Watch and learn: What transit agencies can pick up from other industries

Public transportation could learn key messaging lessons from unlikely places

The public transportation industry needs a “brand rehabilitation,” and educating people about transportation options is a huge part of that recovery.

With so many positive elements in transit and non-driving transportation options – community-building, productivity, healthiness, cost savings, stress reduction – it should be a slam dunk.

But we have hurdles to overcome, some of them self-induced, like the ways the industry almost seems to gravitate towards scaring people away from its product.

And let’s face it, cars are broadly seen as “cool.” To many, they are like phones – people can’t imagine life without them. Auto sales in the U.S. were better than ever last year, thanks in part to low gas prices. That said, while people love their cars, they hate driving, so there’s an opportunity for us to step in with better answers.

Along those lines, several surveys show that a majority of Americans aren’t yet ready for autonomous vehicles, but many more are interested in connected cars that have link wirelessly to their smartphones and other devices. And while young people may not be getting licenses until later in life, they’re still drawn by the latest features on car dashboards.

Unlike cars, public transportation has lacked a compelling story ever since World War II. Or rather, transit advocates haven’t been as good at telling their story as were the auto companies who convinced the public of the greatness of their products.

To win a bigger share of American hearts and minds, public transportation has to break its status quo. Here are five keys for public transit to apply from other industries if it wants to go from marginalized to mainstream:

Target audiences, like Netflix and the TV industry

In 2013, a survey of Netflix users found that 73 percent  like to “binge-watch,” and the company also discovered that many people abandon network shows after watching only the pilot of a new program. Putting those findings together, Netflix doubled down on releasing their original series all at once. Understanding how people use your product is a powerful component of reaching out to them.

Also relevant to public transportation, when Netflix has a new series coming out, it releases seven trailers, each targeted at different kinds of people based on what programming they’ve watched in the past. Public transit needs to better understand what draws its riders if it wants them to keep riding regularly.

Pick strategic battles, like marriage equality advocates

Just a few years ago, national and state laws that banned same-sex marriage were broadly accepted. But by the 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges Supreme Court decision making marriage equality the law of the land, it had already become legal in 37 states.

This result was largely because, years earlier, marriage equality advocates campaigned to get states to challenge state laws through legal battles. Sure, transit advocates must still hound Congress – more money is needed for transit infrastructure – but detailed strategic work is needed to get laws and funding at the local and state levels. This means starting in the places where public transit is needed most, creating local partnerships, and finding the decision-makers who are willing to get things accomplished rather than forming committees to offer weak recommendations.

Also, the Human Rights Campaign’s national scorecards are very useful: ranking the credentials of politicians and businesses on their support for transportation issues is long overdue.

Address the disconnect, like McDonald’s and the fast food industry

Sales at McDonald’s have for years suffered due to fast food’s link to obesity. Now it’s trying to offer more healthy options – but the public has been trained for decades on how and why to eat McDonald’s. People go there when they intentionally and often eagerly choose food that is immediately satisfying but bad for them in the long-term.

It’s difficult and counterintuitive to walk into a McDonald’s and pick something from the healthy menu. It’s the same with travel: people want to get places quickly, but instead of finding messages about efficiency, transit communicators talk endlessly about safety. That’s a disconnect that we have to learn to change. When people are about go somewhere, safety is overwhelmingly a secondary concern behind efficiency. Messaging and outreach need to reflect that, and we need to influence people right as they are making the decision to go.

Change quickly, like Dixie and the marijuana industry

As state-level legalization spreads, pot is rapidly moving from a hippie-stoner-outlaw culture to a health-conscious, kale chip-eating crowd. Since its 2009 founding, Dixie has updated its image from a “pot soda” company to a gourmet THC-edibles manufacturer whose carbonated drinks and snacks, containing ingredients like pepita and sea salt, look like they could be found on a shelf at Whole Foods.

If public transportation were in the pot business, it would still be selling Bob Marley tie-dye t-shirts instead of pot bumper stickers for the vans of soccer moms. But the moral is that there is still time for the industry to adapt amidst changing technology and behavior contexts.

Be creative, like the Dollar Shave Club (and any number of modern startups)

It’s not new technology, but even razors can be inventive. Dollar Shave Club was founded with the idea of selling inexpensive razors through a subscription-based model. Sounds pretty mundane, right? Well, Unilever, a global consumer-products company, recently bought Dollar Shave Club for $1 billion – in part because it wants to leverage its close connections to its male audience, but also because people have brand loyalty to the product, largely from its wildly entertaining YouTube videos.

Any company or industry can have this kind of success with a creative mindset.

Public transportation agencies can learn a lot from the leading lights in marketing. Automakers, Silicon Valley, and health and pharmaceutical companies are some of the best. Let’s keep a close eye on them and put more of their ideas to work to “brand rehab” our own industry.

This is article is based on a presentation made to the fifth annual Innovate Raleigh summit.

Photo: A Netflix advertisement on the D.C. Metro offers an in-joke to House of Cards viewers (Elvert Barnes, Flickr, Creative Commons).

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