I often contemplate the “image” of public transport. What are people’s impressions? Users and non-users, commuters, shoppers, bargain-hunters. Are they indifferent to buses, train and trams? Is it a “mode of last resort”, or is it a big part of their daily lives? Maybe it’s both.
OnThisBus – as the name suggests – looks at the bus industry, but my “day job” is on the railways. Leafing through a railway industry magazine the other day, I saw a recruitment advert for GWR – the recently-renamed and re-branded First Great Western. Wow! Who wouldn’t be proud to work for the Great Western Railway! The iconic name evokes memories of the golden age of steam, of first-class service, of adventures far away, of carefree childhood holidays – “God’s Wonderful Railway”, as it was often dubbed.
The new rebranding, logo, etc , is classy. It’s a railway renaissance. And it’s all down to branding.
A mere few months ago, this was the almost faceless “First Great Western” – just another railway company to get annoyed about when the service was late. Has a bit of marketing really had a big effect on the travelling public and staff alike?
The “old” corporate First Great Western logo
I may be barking up the wrong tree completely here. I don’t use GWR’s services very often and I don’t know anyone who works for them, so maybe I’ve been swallowed up by this deft bit of branding into thinking a mere bit of toe-dipping into the world of nostalgia has made operations by this company all motherhood and apple pie again. Nostalgia does that to you. I’m sure the original GWR had late-running services and leaves on the line. What it didn’t have was Twitter and ignorant individuals screaming obscenities into neat 140-character rants when things got slippery on the rails.
So this bit of the railway has embraced nostalgia, as has other bits. “Southern” is historical. “London Midland” nearly so (although the northernmost tip of its’ network is Liverpool, so the “London Midland & Scottish” – LMS – doesn’t quite work), and the “LNER” was almost replicated with “GNER” for a time too.
The cynical amongst us might consider that FirstGroup’s decision to ditch its’ corporate (and dare I say “bland”) “First Great Western” name for one that will resonate with great numbers of people of a certain age is nothing but a ploy to get us to think differently about its operation. But it’s certainly got me thinking differently about it – in a positive way. The power of the brand, mixed in with equally powerful nostalgia – a yearning for the past, which we often think was better.
Of course, there are modern-day iconic brands. Branson’s Virgin Trains is held (mostly) in high regard by the travelling public. Is this all down to an image? Are the staff proud to work for the company, and thus give excellent customer service? A Virgin Trains crew member occasionally catches my train, wearing the unmissable red jacket. “I love my uniform” she beamed at me the other day. Does good service stem from something as basic as a uniform? Virgin staff always appear spotless to me. Maybe FirstGroup are onto something with reintroducing GWR as a brand. Who wouldn’t feel proud wearing a GWR-branded uniform? Carrying on the traditions of their parents, grandparents and maybe even great-grandparents?
“iconic” doesn’t necessarily mean “nostalgia”. Is Virgin Trains a modern “iconic brand”?
And I wonder why the bus industry doesn’t do it?
There are plenty of examples of operators repainting a member of the fleet into a “heritage” livery – a great example of how a modern bus might look if the old operator was still around. But I can’t think of an old name that has been revived for an entire operation (apart from “Crosville” – and that is in a different part of the country from the original one).
Why might this be?
I live in what was once “Midland Red” land. There’s been some comment in bus enthusiast circles about how National Express West Midlands’ new all-over subtle two-tone red might resemble the all-over red of the old Midland Red. Down the road in Worcester, the centenary of the 144 bus route prompted First to repaint two vehicles into historical representations of the old Midland Red livery. They are certainly eye-catching, but with First being the natural successor to the original Midland Red operation in the City, what might branding the entire operation “Midland Red” do? If the same parent company can hope to recapture the feelings of a golden age on the railways with its’ rebranding of GWR, why haven’t we seen a similar attempt on the buses?
Does the new all-over red National Express West Midlands livery hark back to the old “Midland Red” days?
the iconic Midland Red logo
First Worcester’s “Midland Red” double decker – what if the whole fleet looked like this?
In the days before the Arriva brand, the old Midland Red North tried the “Midland” image (albeit with a shade of red the purists said was too dark to be compared with the original Midland Red), but it didn’t last long and corporate Arriva arrived.
First as a company has been involved in somewhat of an about-turn with it’s image in recent years. Under the leadership of Sir Moir Lockhead, the 1990s saw the removal of all of the old constituent bus company images and liveries into one basic First image, with purple and pink being the colours you saw everywhere from Devon to Aberdeen. “Transforming Travel” was the slogan attached, but if the marketeers were being bold, they were surely also at least partially blind to the truth that not all that much was actually “transformed” – in a positive sense at least.
The First “corporate image” that swept away individual fleet liveries
First though were not the only ones with this idea. Stagecoach too sticks to one basic image throughout its bus operations (although the new “Kings City” branding for Winchester looks to be breaking this tradition). Arriva’s aquamarine colour is familiar throughout the land. It’s useful, maybe, for easy transfer of vehicles around the country to have one brand, but are these huge operations guilty of not recognising the inherent “localness” of bus operations? Go Ahead Group are the opposite of this. All of their buses are “locally” branded.
“The King’s City” branding in Winchester – breaking the corporate Stagecoach image (pic: Hampshire Chronicle)
First are moving away from the rigid Moir days under the bus leadership of Giles Fearnley. Many of their operations now feature individual route branding and colours. There’s even been a bold experiment to do away with the First name altogether in one area – “The Buses of Somerset” has no trace of the “flying F” logo, or the famous purple/pink.
“The Buses of Somerset” does away with any hint of FirstGroup association
These are modern interpretations of “local” in the bus world. But why has no-one gone the full circle and brought back an old name? Maybe the old “names” are copyrighted/owned by someone else – I’m not sure. In the example of Worcester, the buses ran with “First Midland Red” names before the First national brand came along. The most recent examples of new buses in this fleet feature the large “WORCESTER” name on the side with smaller “from First” words underneath.
“WORCESTER from First” is the latest branding used by First in the area. How about “Midland Red from First”?
Is it really important? Guilty as I am in wallowing up to my armpits in nostalgia, and longing for the day when “Midland Red” returns to the streets as a fully-fledged bus operator, the first thoughts of every bus user is not the cuddly image of an image from 50-plus years ago – it is to get on board an on-time bus, driven courteously, litter-free and clean, for an acceptable fare.
Maybe a revamp, a re-brand or a full-length plunge into the glory days of yesteryear can be a partial catalyst to passengers and staff feeling happier about the operation, but of course there’s much more to this than just a new/old lick of paint.
It’s a bold move by First to reintroduce the GWR name, but they obviously feel it’s the right time to do it. Of course, it may disappear again in the future, should First lose the franchise, but that small advert in the corner of a magazine made me think differently about the company. Let’s hope a little bit of nostalgia will help make the future better for them.