Transit Dispatches

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April 1, 2014

When branding new transit services, consider users first

by Zack Shubkagel - Also by this author

When KCATA released its new MAX system, everything from the brand identity, to vehicle wraps, shelters, markers and maps were designed to communicate aspects of the brand personality.

When KCATA released its new MAX system, everything from the brand identity, to vehicle wraps, shelters, markers and maps were designed to communicate aspects of the brand personality.
The decision to add a new transit service can be energizing for transit agencies and communities alike. At the same time, however, this type of decision introduces a host of new questions your agency will need to address, including “What should the new service be named? What will the logo and branding look like? How will we reach consensus with all stakeholders? And, most importantly, “How will we attract and inform people who will want to use the system, so that the new line will be a success?”

The key to ensuring all these questions are answered properly lies in focusing first on users and the experience you want them to have with the new service.

This “experience” is composed of every encounter a customer has with your transit service, from advertising to signage to buying a ticket to using a ticket to vehicle cleanliness to the attitude of customer agents, record of punctuality, ease of navigating the system and more. Here are a few things to consider.

Simple but not easy

All transit agencies consider their current customers, but few think to consider the potential customers they could attract with a more accessible and appealing brand experience.

We realize a user-focused experience can be difficult to adopt, especially for regions with many  different services that likely have been primarily logistics driven for a century or more. But, agencies need to start making this shift, because the biggest opportunity for growth lies in the ability to attract new users-by-choice — and those users are not going to choose a sub par experience when they have other options.

A user-by-choice differs from a user-by-need in that the former has other options for getting from point A to point B, be it taxi, walking or automobile. A user-by-need has no other option and will continue to use the service — until another more viable option is available.

The attitude and perception of user-by-need, however, plays an important role in the transit experience because they are your default brand ambassadors. As their experience improves, so too will the timbre of the small talk and general attitude in and around the transit continuum, reassuring the user by choice that riding is a smart and positive decision.

From a branding standpoint, the way you approach attracting the user-by-choice varies depending on whether the line is brand new and its image is yours to create or whether it is an existing line and perhaps has a negative image to overcome.

For example, when bus rapid transit (BRT) was launched by the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority in 2004 it was named MAX, to differentiate it from the Metro bus, which had acquired the unfortunate reputation as a bus you take when you have no other option.

The overall MAX brand and marketing strategy was a success, in so far as the line increased ridership by 60%.

The overall MAX brand and marketing strategy was a success, in so far as the line increased ridership by 60%.
In addition to the new name, all brand design was focused on communicating the immediate benefits of MAX — friendly, safe, trustworthy and providing vitality. Everything from the brand identity, to vehicle wraps, shelters, markers and maps were designed to communicate these aspects of the MAX brand personality. (Note: MAX was Willoughby Design project.)

When rebranding transit, agencies can tend to default to the “dump the pump” and “ride green” message. This works for some audiences, primarily those who have always been green warriors, but the green messaging actually doesn’t do much to help convert the majority of people. It’s much more effective to remind riders-by-choice of the benefits of using transit, such as avoiding traffic; not paying parking fees; having time to read; listen to music; meditate; and reassure them that their transit experience will be an inviting, safe and easy one.

The overall MAX brand and marketing strategy was a success, in so far as the line increased ridership by 60%. It also helped turn the tide of public perception towards buses and mass transit in Kansas City. The MAX system and similar BRT services are extending throughout the region as will a streetcar line. But, all involved realize the new challenge is in syncing up the brand/identity throughout the system.

Here are some other things to consider when branding a new transit service.

  • Think through naming of transit services and lines

Thoroughly think through what lines are called, be it numbers, colors, letters or combination, so as to ensure that the structure will still make sense when lines are added or discontinued over time as people move around.

  • Clarity trumps accuracy for maps and navigation assistance

Balance accuracy with legibility when creating maps depicting various systems and stops, enabling people to figure out how to get where they want to go without necessarily having to depict every twist and turn.

  •  Signage must be smart, intuitive and forgiving

Signage should be baked into the system plan. Signs should anticipate and answer user questions and provide them with how to get more information if needed. It should be easy to determine what type of transportation is available. At each stop, cues need to be provided so that people don’t become disoriented if they haven’t been paying attention.

  •  Leverage all digital tools

Text alerts and smart phone apps can go along way to reassure users and extend their patience with transit in times of bad weather or traffic. Also, consider a majority of smart phone users default to using Google Maps, which provides real time guidance and information. No need to build your own app if you can integrate and leverage existing APIs.

  •  Opt for timeless and inclusive over clever and trendy

Transit brands have a tendency to live on for a very long time. Consider the NYC subway system and its colored circles and iconic letters, in place since the late 1960’s. (Contrary to popular belief, the initial typeface was Standard – the conversion to Helvetica didn’t begin until the 1980’s. Interesting book on the subject here.)

  •  Keep naming as simple as possible

Though there will be places that want to be unique, in general naming also should be timeless and simple, for example, the “T” in Boston. Keeping it simple and regionally neutral also helps tremendously when you need multiple municipalities to feel ownership.

  • Be the brand you say you are.

The best identity and marketing in the world cannot overcome consistently negative user experiences. Make sure there is a mechanism in place to monitor service levels and immediately address any issues that could potentially scare off users. Because when it comes to inspiring transit users-by-choice to adopt your transit service, it’s not enough to just look nice, you actually have to be nice, too.

Zack Shubkagel is partner and creative director for the San Francisco office of Willoughby Design, a strategic branding and design firm, providing brand strategy and inclusive design for clients such as Kauffman Foundation, the United Nations, Hallmark Cards, Lee Jeans, Einstein Bros. Bagels and Panera Bread. Reach him at zshubkagel@willoughbydesign.com

Zack Shubkagel

Partner/Creative Director of Willoughby Design


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  • Andrew Sharp[ April 14th, 2014 @ 9:20am ]

    Agree entirely. You also need to be very careful when introducing smart cards - you might know what a Charlie Card or a Ventra Card is, but the average visitor will not.

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Zack Shubkagel

Partner/Creative Director of Willoughby Design

Zack Shubkagel is partner and creative director for the San Francisco office of Willoughby Design, a strategic branding and design firm.


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