Driven by its head of marketing, Laura Sharp, Go North East’s ‘Get your bum on board’ campaign aims to boost the bottom line

 
Go North East’s ‘Get your bum on board’ campaign

 
I’ll be honest, the bum has always fascinated me. It imbues trust, a reliable protective part of the body that is uncomplicated and doesn’t let you down. Unlike eyes, which need glasses to give them a hand, or teeth that require costly fillings, or ears that become fallible with a bit of wax – your bum never lets you down. My only gripe is that sometimes on trains, mainly SWR and LNER with those ironing board seats, backsides don’t provide as much comfort as they should – certainly for skinny oiks like me with bony bums – but I don’t blame the posterior, it’s the fault of trains. I never get this problem on buses.

It’s unsurprising, therefore, that I was recently captivated by the Go North East marketing campaign launched a fortnight ago – a rallying cry to the people of the North East to ‘GET YOUR BUM ON BOARD’.I first stumbled across this ruse after a rousing photoshoot on the top of the Toon Tour bus, popping no-secco, holding blue and white scarves that the marketing mob had produced alongside 20% discounts on its Discovery tickets. This was all to celebrate this fantastic tour winning the Great Scenic Journeys UK Open Top Cup 2023. Go North East’s head of marketing, Laura Sharp, took me aside to brief me on her rear-end campaign. Laura is fairly new to the bus industry and has incredible infectious enthusiasm.

In giving me a sneak preview of the campaign, Laura was joined by one of her sidekicks, Chloe Leach O’Connell, renowned as a doyen of comms in the bus sector and someone whose energy is legendary. These two are a whirlwind together and the campaign cuts through the noise to showcase the fabulous benefits of the bus. It was launched in style with a flamboyant cast sashaying across the Millenium Bridge to catch a ride.

As part of the fun and games, the campaign involves six fabulously designed double deckers that feature fanciful bottom halves of the customers on board. These are set to be a firm favourite as people spot them out and about travelling across the network. The trail-blazing campaign will be visible across the whole of the region, from billboards to bus stop advertising and there will also be a massive push across social media, as well as a series of short videos showing lots of tushie wiggling, a bit of rapping and no escape from the call to ‘GET YOUR BUM ON BOARD’. There’s a distinct Toon feel to the campaign too – it was noticeable when watching the footage that the word ‘bum’ is pronounced with a guttural feel – it sounded more ‘bom’ than ‘bum’, in truth.

The bus company believes its “cheeky” message is a winning way to raise awareness of low-cost bus travel which it says is crucial in encouraging people to get their derrieres out of their cars. It wants people from all walks of life to take note to start considering taking more journeys by public transport.

It’s no secret that Go North East customers have sometimes had a bum deal over the past year with a mix of congestion and prolonged strikes, coming off the back of Covid, which changed customer habits. Like pretty well everywhere, societal changes meant that Geordies lost their appetite to travel.

Traditionally, bus marketing has been quite conservative, so we aimed to mix things up with a clear and simple message that would resonate with all ages… and raise a smile or two!

As a company, Go North East needed to do something different, a kick up the backside, and that’s what Laura explained to me: “We wanted to create one strong, universal message that would make us stand out amongst the noise. Traditionally, bus marketing has been quite conservative, so we aimed to mix things up with a clear and simple message that would resonate with all ages… and raise a smile or two!”

Laura continues: “It was key for us to really shout about the excellent value fares across the North East, thanks to North East Combined Authority, local authority partners, and the DfT. The £2 flat fare is such an easy, straightforward message for people to get behind. And anyone that’s 21 or under can travel for just £1!”

This isn’t just posterior posturing from Go North East, the stats show that over the past 12 months, it has seen over over 11 million jacksies resting on seats, having used the £2 single, and another 5.3 million journeys made by young people with the £1 ticket.

I’ve been worrying quite a bit lately about how the sector will present itself when the £2 fares offering comes to an end. It will need a determined effort and real conviction of the kind that Go North East are using to deal with the post pandemic challenges. As Laura emphasises: “It’s about breaking routines that were formed during that period. Whether that be fewer retail visits, more reliance on the car, or the increase in working-from-home. If we can focus on value fares, harnessing the green agenda and attracting people back to using buses with creative and targeted marketing, we’re confident we’re moving ever closer.

There is way more to do to land the message that bus services are getting massively better in the North East

“There is way more to do to land the message that bus services are getting massively better in the North East. Our existing bus users know about the lower fares and better frequencies, but we need to get our message out to non-users who are less aware. This is where this campaign comes in. We’ve gone BIG with our messaging and have rolled it out across the region using radio, roadside advertising, bus wraps, and social media”.

The biggest challenge will be getting people to break their routine – once they try the bus, they realise how cost effective and convenient it is. From a marketing perspective the fares cap has created a simple and attractive offer for customers. The North East is in a great position with the current fares offer. “We have a ‘One, Two, Free’ fare structure: £1 for under 22s, £2 for adults and free for ENCTS pass holders. We’re seeing passenger growth every month and hope that the new campaign will further this!”

Complex fare structures have, in the past, created real barriers, the £2 fare has set a precedent across the industry and we’ll need to learn from this and use it to inform pricing strategies in the future. I strongly believe that the bus sector has really upped its game in recent times in terms of extolling the positives of bus travel, trying to create reasons to travel and just developing a fun narrative – more so than rail, where there still seems a bit of an authoritarian ‘you need us more than we need you’ tone. In some of the scenic bus routes and tours, there’s been a galvanising impact on customers – these exciting showpiece services set the benchmark and are, in some respects, an introductory taster or gateway to the bus company and its brand. They are a celebration of the community and the landscape served.
Laura agrees: “The Toon Tour is a brilliant offer for the leisure and tourism market up here in the North East. It’s hugely popular with partners and stakeholders around the region, as well as customers. It’s fantastic to see the bus become a staple part of the leisure industry positioned as not just a means of getting from A to B, but an attraction in itself.”

The quality of marketing in the bus sector currently is increasingly impressive

The quality of marketing in the bus sector currently is increasingly impressive. The advent of sun and a Bank Holiday weekend saw an influx of positive stories from bus companies – be it promoting festivals, events and great destinations on their patches, to the razzmatazz of marketing an open topper service being unleashed. There’s a growing and unprecedented intensity at a time when it might be easy for the industry to be lazy and just think that a simple £2 fare offering self-promotes. And don’t be kidded into thinking that the industry is spending oodles on its marketing – it isn’t. Most companies’ marketing budgets are miniscule and they do the best they can just by thinking innovatively, forming partnerships with stakeholders under young sharp-thinking marketers like Laura.

Partnerships can extend to collaboration with fellow operators, but in a way that, of course, complies with competition rules. An example has been our very first ticketing and marketing product that we have this week launched at Great Scenic Journeys – a multi-operator ‘Scenic Explorer’ rover ticket for North Yorkshire, which is an all-day ticket for £10 that enables unlimited travel on almost all buses in the region from as far afield as Leeds and Middlesbrough into the heart of this stunning part of the UK. What’s more up to five folk can travel for only £19. This offer has been made possible due to fantastic collaboration between North Yorkshire County Council, Arriva, Blazefield and East Yorkshire Buses and our campaign is all about shining a light on the incredible scenery and places to visit. I’m hoping we can work with other operators and local authorities to roll out similar products.

I admit that before the £2 cap, affordability of travelling by bus wasn’t an issue for me – but I am one someone who enjoys watching my pennies and the £2 offering has made me travel more. Combined with some great journey experiences, it has made me realise more the potential of our great sector. Even as someone who has worked in it now for many years, I still needed convincing at times to make a journey. Take my trip to watch cricket at Hampshire’s ground last weekend, which is situated in the rear-end of nowhere. Rather than make long walks to Southampton city centre or the nearest train station, Hedge End, I merrily paid my £2 fare, forgetting even, until prompted by the driver, that the price had gone down to only £1 for my post-match trip in the evening. I enjoyed journeys over three days that were always on time and on Bluestar buses that were brilliantly branded and with friendly drivers. So too, earlier in the week on Southern Vectis on the Isle of Wight where every step of the way drivers rolled out the red carpet.

I genuinely feel the bus sector is on the cusp of something big here and the Go North East campaign is one example that gives me real confidence

I genuinely feel the bus sector is on the cusp of something big here and the Go North East campaign is one example that gives me real confidence. All of the owning groups, in their own way, appear to be taking a more multi-faceted approach to marketing, mixing a more strategic approach to digital, in combination with traditional print and also field marketing. My only fear, despite my excellent experiences, is that in a minority of owning groups, the emphasis has been so strategic and sophisticated than in previous times perhaps, that oversight around product management could be better and the marketing promise is often not delivered. There’s not enough ranting, railing or rockets from the marketers towards the operating company teams who might be letting them down with a lack of attention to the detail of the proposition.

For now, though, I’m getting my scrawny tush on board buses galore over the coming weeks – not that I needed Laura’s short and sharp direction to do so – but I’m doing so with greater vigour and confidence. It’s a culmination of a few observations of late, some interactions with a bunch of fantastic marketing managers across all the owning groups and a feeling that their value and importance is being recognised internally more than ever. It’s a team effort in making a real step-change and legacy in changing customer behaviours, somewhat in adversity, I genuinely, more than ever, feel that the industry’s rigorous marketing and enhanced customer service mean that we can pull it off. There are no ifs or butts about it, these are encouraging times and we’re close to a big celebration – bottoms up, everyone!

 
This story appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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