GB Railways may be two or three years away but it’s coming so many TOCs have given up on their brand. This should worry us all

The BR logo would appear to resonate with Joe and Joanna Public

I’ve been living the dream this last month and have travelled on every TOC in the UK. The experience has been variable, but the pluses have outnumbered the weaknesses. Staff attitude and helpfulness has been very good – with some outstanding interactions, most notably with ticket office employees at SWR, on-board folk on Avanti West Coast and ScotRail and gateline folk at Chiltern. Cleanliness has been impressive too – arise Cross Country Trains and Arriva Rail London. Despite my complaining that performance has been going down the pan nationwide (the stats don’t lie), I’ve only been delayed once and that was due to ‘external factors’ (trespass at Kingston).

However, it has not been a romantic dream I’ve been living, nor one that has created a great sense of adventure, even if I’ve travelled to the extremities – Penzance and Inverness, featuring among more unremarkable destinations, such as Brondesbury and Willesden Junction, Burley Park and Leeds. What I have sampled is the hybrid situation from a customer perspective of a privatised railway and national set-up under GB Railways and it’s been moribund and frayed round the edges, not necessarily in terms of delivery but as a branded experience.

I’m an unashamed brand groupie – continually seduced by powerful brands

I’m an unashamed brand groupie – continually seduced by powerful brands. Apart from the Addlestone Model Railway Shop, if it’s not part of a brand – I’m unnerved. My favourite Wimpy Bar in South Norwood turned into an unbranded family-owned burger bar overnight. It served exactly the same nosh, from the same friendly staff, but I stopped going. Psychologically, I had less confidence in the hygiene, the quality of food, the overall service and I found the new, unbranded décor less appealing. The moment the iconic red Wimpy tomato sauce container went, well I was done.

However, I can also see from a customer perspective that brand can be both a strength but also an irritation. I stood in Southampton last week and witnessed two very customer-focused bus companies, Bluestar and First go toe-to-toe on the same routes and I saw the irritation of first-time customers confused by the multitude of colour schemes, logos and branded ticket types – it felt pointless, in truth and a deterrent to travelling.

So, in the main, I’m not averse to the likely scenario of a national brand to cover the entire network once GBR is created. If we are being brutally honest, normal customers (ie., not us freaks who are fascinated by the industry and count it as a ‘hobby’), show only, at most, mild interest and curiosity in the different TOC brands and would probably prefer a single identity. The national marketing campaign and use of the BR logo would appear to resonate with Joe and Joanna Public. Conversations that I have with occasional rail customers consist of a few anodyne observations about their experience of the brand on each TOC (‘I like those red uniforms on, is it, LNER, Alex?’ or ‘those orange London Underground logos on trains to Chingford are funky’ and sometimes time warp confusion still persisting – (South West Trains, First Great Western, East Midlands Trains or Thameslink being the brand names that still roll off the tongue).

Then there’s those brands that are hard to understand because they are parent or sub-brands or have some other role in life – Stansted Express, Gatwick Express, Arriva Rail London, GTR, Island Line. I couldn’t even tell you what the company that used to be Northern Railway is called these days, and as for how Transport for the North fits into that labyrinth, heaven help us! Similarly, it can be confusing sometimes to determine whether travelling by train in Liverpool is with Merseyrail or Merseytravel and if you’re talking West Midlands Railway, is it London Northwestern or West Midlands Trains or a mix of both? As for Transport for Wales, it’s challenging to know if they are an authority or train company or both and two decades on, I still don’t what know c2c stands for. Give me London, Tilbury and Southend (LTS) any day! Finally, on my CV, I never know whether the strapline for my role in running the railway between London and Stansted in the early noughties should say West Anglia Great Northern (WAGN), Stansted Express or Londonlines, remember that?!

I’m quietly excited by a national identity. However, it is really important that this craving for uniformity doesn’t lead to tedium, the absence of character and an affinity with the local markets

Okay, so hopefully I’ve made my point, it’s been a bit confusing and I’m quietly excited by a national identity. However, it is really important that this craving for uniformity doesn’t lead to tedium, the absence of character and an affinity with the local markets. If every train has the same logo and livery slapped on it, not only will it be dull for us trainspotters hanging round the end of platforms, but more importantly it will be the green light for those dullards in the sector who already love diluting the experience and individuality of the branded customer experience. They would love nothing better than to just run trains and not reflect on the complexities and sophistications of brand personality and the imperative of providing a compelling product that caresses customers.

Going back in time is not fashionable and can lead to careers being consigned to the sidings, the future is all about innovation after all (whatever that innovation might be). However, the resurrection of the double-arrow logo is a sign that maybe us old timers haven’t quite had our day, just yet, so forgive me as I hark back to a period when the balance between a clear, national brand with (in the main) uniformity of service provision and local character was perfectly struck. This was in the sectorisation era of the late 1980s and early 1990s and where there were five sectors but within them the opportunity for sub-brands, if these needed externalising to resonate with individual markets and showcase local leadership and management focus. Network South East had brands that represented the individual divisions with admittedly uninspiring names such as ‘North Downs’, ‘West of England’, ‘Solent and Wessex’ and my favourite, ‘Kent Link’. Although in most cases creativity extended only as far as a logo or image characterising the local area served, it spoke volumes.

For me, it wasn’t too different from when First initially deviated from its traditional national brand and the words ‘First in West Yorkshire’ or ‘First in Glasgow’’ and so on emerged on buses alongside a small image that depicted the landscape. This may have been boring and overly cautious, but it was less confusing than the jarring, mass of colours that overwhelm sightlines across towns and cities and is the case on our railway.

Creation of sub-brands within an overall parent brand is a sensible solution in that it provides confidence for customers around a holistic, integrated proposition that will be harnessed seamlessly for their benefit – either in terms of ticketing and timetable connectivity and when things go wrong. Customers won’t be exposed to lines of demarcation between Network Rail and TOCs or between TOCs themselves. A national brand will importantly instil assurance around commonality of customer service standards and delivery.

However, the existence of sub-brands, governed by the parent, should also unlock the ability of marketeers and local managers to create and deliver products and services that meet the quality criteria but reflect the needs of the communities served and the type of journey being embarked on, such as distance, stopping pattern and customer segments. It should also make it possible for local management teams to feel proud about their own distinct part of the railway. Brand is a strong, galvanising force for good – it is a showcase for the efforts of those responsible for its creation and delivery and it inspires a collective effort and attention to detail to maintain brand integrity.

Large, sometimes unwieldy and municipal organisations have a habit of struggling to provide a brand that maintains its shine over time and across all places it touches

Large, sometimes unwieldy and municipal organisations have a habit of struggling to provide a brand that maintains its shine over time and across all places it touches. In the case of my former employer Royal Mail, there was never pontification as to the brand personality and certainly, I don’t recall, employees ever benefiting from training around this key area. However, that the brand still held its own was because it was over 500 years old and omnipresent on the landscape. Lifers in the company knew it had heritage and was iconic and sub-consciously respected it, even if they didn’t really know what it stood for and how to eschew its personality (if indeed it had one!). GB Railways will be a huge organisation, but it won’t benefit, as Royal Mail did, from longevity as a tool to ensuring its brand is protected wherever it is being delivered.

We’re already, though, experiencing a ‘dumbing down’. The local TOC teams know their game is up, they’ve admitted defeat in terms of being able to shape their own destiny not only as businesses but in creating their own brand and unique service experience within the tightly constrained contractual parameters they operate currently, and which will be gripped even harder going forward. When did a TOC last embark on creating a brand strategy? It just doesn’t happen anymore, which is why talented marketing professionals from outside the sector aren’t exactly clamouring to come and join the snooze-fest in the commercial world of train operators right now.

The slow, lingering and unstoppable death of the on-board catering experience is the epitome of the current situation we find ourselves in, so too the gradual decline in images on stations of community involvement or of ‘newsletters’ either online or in print from TOCs with a front-page message from the MD. Indeed, whilst we are on the subject of the gaffers, during my travels on every TOC, I’ve not stumbled across a single manager anywhere, of any level whatsoever. Maybe they are drained by it all and resigned to their fate?

The future GBR brand needs careful thought and not just a colour scheme and logo. We have a blank sheet of paper currently, but most importantly we need to put the right plans in place – in terms of a brand strategy. Determining what sub-brands will be created, if any, is a key initial task, but so too is the brand personality, values and behaviours and how these will be lived and breathed by all employees, and not just those on the frontline. A year ago, I embarked on a review of customer service across a large chunk of the UK rail network and when I asked for brand guidelines, all I received were pictures of the logo with lots of different font sizes, typesets and colour schemes. I asked for the brand psychology, the engagement documentation, the values and so on. My request was met with total silence. None of this existed.

We simply must get it right this time round and it’s important that in developing the brand and determining how it will be rolled out, we talk to the markets locally

We simply must get it right this time round and it’s important that in developing the brand and determining how it will be rolled out, we talk to the markets locally – to customers and importantly non-users, to understand how we get them onboard. We need to massively engage proper old school and new age railway employees, and, as unfashionable as that might seem, they reside in the communities they serve and are the eyes and ears of both the customer and the rail heathens.

There’s so much to be done but it’s a wonderful opportunity. I worry that GB Railways may be two or three years away in reality and we can’t allow this drift in terms of brand, character and service style to go on much longer. It’s soul-sapping and has allowed mindless mediocrity to pervade – customers are a scarcer commodity than ever before and they won’t allow us to sleepwalk through the motions much longer.

This article appears inside the issue 238 of Passenger Transport.

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