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Can marketing techniques help ‘run’ our transport future?

A woman making lifestyle choices based on items on a train-like conveyor beltWe are all intimately familiar with the swoosh of the Nike logo. Did you know it was designed for the grand total of US$35 back in 1971 by budding graphic design student Carolyn Davidson? Though we all think of Nike as the gold standard when it comes to marketing due to their slick advertising campaigns, iconic Nike founder and author of Shoe Dog Phil Knight broke many marketing rules in the book.

Phil initially disliked the swoosh logo. He landed on the name ‘Nike’ at the eleventh hour because he was forced to pick something. He dismissed large ad campaigns in Nike’s early years, not only due to a lack of capital but because he didn’t think they would be effective, instead selecting athlete influencers (without the help of Instagram) to wear his brand at high profile meets during the seventies.

The assumption of many modern marketers is that you have to ask the right question to get the right answer. But how do you know that you’ve asked the right question in the first place? Instead of thinking about why a customer buys a sneaker, Phil and his team focused on designing the ultimate running shoe – for a pastime that wasn’t popular in the 1970s and was something only Olympians did. Nike became the early adopters of selling an experience beyond a product and creating an entirely new category of mainstream runners.

What if this thinking was applied to public service utilities? Patronage of public transport remains down across many cities (even those without transmission of COVID-19) since March 2020. Stay at home orders mean people are travelling less freely and many are opting to work from home regardless. This apprehensiveness about catching public transport will continue for the foreseeable future, so how can marketing be used to help public service utilities rebuild patronage once it is safe to do so?

Rules are meant to be broken

In fact, COVID-19 has provided public transport with an opportunity to redefine its narrative while patrons are more open to change. The Jobs to be Done theory casts aside the traditional 4Ps of marketing theory to consider what job the customer wants done, and asking questions about what the customer is trying to achieve.

There is an assumption with large public infrastructure that once you build it people will come. Previously, rush hour ensured that rail and bus routes were packed to the rafters but public transport services now need to ask different questions to ensure they can beat their competition. And competition is stiff. Different modes of transport existed pre-pandemic but, given safety considerations, consumers are now more likely to choose active transport (walking or cycling, which is not a bad thing), or private cars over public transport. Public utilities need to consider how to create a scenario that aligns with someone’s life. What is the experience that people want on public transport now?

Let’s get creative with ideas for incentivising people to hop aboard again: imagine if frequent train miles became the new frequent-flyer program. We need to think more broadly about what motivates people to move from A to B.

Personalisation is key

Personalising transport choices has long been a buzzword in the industry and it’s never been more important than now.

During lockdown in Sydney, I switched from taking the bus or train to walking to ensure I could physically distance. Within the first few weeks my trainers quickly wore out and a new pair was required. While I was out walking, I’d visit the Instagram pages of well-known sport brands to look for something in my price range. In the evening, when I was procrastinating, I’d sit with my laptop and do more detailed online searches using terms like “trainers on sale” or “Nike size 10”. I wasn’t scrolling too far because as a marketer I knew that if I didn’t find what I was looking for, Nike’s Google Ad word search would track my browsing history and find me anyway.

It didn’t even take an hour after that first search before I was served Instagram story ads, website banner ads and emails from sports stores I’d subscribed to with links to exactly what I was looking for. So, if fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) brands can make my journey easier by personalising my active transport needs, then how can we apply this to my future public transport needs?

Successful FMCG brands are adept at targeting consumers to bring people together and encourage personalisation for brand loyalty. Spotify targets people via direct email to promote their favourite artists’ shows. Cadbury’s Facebook campaign generated personalised videos that told customers about their chocolate tastes, whereas Starbucks’ mobile app features an integrated rewards system where customers can customise drinks based on previous transactions and even create their own music playlist.

Imagine if we brought this marketing perspective, and the way that these types of FMCG businesses segment their markets, to the transport sector – using transaction data and social media behaviour to give people a convenient and ‘COVID-Safe’ journey. As with many marketing campaigns, using data in a practical and useful way for patrons means not only learning but anticipating their needs. Once that loop is established, there’s also an ability to suggest patrons into transport options that optimise the entire system’s efficiency.

The detail is in the data

Some headway has been made in this area: Auckland Transport’s phone app lets a commuter know how full the approaching bus is, so that other options can be considered. Transport for New South Wales’s Alexa ‘skill’ asks patrons simple questions to generate travel routes, feeding into other transport apps, providing travel options and physical-distancing details.

However, much more can be done to personalise public transport through tech. The holy grail would be sending data on the virtual journey before we set foot outside our homes to check the safety of the journey before we undertake it personally.

Is this, essentially, a marketing technique? Well, yes. Marketers have always sought not only the basic demographic information on cohorts, but also the cohort psychographics – what are their motivations, what do they want, what really drives them? With a confluence of powerful sensors, cheap data storage and incredible processing power combined with clever AI and machine learning, a surveillance-suggestion system is emerging, which will be justified so long as customers are the beneficiaries. Monash University points out that system-efficiency – while exciting for the engineers – has to be matched by customer satisfaction. Rather than segmenting the transport market by public and private users, increased data analysis allows us to segment by the job that patrons want done when getting from A to B, whether that be a priority for convenience, a need for increased safety or a desire for comfort.

There are legitimate privacy considerations around the use of real-time data. It’s one thing for a transport agency to take weight-sensing data from every train to generate real-time occupancy, but it’s a different story when smartphones collect real-time surveillance information. On the other hand, transport agencies already know where you go, what you do and how you pay for it. The transport sector is capable of using that data to build predictive structures on machine-learning systems, although we haven’t arrived at the fully-personalised level yet…

The question of how to solve under-utilised public transport infrastructure is not an easy fix. But as Phil Knight famously said: “When you see only problems, you’re not seeing clearly.” If we approach this data challenge as a marketing opportunity, we can create a more sustainable public transport system. And if marketing can be the enabler, then as everyone who works in our profession knows, it will be one fun ride.

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