brands among the social goods. What is public transit if not a promise? A promise that if you’re at the bus or train stop on time, you’ll have a ride to where you’re going. You hope that ride is safe, clean, affordable, maybe even pleasant.
If a transit system fails its promise too many times, riders stop showing up.
Many people in the U.S. think public transit is dangerous, dirty, slow, inconvenient, and only for people with no other options.
According to the Pew Center, just 11 percent of U.S. adults use public transit on a regular basis. Outside the Northeast and urban centers, that percentage quickly drops.
In other words, public transit in the U.S. is losing the brand war to cars. Today, people spend thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours a year on their preference for personal automobiles over public transportation.
(Just a reminder, the visual identity of an organization, product or service is just part of the brand. Visual elements such as logo, typeface, and color stand in for and remind customers of the experience they’ll have. Don’t be like several of the transit official in this trade article. They seem to think the color of a bus equals the transit agency’s brand.)
Steps to improve the brand of public transportation
Branding public transportation is one area where marketing can make a decided difference in our social lives. If more people preferred public transportation, then ridership would rise, pollution would drop, and roads would be less congested.
Improving brand usually means improving the customer experience. This is especially true for transit. Here are some ways to do it:
Market research: Use data to understand what customers would want in your product or service. When was the last time local government asked your preferences in public transportation, other than at the ballot box? I don’t mean just a public hearing, either. People are stuck in traffic after work, because transit doesn’t work, and can’t make it to city hall the school gym on time for the hearing. What about digital surveys, or phone surveys, or mail-in surveys?
Brand strength survey: Ask your existing customers how strongly they prefer your brand, and why. Yes, your current customers aren’t a random sample. However, surveying your current customers helps you pinpoint strengths and weakness in your brand. You can also identify customers who are super users and evangelists for your product. Activate them to help build your brand awareness.
Technology: We’re well into the 21st century–customers expect everything to be digital, personalize, and mobile. Mobile goes double for transit. I should be able to look up routes and fares, store my favorite routes, receive real-time updates, and even pay my fares with my smart phone. Citizens have that convenience in the rest of their life; why should social goods be any different?
Examples of Branding Public Transportation
What does it mean to care about the customer experience of public transit?
One recent example is a Tokyo transit company publicly apologizing after a train left the station 20 seconds early. No one complained or missed their train. Still, the company felt they had not lived up to their brand promise to customers.
Enrique Penalosa, former mayor of Bogota, Columbia, worked to deliver a superior transit experience to all citizens. “An advanced city is not one where even the poor use cars,” says Penalosa, “but rather one where even the rich use public transportation.”
Tourists who visit London often come home with souvenirs from the Underground, like system maps on tote bags and mugs that say “Mind the gap.” London Underground has a strong visual identity that no doubt contributes to citizens’ brand preference. I haven’t visited London (yet), but neither have I heard complaints from residents or tourists about getting around on the Underground.
In the end, branding public transportation comes down to one factor: convenience. For many potential customers, public transportation is far less convenient than a car. Without transit-oriented development, most of our communities are not designed for convenient public transit.
(Image courtesy of Pixabay)