Friday, 24 June 2011

The Return of "Midland Red"? Does "local" matter?

You never know!
Another news item from this month's Passenger Transport refers to comments made by Giles Fearnley, First's UK Bus supremo, at the Young Bus Managers Network meeting in Birmingham recently.
Fearnley was asked by one delegate if First's individual operating companies might become more localised. "Yes", came the response, going on to explain that it was something First was working on.
By coincidence, I used several First buses around Worcester, Kidderminster and The Malverns yesterday - the first time in a while I'd been around there. I have to say I was rather impressed overall, although the £6 day ticket I thought was a tad over-priced.
What to make of First?
Whilst always being a strong performer in a corporate sense, it nevertheless has (had?) a reputation akin to many large national service providers. My own views on First is that the "image" or "brand" if you like is somewhat cold and remote. Whilst I've learnt to appreciate the somewhat bland "barbie" pink livery, the external image I think just lacks something.
Some may say this doesn't matter. As long as the bus turns up, everything is fine.
I disagree.
For me, as a "consumer" (and I much prefer being called a "passenger"!) it's all about the package. Buses are essentially "local" things. So whilst, yes, the essentials of punctuality and timetables at the stop are the issues that need to be sorted first, being seen to be part of the local community is one of those "subliminal" messages that needs to be played out.
Consumables such as Weetabix and internationally recognised outlets such as McDonalds rightly are seen as "global" things, and are presented as such, but do buses - local buses - have to be seen in this way?
I've always thought Go Ahead have got this spot on. You'll always find a small, discernible "we're part of the Go Ahead Group" transfer on one of their buses, but the overall image is one of "we're part of your local community - and are proud to be".
Take Peter Huntley's Go North East. They have over 40 distinctly named brands for their services - and the ones that aren't are even lovingly named "Northern" - a historic name that many will remember and identify with. Even the latest "brand" is sheer brilliance. Their route 50 Durham - South Shields has been dubbed "Whey Aye Five O" and illustrated in a 70s "Hawaii Five-O" style! This apparently originated from drivers at Chester-le-Street depot who, when asked if there was a direct bus to South Shields replied "Whey aye - the 5-0"!
Gently celebrating the geordie accent is one thing, but it says that the local buses are part and parcel of the local community - the very fabric of that locality.
Of course things move on. Tesco is now a global brand that for many has replaced the function of the local corner shop, for example. But people still appreciate "local".
I know from conversations with some of the "older generation" (at 40, am I in that bracket now?) the affection for "the friendly Midland Red". A friend in East Anglia still calls the buses "Eastern Counties".
Peter Huntley's 40 variations within Go North East and TrentBarton's equally impressive branding are perhaps new takes on old established area fleetnames, but they are colourful proud messages.
"Corporate" may suit some egos in the boardroom, and may well be appropriate for brands that have a national or international standing that is consistent and required. I can buy and eat a Mars Bar in Blackburn or Stockholm with the same confidence, because there is only 1 Mars Bar. It is recognisable.
Does that apply to buses? I'm not convinced. Is Arriva in Shrewsbury the very same product as Arriva in Malta?
All I know is that my experience on First's buses around Worcestershire yesterday was mainly a positive one. Would I have felt even more gratitude if the buses were painted deep red and labelled up as Midland Red? Who knows.
I wish Giles Fearnley all the best in his efforts to make First a more "friendly" local image. To watch the progress will be fascinating.

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