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News Analysis

By The Drum | Administrator

April 13, 2007 | 6 min read

It’s fair to say, the average businessperson, on their way to a meeting, is very unlikely to choose a bus as their preferred mode of transport.

Unfortunately, coinciding with the recent coach crash on the M25, National Express has announced that it is looking to grow into new business areas and stated its intention to upgrade its image in an attempt to woo business clients who are perturbed with the rising cost of rail travel. It’s tasked IAS Smarts Birmingham and Clemmow Hornby Inge in London to tackle the brief, and it’s put £7 million behind it.

Coach travel has long been seen as a service to take OAPs to Blackpool or Bournemouth or a budget mode of transport for students, which the company has no doubt used to its benefit.

The idea that it wants to now market itself as ‘cool’ to the modern business person, seems like a bit of a change of direction in its marketing strategy.

“At first glance, this seems like the brief from hell” says Jared Read, creative director at Prego. “Can any amount of advertising, however big the idea, dispel decades of negative baggage?”

IAS Smarts has been appointed as the group’s first retained PR agency since 2000, and will no doubt endeavour to change the perception of the brand through positive PR. But what else can the coach brand do?

Read points out that in recent years train advertising has managed to convert what was “a near crumbling infrastructure and poor service” into something that could be both luxurious and a good working environment on the go.

“The first thing the train companies did was get their house in order and their product right, improving reliability and the customer experience to bring it more in line with airlines. That’s what National Express must first do – newer coaches, more comfort, perhaps free newspapers, headsets, food, drink and WI-FI access.”

Read also believes that without these improvements, any advertising to bring the image of coach travel to the business community would “ring hollow and be derided.”

Mark Beaumont, creative director of Dinosaur agrees with Read, that comfort is a key selling point; “The company could sell the fact that a person can sit and read The Guardian and all of its supplements and have a bit of escapism. Trains have been doing that for years. I remember the Rick Mayall advert, where he’s a businessman travelling in the car and he’s all sweaty and bothered while his mate is relaxed on the train...you just need to scrape away the negatives.”

That would be easier said than done, if the actual product was changing. No one from National Express would comment on the details of the company’s plans to reposition itself, but going by most people’s experiences of coaches and their cramped, uninviting environment, it will be a tough brief.

David Bell, creative director of Poulters, believes that if National Express cultivates a more business-like approach, it may make it more attractive.

“One of the things that puts people off is the National Express branding down the side [of the coaches]. It would be great if it was like a limousine, where it means that the coach is more like an executive vehicle, rather than a bus service. The look is therefore part of the problem, but at the same time, if you’re going to overhaul the image of a bus service, it might make sense to use one way glass.”

In mainland Europe, coach services like National Express are often regarded as an acceptable and important form of business travel. Whereas in the US, not only does geography dictate the need for a cheaper alternative to internal flights, but the wide open road is seemingly romanticised. Beaumont believes a combination of the two could lead to success in the UK for National Express.

“The company could change the design of its buses to emulate the look of the Greyhound Buses of America, which would lure customers,” he explains. “If it was silver and metallic and in a Wrigley’s ad then instantly we’d all think it was cool. You could emulate those road trips across America; make it all about the escapism.”

According to Steve Eltringham, creative director of WAA, attempting to achieve “coolness” could be dangerous for the brand, but is certainly not impossible for National Express.

“Perhaps a case study that National Express would do well to learn from is Skoda. It may still not be everyone’s car of choice, but the brand is no longer the butt of jokes or the subject of ridicule it was 15 years ago. Skoda is today a sensible, value for money choice, and for some, I guess that is quite cool.”

Jamie Buckingham, creative director of Rave believes that another element that could be used in the marketing sell would be the pricing. “National Express as a brand is not one you would spend a lot of money on,” he says. “I would imagine that they’d need to make a niche, leading brand.”

He continues: “If I was to board a train from Manchester to London, first class is £170 one way. If there was a £100 bus journey, that offered amazing services [I’d go for that option]. All you get on a train is tea and biscuits. Compare that with a bus... Even at £60, imagine what they could offer.

“It needs a new brand and a new pricing structure which is completely disassociated with National Express-type coach companies. Chelsea’s footballers get on a coach every week and travel round the country, so if it’s good enough for them, then it’s certainly good enough for a businessman.”

Far from mission impossible, National Express’s challenge is to face up to the realisation that the product needs dramatically changing before a charm offensive gets underway.

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