Jarrett Walker: Branding Transit, from soap to transportation

by Naomi Buell, Marketing Assistant for VIA Architecture

Last Friday, we here in the VIA Vancouver office were very fortunate to welcome Jarrett Walker. Some of you may know him from his blog humantransit.org, others may know him as a transit consultant, or here in Vancouver, you may know him from the work he has done for TransLink or the great presentation he recently gave at SFU to a sold out crowd of 240 people.

However you may know him, you know that he has extensive transit experience (20 years) and has worked all over the world. With his first degree being in theatre art, as he says on his blog, “he is probably the only person with peer-reviewed publications in both the Journal of Transport Geography and Shakespeare Quarterly.” He also holds a PhD from Stanford University and grew up in Portland.

His presentation began by discussing branding, maps and signage. Specifically, he referred to ways of differentiating transit lines through the use of colours and the different types of information that can be displayed on transit maps. He referred to a few maps he had seen or had consulted on, suggesting that there is no real need to have a map that differentiates by transit type. For example a map should show both bus and SkyTrain routes.

To take this even further, Berlin's public transportation map outlines routes without showing whether they consist of buses or trams or both. In many European cities, the trams are supposed to be indistinguishable from buses, they have the same branding and upholstery to create a cohesiveness among transit types. This, as Jarrett pointed out, assumes that the average public transportation user is looking to reach a destination rather then being specific to a specific type of transit. “Are they a tram rider or just someone who wants to get to where they are going?” Jarrett asked.

I believe that in the ideal world, no one would care which form of transit they were taking if all were equally as fast, efficient, scenic or clean (depending on what a commuter’s criteria may be). However, as this is not the case, I think that people still want to know what transit type they are taking.

In Vancouver for example, I know there is even a distinction between the Canada Line and older SkyTrain lines. The new Canada Line is often seen as bright, shiny and new. Also because the trains are slightly different dimensions with a different layout, it feels like there is more room and things like bikes and baby carriages can be easily placed out of the way so that they are not barriers to people coming on or off the trains. Furthermore, taking a bus and dealing with traffic versus taking the faster ALRT (Advanced Light Rapid Transit) alternative is a definite factor for commuters.

I agree that ideally all forms of transit should be efficient enough that no differentiation is needed but in the meantime, I think that showing complete routes on maps (which include multiple types of transit) is important, but so is differentiating between the different modes one will be using.

As for places using colour codes to differentiate between bus lines, Jarrett referred to Seoul as one of the best places for this. He suggested that colours can convey quite a lot of information to a user that makes the user's experience much less stressful. For example, it could be used to show the frequency of a bus or the number of stops and speed of the bus. The colour codes can answer a number of questions, including whether or not someone should wait at the stop they are at. Does the bus come frequently or infrequently? Does the bus stop at every stop or is it an express? Similarly does the bus take a long time or short time to arrive at the destination?

Rather than using numbers on the front that people need to memorize and are easily forgettable, it is much easier to say take the blue express line rather then saying take the 312 or the 414. It is also much easier to find a bright blue bus stop or bus sign then going to every bus stop on a street and looking for a specific bus number.

One of the reasons Jarrett thinks that transit branding and advertising are often poorly done is that the transit agency's marketing departments don’t understand how to market transit but only how to market general products (or as Jarrett joked, “they can sell soap”). He thinks that as transit is an integral part of our infrastructure, one of the things that defines it is that it is a necessity, a public service that must be provided and is often taken for granted. He argued that this means that it cannot be marketed like any other product.

Although I agree that this is the case for the current users, who understand that transit is integral and use the service already, I think that for non users it would be fine to assume it can be marketed like any other product by following the AIDA model, a typical basic marketing strategy. Raise Awareness, create Interest, increase Demand and cause Action.

Of course people may be at different stages of the model. Those who already know about the product may be at the stage where we should be creating interest. Not that one can describe the service as you would describe a bar of soap, it’s not going to moisturize or clean you, but you can still market the benefits to people, as you would any other product. You would find out what some of non users apprehensions are and show how you have addressed those.

Transit is reliable, it’s quick, it’s safe etc. Although my disclaimer for having said all this is that although I have been at VIA for a year and have some experience with transit, my background is more of a general business and marketing background, I have more experience selling “soap” then “transit.”

Another problem that he pointed out is that there are 3 messages that are all fighting to be conveyed on the bus. In order of priority there is
  1. the identity of the government funding agency in charge 
  2. the identity of contracting operator and 
  3. the usefulness of the service to the customer. 
The last is often the most important but also the one that has the least priority so it often goes unnoticed.

Another issue is that buses receive so much revenue from advertising (either in transit stations, SkyTrain or subway stations or on the outside of buses or trams) that to push for them to advertise their own services or minimize advertisements to better display important signs for wayfinding is often difficult. Rather then being seen as a benefit or cheap self advertising it is seen as lost revenue.

All in all, it was a presentation that sparked some great questions and debate between Jarrett and our staff here at VIA. We hope to see Jarrett again next time he is out this way.

And remember, next time your skin is feeling dry simply grab for the nearest transit and hop on for the ride of your life.