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.

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