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Is branding Southern Rail’s greatest failure?

I recently moved to Peckham and as a result have witnessed how Southern Railways has mishandled the woeful experience that passengers have had to endure over the last year and a half. While aware that I risk the myopic thinking that every problem can be solved with branding, there’s reason to believe that just a little might have helped in this case.

It would take a brave chief executive to announce that branding is the answer to all of Southern's problems. And yet, if the organisation was a brand in any meaningful sense then it might not be in such a pickle. Some causes of the current horrendous passenger experience could not be helped (like the London Bridge renovations), but with a clearly expressed brand purpose the company's problems might not have spiralled so far out of control.

The nature of rail franchises (awarded as short-term monopolies) stops them from investing in clear brand purposes. Without ongoing skin in the game, no one bothers to properly define why the organisation exists for the long-term. Parent company Govia's vision ("to be a leading provider of high-quality, innovative, customer-focused passengers transport – delivering the needs of passengers and communities”) manages to be both vaguely meaningless while still defined enough for the organisation to spectacularly and laughably fail in delivering it. This is not helped by arcane organisational structures: Govia owns 65% of GTR which in turn runs Southern. By the time you get to Southern, the link to Govia’s vision is so watered down to be as effective as homeopathy.

VCCP once attempted to give Southern a personality in the form of the imagined Mexican Wrestler, Loco Toledo. While this may well have been an attention-grabbing ad campaign for a very specific objective, its randomness meant no link to a deeper sense of why Southern should exist, based on any true insights about its service or heritage. It might have been better to build something around a sense of pride about being the network for the Home Counties or having 100 years of heritage giving people the chance to work in London but live outside (a 1927 campaign slogan ran "Live in Kent and be content”). With a prior investment in expressing its true purpose, Southern might have had a chance to communicate the current disruptions as a short-term blip enabling better long-term delivery against this purpose.

People can endure all sorts of hardships if they can see light at the end of the tunnel, but without a long-term purpose, there is not a case for change meaning both customers and colleagues have no reason to go along with the organisation’s plan. It also means in the short-term, the company focuses on trying to solve symptoms, not the causes. It is currently trying to adjust the timetable to work around increased sick leave, not realising that a shared sense of purpose would eliminate the cause of the sickness in the first place. Without a purpose, there are no values to guide tone of voice in its dealing with passengers and the RMT leading to such tone-deaf communications as the recent “strike back” campaign.

Based on the thinking behind our Brand Experience Index, I could critique Southern on every facet of its brand experience. But its clear weakness is in the 'Think' facet (in contrast to our BXi Champions Singapore Airlines and IKEA). Failing to ensure their customers know why they exist, is the root cause of under-performance across its brand experience.

This whole sorry Southern affair should act as a morality tale for other organisations – underlining the importance of a long-term brand purpose to inspire your customers and colleagues alike. With one, a resilient brand can ride the vagaries of crises outside of its control. Without one, the whole fragile project can fall apart. Unfortunately for most businesses, there is no chance that the government will ride in with the cavalry and a spare £20m.

Laurence Parkes is chief strategy officer at Rufus Leonard

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