Some good reaction to yesterday’s post on New First potentially holding a moratorium on future cuts.
It did occur to me, as one commenter speculated, that New First under Tim O’Toole might consider reinventing regional identities. This would be a very visible way of reversing local fortunes, where needed. This need not totally dilute the worth of the group—witness Go Ahead—or weaken recently won back office economies.
We’ve said it here before, one of the drawbacks of a strong corporate image is where things go wrong in one location (or where things are perceived to do so, equally as bad), they tarnish and weaken the brand elsewhere, everywhere in fact.
Prevention of brand assassination is a very negative reason for adopting local identities. There are at least three major positive reasons:
- Irrespective of whether one operation can affect the national brand, a local identity can begin to steer an operator perceived less well into a more positive direction (though there’s more to it than a lick of paint and a new, stylised logo).
- Unlike the homogeneity of today’s high street retail offer, bus services are local in nature. They sport local destinations on the front of each bus, for example. They become inter-woven into an area’s fabric. Even corporately liveried vehicles may try to emphasise local route branding and for very good reason. Indeed, they are not seen as national brands at all but local public assets. This idea of a public assets is a very strong argument for localism. Unlike express services, there’s nothing particularly national about the local bus.
- And remember that transport brands are not truly national in the same way as Marks & Spencer and Tesco. Go to any town over a certain size and there you will find a Marks. This is not true of First or Arriva or Stagecoach, none of which is truly national.
Some operators have made a virtue and very good business out of local identities, whether geographic (e.g. Wilts & Dorset, Southern Vectis) or generic (e.g. Bluestar). Of course, there’s more to it than that. But by identifying strongly with their local market, they aim to re-engage with their community. Rampant corporatism has tended to kill not kindle the once strong relationship or affinity between community and its bus service.
It has also to be said that others, e.g. Stagecoach, have achieved much with a strong national brand. And, even those who perceive First as poor in this department must concede that, more than any transport organisation, it has managed to beguile City financiers. Let’s face it, First is a modern capitalist success. Fragmentation of its bus businesses might begin to unravel corporate perceptions. One of the reasons why W&D was unsuccessful in its bid for Bournemouth Transport t/a Yellow Buses was that no one seemed to understand the organisation that backed it, Go Ahead, or its standing & reputation. In terms of its financial and operational muscle, W&D was seen as just *too* local, the corporate centre too distant and hidden. A strong bid on paper was rejected in favour of an organisation with some obvious though French clout behind it. Go Ahead also has a new chief executive, upon the retirement of Keith Ludeman. In comes TfL's David Brown, someone who knows about both local devolution and a strong corporate image.
The $64,000 question is, will New First ever go local and if so, will it make any difference? May be it’s worth an experiment to see. Where should O'Toole try?