For those who have spent so much of the past few months crammed
into overcrowded, eternally delayed train services, the sight of posters
encouraging them to reassert their confidence in the railways might be
the final straw.
After two tragic accidents, a host of other derailings - and the
devastating realisation of how run-down the UK rail network has become,
public confidence has reached crisis point. Yet, in the face of such
wholesale disillusionment, the Association of Train Operating Companies
has appointed McCann-Erickson to persuade the public to trust Britain's
railways once again.
Philip Benham, the ATOC's director of commercial services, is the man
responsible for McCann's appointment. And Benham knows his subject - he
joined the train industry at the tender age of 18 and has worked with
various operators ever since.
The ATOC was established in July 1995 to manage the general interests of
the nation's various rail operators. It was not expected to lead this
type of crisis management and, as a result, it may prove a challenge to
unite the separate member companies behind the McCann campaign. Each
operator has a different customer base and each individual's experience
of disruption was different. Finding a mood and tone for the advertising
that fits all areas of the network will be a challenge.
Benham is upfront about the challenge of regaining public
'It's not going to be easy,' he says. 'The industry's taken a huge
However, the agreement of the operators to the appointment of an agency
is a positive step - and evidence of the ATOC's resolve to repair the
damage. 'You won't see this happening very often,' Benham says,
'It's the first time we've done anything this overt.'
The four-week McCann campaign is scheduled to break in mid-June, focused
on informing the general public that the timetables have returned to
normal. It might sound like a robust, simple message, but the sheer
number of companies involved has already created a lot of different
visions as to what the campaign should be. The ATOC will need to make
sure its homogeneous approach leaves room for variation.
Certain operators within the ATOC have marketing strategies of their
own, with Virgin Trains already running a campaign aimed at encouraging
passengers back. Benham believes, however, that it is important to have
an ATOC campaign in addition to those of local operators: 'Each company
has its own specific marketing plans to target their markets. None of
this work will undermine those - we hope it'll signpost people towards
Benham says forthcoming work will recognise the network is still
recovering from the difficulties of last year. 'We want to be realistic.
We don't want to over-promise. It's clearly not an easy message. We have
to demonstrate how things have continued to improve, and the benefits of
the service such as comforts and service frequency.'
He says McCann won the pitch because its approach will enable the ATOC
to adjust the way it communicates according to the circumstances on a
particular line. And although different lines talk to different users,
Benham hopes the campaign will get round this problem by using posters
to target according to circumstances in specific areas. It is also hoped
new promotions and cheaper fares will lure customers back.
The ATOC will find the leisure and business travellers the hardest to
persuade - business travellers need to be certain of the frequency and
reliability of trains, while leisure travellers need to be reassured of
safety. The return of commuters offers little comfort as they have been
forced back on trains out of necessity, not choice.
The ATOC will be hoping that question marks over Railtrack's delivery of
a serviceable rail network will be mostly dispelled by the time the
campaign breaks. 'It is frustrating that we're dependent on Railtrack to
deliver,' Benham says bluntly. 'But at the same time, it's important
that the industry works together.'
It would be easy to indulge in criticism, but Benham's primary concern
seems to be consumer confidence. 'Yes we need to build consensus among
the train companies, but it's all for the better objective of the
customers,' he says.
It's easy to wax on about what should be done, but at least the ATOC is
trying, albeit belatedly, to fix the problem. 'We can't be precise about
the pace of recovery,' Benham says, showing that the ATOC's hands
continue to be tied by Railtrack. At the same time, the release of this
campaign does send the message that the railways are, at last, listening
to their customers. So long as the advertising runs along the right