The Brand Message.

You have the opportunity to communicate a business brand message with your audiences every day. Pick the right one.

It’s equally important to ensure that the message, however right, doesn’t just become wallpaper, repeated parrot-fashion because no one’s asked the questions, ‘why are we saying this, why do we keep saying this and what do our customers think when we keep saying this?’

I squeeze myself onto my daily commuter train into London Waterloo. I share the carriage, indeed, the whole train with a few hundred commuting passengers. As we all enjoy the delights of each other’s aged garlic breath, personal hygiene challenges and the overly loud mobile phone users, we are exposed to South West Rail’s business message. We are the very embodiment of the ‘captive audience’. The opportunity of communicating a well crafted, brand building, thought provoking, perception shifting message is a gift. It’s an opportunity that few other businesses will ever have. So what do we get? Here it is:

‘Passengers are reminded that travelling in the First Class section of the train requires them to be in possession of a valid First Class ticket. Passengers found travelling in First Class without a valid First Class Ticket will be liable to prosecution and a fine.’

Here’s the thing. We know that. We can tell by the number ‘1’ stickers on all the windows. We can tell by the blue upholstery and special sliding door to the compartment. We can tell by the smug-self-satisfied look of the few First Class passengers who have (or more likely whose company has) more money than sense. We all know that a valid First Class ticket is required to travel in First Class. We know this not because of the message read from the script by the guard at the start of every single journey, but because we all know the difference between First Class and Cattle Class. We just do. And yet, of all the messages South West Rail could choose to communicate, this is the one they’ve chosen. The fucking stupid one.

They could choose to read out a message about the railway’s safety record. Or the comparative safety of rail travel to road travel. They could congratulate us on how we are reducing our carbon footprint. They could give us a weather report, or news headlines, or the football results. They could point out the investment that is being made in the railway infrastructure that we hear is required every time the ticket prices are due to rise but never hear about thereafter. They could express an opinion on the relative merits of the contestants in Strictly Ballroom Dancing. In fact, they could pretty much announce any damn thing they pleased and it would offer more value, meaning and relevance to the commuter’s train journey than the validity of a First Class ticket.

So, presented with the ideal opportunity to shape perceptions of the brand, to make customers feel good about their choice of travel and thereby engender a sense of belonging and empathy towards the brand that will in turn instil brand loyalty and repeat purchase, South West Rail instead waits until the train is full to overflowing before repeatedly, without any thought or consideration, pisses everyone on board right off. Nice touch.

We are all potentially doing the same thing with our brands, with our customers and with our prospective customers – trotting out a message because someone somewhere once said that we should write it down and repeat it. It hasn’t been thought about. It hasn’t been reviewed or considered or applied to the real world. It’s probably being used out of context and it sure as hell hasn’t been written with the customer in mind.

This isn’t difficult or taxing. My suggestion isn’t even (necessarily) that the message needs to be changed. But a message needs to have some common sense applied to it before its release and application in the big bad world. It just needs one person to stand up and ask, “Why are we saying this?” That person just better have a valid fucking ticket, that’s all I’m saying.

Scot McKee