Big Boys No More

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Ahh, the corporate identity. A show of business muscle. The brand image. It permeates every nook and cranny of every day life. From radio stations to dentists, veterinary surgeons to coffee outlets. And, of course, our everyday bus services.

Marketing folk and brand experts will argue till the cows come home (oh, I forgot the milk industry) about the success or otherwise of the brand image. It undoubtedly works for Coca Cola to be a world superpower, but does it work for something inherently “local” as a bus service?

Apart from buses, I have a fascination with radio. The radio industry has taken a somewhat similar route to buses in recent times. Technology has allowed what were local radio stations to “network” their output from studios far away, and clever software allows seamless input of “local” features, such as local news and traffic, and “voicetracked” voice links, that allows the presenter to sound like they are “local”. It’s extremely clever, the listener in the main cares not one jot where their Sugababes song is actually being played from, and the local snippets serve their needs. Some of my local buses in the West Midlands carry all over adverts for “Greatest Hits Radio”. Is this a “local” radio station? Does anyone actually care? It’s a triumph of brand image and business muscle.

What on earth am I babbling on about? Well, if other industries have learnt this lesson about the importance of how they present themselves, the bus world is patchy. And if the love affair between large corporates and local buses is over, might a truly localised set up benefit passengers going forward?

The likes of Arriva, First and Stagecoach went in hard during the nineties and noughties with the corporate might. Stagecoach’s “beach ball”, First’s “Barbie” and Arriva’s “aquamarine” became – and in many instances still are – ubiquitous. You might think it matters not, so long as the bus turns up, and there’s a lot to nod along to with that, but what people see really does matter, even if it does mean digging down into the psyche. Go Ahead didn’t pursue the corporate image, instead going for the more local, rooted in the community feel with individual group companies all “being themselves”. That, of course, is backed up by a culture that devolves local decision making down to local level. I’m no managerial expert, but it’s always seemed to me to be a sensible way to go for an industry that operates inherently at a truly “local” level.

The likes of Ray Stenning’s Best Impressions company has understood this for many a year. Way ahead of the curve, Ray has dragged many a bus operation kicking and screaming into 21st-century brand image. Just down the road from me in Worcester, the bland corporate First Barbie pink has been washed away with beautiful “Worcester” and “The Malverns” branding, as well as individual route branding like “Nimrod” and “Salt Road”, which portrays a deep understanding of a company rooted in it’s local community. Behind the scenes, it’s still corporate First, but it’s a million miles away from the corporate head office diktat of 15-20 years ago. Other, smaller operations like Wellglade (parent of TrentBarton) and Transdev (they of countless local brand images in the North) have also long understood the importance of local.

The current problems of Arriva, First and Stagecoach suggest that the make-up of Britain’s bus industry might be about to significantly change.

Stagecoach have retracted in recent times. America and Europe are no longer playgrounds, and the well-reported issues with rail franchises are pushing the company back to their roots – UK bus operations. There is talk of a new brand image for Stagecoach’s local bus operations – might that include a move away from almighty corporatism into something more locally focussed? Stagecoach has never really gone for the local image – remember Norfolk Green? That was pulled back into the corporate fold after a while. First has increasingly gone for the “local”. As mentioned, Worcester has all but abandoned the “flying F” going forward, and we can see similar in Leeds, with the very attractive green image. Arriva sticks doggedly to aquamarine, and despite a repaint programme that introduces a new shade and a new corporate logo, for me it’s still a cold corporate message. Why not learn from their colleagues in rail, who have all sorts of different brands and liveries, simply adding the Arriva corporate ownership underneath the name?

For First and Arriva in particular, change is rapidly arriving. First’s boardroom squabbles have led to the perennially under-performing monolith to finally admit defeat and offload UK Bus. Arriva’s parent company DB has a £3.6bn gap in it’s finances, so it looks like it’s all going to go. But is this an opportunity to move forward positively, both for local staff and passengers that use the services?

There’s no doubt that belonging to a big group offers some positives. Resources and investment are the two obvious ones, but being a smaller, locally focussed set up may offer alternatives. Would a less-focussed drive towards a set margin of profitability help? Might there be a chance of local ownership that includes all staff having a stake in the company? Could a smaller, leaner, fitter local operation be the sort of set-up supposedly envisaged by Thatcher’s Transport Secretary Nicholas Ridley, when he ushered in deregulation of the industry over 30 years ago?

The bus world faces myriad challenges today. But, like the world of radio, this long-established industry has to change or die. Video would apparently kill the radio star, and the likes of the Sony Walkman, and now the tech-driven Spotify would all supposedly render the ancient world of radio irrelevant. Today, despite many changes and unsettling times, the radio industry is in rude health. The bus industry has got to learn lessons from other operations. Maybe a move away from large-scale corporatism into freedom to do what it does best at a micro-local level could be a blessing in disguise.

New Tricks with Old Tools?


With the current uncertainty surrounding the future of “big boy” bus operators, such as Arriva and First, the news that National Express appear set to operate the West Midlands’ Ring & Ride mobility service is as welcome for current users who rely on the service, as it is curious to see a move into this field.

Ring & Ride is one of the largest and long-established mobility operations anywhere. West Midlanders are long used to seeing the red white and blue minibuses on the streets, and the system predates the internet era. The collapse of Ring & Ride’s parent company ATG (Accessible Transport Group) and sister operation Igo – which operated several tendered bus services – left over 15,000 registered users and more than 900 staff concerned for the future operation. As well as mobility transport, Ring & Ride were also responsible for a home-to-school operation.

Whilst emergency funding has kept the show on the road since March 2019, it has emerged that National Express are poised to take over the operation. This is interesting stuff on several levels. Ring & Ride is well established. Whatever caused the collapse of ATG, National Express are masters at what they do. They are based in the West Midlands, and if they can’t make a go of it, you wonder who could. The company has also been making some pragmatic moves in recent times – as others have struggled, NX has shored up what it does have – and made interesting advances, such as ditching UK rail and expanding into German rail operation. It’s Spanish and US operations are on a sound footing. West Midlands buses remain a challenge – as many UK bus operators face similar struggles – but it appears to have struck a good chord with the West Midlands Mayor Andy Street, who appears to have no grand vision of franchising in big urban landscapes like his counterpart in Manchester. It will be fascinating to monitor progress of our 2nd and 3rd largest urban areas  the coming years, when it comes to bus provision.

Maybe the acquisition of Ring & Ride scores some political sweeties locally. NX’s West Midlands bus operation in recent times has seen large-scale investment, and the emerging unifying of the local transport “brand” alongside rail, tram and bike, is only part of the quiet revolution currently going on. It won’t do NX any harm politically to take on such an important operation.

And is there an opportunity here to create some synergy between the traditional side of bus operation and the more specialised mobility operation of Ring & Ride? We’ve seen demand-responsive minibus Uber-style operations pop up in a few parts of the country. It’s probably to early to say whether these are a long-term success or not, but I spy an opening here to do something involving technology, demand-responsive routes and the preservation of a crucial traditional mobility service. Could such a set-up also save the public purse some money and create a real alternative to money-draining traditional evening and Sunday tendered services, or maybe introduce new offerings that wouldn’t be half-empty buses trundling around housing estates, but a more dynamic operation led by demand through an app? if it creates new opportunities and a service people can use effectively, I can see a potential win-win for everyone.

For people who think the days of the bus are old hat and in terminal decline, something like this might just be the breath of new life. Maybe you can produce new tricks with old tools…