Wednesday 5th February 2020
I’ve yet to see a bus in what is officially dubbed the “people-powered new look” actually out on the road so these initial comments come with a health warning it might all look much better when seen in the flesh and I reserve the right to change my opinion.
In the meantime I’m relying on last week’s media announcement launching the “permanent new-look bus design shaped by customer research calling for a more simplified and modern service” and the rather uninspiring accompanying photograph showing three vehicles lined up nose to tail in front of glass fronted Doncaster Sheffield ‘Robin Hood’ Airport’s terminal building complete with drab orange block-paving in the foreground and the back of a road sign presumably warning against parking in the area for any length of time for security reasons. I was also intrigued by the cropping that lost the front and back ends of the front and rear vehicles – but perhaps they didn’t add anything much.
For a brand refresh that’s been so anticipated I’m left completely underwhelmed. All the more so with the explanation the new-look is “people-powered”. Surely that’s taking the “people” association a bit far? Call me a cynic but … ‘don’t like the livery?’ ….‘tough mate; it’s been “people-powered”’ and through extensive “customer research” at that, so one dare not criticise it.
To me it smacks of someone at Stagecoach Bus HQ thinking to themselves ‘what can I do to justify my role as Group Director of Some Central Impressive Sounding Workstream’, so they decide it’s time for a brand refresh and call in a tame outside marketing agency with no experience of working in the bus industry (‘fresh thinking’ and all that) who immediately see £ signs especially if they sub-contract to another outside agency who know nothing about the local bus market to do a bit of customer research before coming up with three different new livery options which the aforementioned Group Director can take to the Board. Boards always love a brand refresh if they get to choose from the final three options.
So thousands of customers are asked to share their thoughts on how a “new design could serve you best?” as well as “what would encourage you to use public transport more regularly?”.
It’s not clear how people thought a new design could serve them best but according to the news release back came the result that “37% of people in Britain would use buses more if they were easier to use” (no surprise there) and “69% of customers often found it confusing to find the bus they wanted” (no surprise there). Anyone mention the lack of printed maps perchance, and, depending where the research was carried out – eg Basingstoke – the lack of printed timetables?
Hey presto; the agency reckon they know what this all means …. let’s do away with the well established Stagecoach Gold brand and all those other high profile individual route brands up and down the country which identify clearly where buses actually go in their local communities and instead have one bland brand for the whole country with three colour coded variations depending on whether a service is defined as ‘local’, ‘longer’ or ‘specialist’ – see, not confusing at all!
Stagecoach Gold (originally ‘Goldline’) was launched in 2007 amid much fanfare as a way to attract middle-class motorists out of their cars and on to more luxuriously kitted out buses. Initial trials in Warwick (photographed above) and Perth (below) were soon reported as a success with passengers attracted by the improved seating (“hand stitched leather”), improved flooring, soft covering on the interior panels, free wifi and a smart metallic looking livery with drivers in a special uniform and a customer charter. Places served by each Gold route are helpfully clearly listed as part of the bus livery. The last 13 years has seen many more Gold upgrades all over the country presumably attracting more passengers to travel more often.
I’m wondering what aspect of this well thought through branding has led Stagecoach’s big chiefs to take on board customer feedback from the research that it’s “confusing”? Was the specific question asked to tease out whether respondents realise what a Stagecoach Gold branded bus represents and how putting the places it serves on the sides is confusing?
Because on the face of it, there’s nothing more confusing than a one-size-fits-all livery for local bus routes and all the passenger has to inform them is a plethora of route numbers and destinations, especially with maps and timetables hard to find, if they’re even available.
The whole idea of individual route branding is to make it “easier to use” to get those 37% of respondents on board. The country’s most successful bus companies all use route branding very effectively – Nottingham (NCT and trentbarton), Reading and Oxford Bus, to highlight just four of the best, and it’s noticeable how First Bus are really turning things around in the areas they serve by using high profile colour coded route brands – and even more adventurous branding in the Potteries area – to make buses “easier to use” following their disastrous period of a bland Barbie style corporate livery.
It seems a very odd decision for Stagecoach to follow the Arriva model of trumpeting a somewhat insipid national livery rather than the Go-Ahead, First Bus, Transdev Blazefield, Reading, Nottingham et al approaches of using attractive localised liveries and branding. And all with proven successful track records.
Stagecoach’s social media was abuzz with the new branding news following last week’s launch. Passengers in South Wales for example were given an explanation of the three new categories but I’m not sure they appreciated the relevance of Doncaster Sheffield Airport as a backdrop down in “the Valleys”. Confused? I would be.
As you may have gathered I’m not yet a fan of the “fresh new look” but my view may be tainted by the rather patronising way it’s being launched on to “us, their customers”. And exactly how is it less confusing with this revamped “fresh new look”? Don’t longer journeys also take people from A to B locally along the route? Don’t some specialist Park & Ride buses, or those serving Universities, also carry passengers locally from A to B?
Interestingly Stagecoach South Wales social media faced questions about Gold’s future indicating it does resonate as a brand.
So is Gold “specialist” or “longer”? Does it also carry passengers locally from A to B? I expect the agency will come up with the answer…which won’t be confusing. At all.
The launch reminds me of that infamous policy Sir Frederick Wood introduced at the National Bus Company in 1972, sweeping away much loved local identities and brands in favour of a new national identity that was “really going places”. Within a few years localised branding returned in many areas as part of the MAP project to establish viable networks and encourage more passengers to travel. What goes around comes around.
And I bet that Stagecoach Group Director will soon be moving on to pastures new. Oh; wait, he already has!
I look forward to seeing the new liveries “in the flesh” and my scepticism proved misplaced; especially all that white on a mucky weather day. To end on a positive – I do like the new Stagecoach font. That is an improvement.
PS: Off topic: a shout out to South Western Railway (First and MTR). My journey home from Farnham station after visiting Bordon on Friday was delayed by half an hour due to the train being cancelled. I applied for delay repay on Saturday and received a Travel Voucher refund in today’s (Wednesday’s) post. That’s impressive. Well done SWR. By contrast I’m still waiting, even for an acknowledgement, to the cancelled trip to Bristol Parkway before Christmas with sister (First run) train company GWR.