Rail and reputation: What’s the point in building a brand for a train company?

Posted: 13 September 2017 | | 2 comments

Tim Sander, a Director in BDRC’s ‘On the Move’ division, discusses the importance of a train operating company’s brand and how decisive this is in regards to passenger satisfaction and experience…


We often hear talk about the lack of choice in rail travel – after all, for most journeys, only one train company serves the route that an individual passenger needs. But isn’t reliability the most important factor for passengers? Extensive research has confirmed that punctuality is top ranked for keeping customers happy, as well as a comfortable, clean space to travel. 

Customer satisfaction is clearly led by operational competence, so maybe it doesn’t really matter who runs it…

But what if that’s not the whole story? What if it’s partly the other way around: that overall positive opinion advances a perception of operational competence?

BDRC’s Rail Reputation Index (RRI), a new reputational study open to all UK train operating companies (TOCs), takes into account both operational touchpoints and more emotional and attitudinal aspects of customer relationships. It offers insights into the link between the reality and reputation of performance, and the strength of brands. 

The RRI, a syndicated survey of nearly 4,000 rail users, reflects each TOC’s customer journey mix and uses the Net Promoter Score (NPS) – a measure of advocacy and reputation – as well as customers’ actual experiences of things like punctuality. It also explores softer concepts of customer focus and dependability. 

The average NPS for train companies is negative (-10), meaning that more people talk negatively (or are apathetic) about their train company than actively recommend it. No surprise there – why recommend something when there’s little alternative to choose from? But that average score disguises a huge variety, ranging from a top score of +14 to the lowest, -46 (mentioning no names). And before you assume that it must be only the long distance, plane-equivalent services like Virgin Trains that attract higher scores, think again. There are some TOCs carrying mainly hard-to-please commuters which have managed reasonable results, and some long-distance services with poorer reputations. 

Surprisingly, there isn’t a strong relationship between reputation and TOCs’ actual operational performance, but there is a link between a TOC’s reputation and customer perception of their punctuality. Where TOCs have a good reputation, their users may be more tolerant of performance blips – their perception overestimates reality.   

TOCs often struggle to understand why their perception of punctuality (e.g. in the National Rail Passenger Survey) doesn’t reflect their actual record – and may be frustrated why some other TOCs appear to ‘get away with’ a poor spell of reliability that doesn’t manifest in customer perception. The RRI shows that the TOCs for whom perception is a rose-tinted version of reality have built stronger emotional connections with their customers, i.e. stronger brands. In fostering a positive softer side to customer relationships, TOCs have won better control of their customers’ perceptions; public opinion doesn’t plummet when things occasionally don’t go to plan.      

Explaining RRI scores, respondents invariably used time-signifier words: ‘usually’, ‘normally’, ‘rarely’, ‘always’.  Attitudes aren’t based on single defining experiences but developed over time. It’s not enough for trains to be clean and punctual. Passengers need to believe that this is the norm. There needs to be some marketing involved in reaffirming and nurturing these perceptions. Though Ryanair’s habit of fanfaring a punctual arrival would not be appropriate for TOCs, the RRI certainly indicates that there is merit in proactively building up a positive image of a train operation. It protects against isolated instances of poorer operational efficacy. 

We’re definitely not suggesting that TOCs can stop worrying about punctuality and cancellations – reliability is actually critical to customers – but there is a strong case for combining a serious focus on operational reliability with building a brand that really appears reliable. Customers can then engage with their service provider positively, not merely in a transactional fashion. And while, of course, that scenario is great for the TOC businesses (positive customer feedback can help franchises to be judged as successful) it must also be good for the passengers.

Passengers may have little choice, but there’s no arguing that everyone’s happier when they feel they’re getting a good service.  

Author biography

Tim Sander is a Director in BDRC’s ‘On the Move’ division, working with clients including airports, travel, rail and global hotel companies, as well as suppliers and partners to these organisations including retailers, ticketing and app software developers. He has worked in market research since 2000 and specialises in branding, new product development and customer pathways. Tim is a regular speaker at conferences and client events.

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2 responses to “Rail and reputation: What’s the point in building a brand for a train company?”

  1. Tony Olsson says:

    I think the opening paragraph says it all, “for most journeys, only one train company serves the route that an individual passenger needs”. Clearly the idea that a ‘brand’ (a Train Operating Company) will attract passengers is a nonsense. Television companies use their ‘brand’ to attract ‘couch potatoes’ whose choice of entertainment is “to watch television”. That’s not how I work; I watch programmes, not networks, though I admit I confine most of my viewing to BBC1 BBC2 BBC4 with the occasional foray into C4 and ITV1 if they are showing something of interest, though most of their output is rubbish of little intellectual or educational value.

    Where ‘brand’ is important for train operators is to ensure their name is not associated with bad news. A bad reputation could induce potential customers to find an alternative means to travel – long distance coach or their own car. However, knowing that a particular company has a good reputation is of no value if its trains don’t go where you want to go.

    The same can be said regarding the awarding of franchises. Many like myself, a frequent user of the South West Trains Exeter to Waterloo service were dismayed to learn that their franchise with its excellently run and superbly maintained trains was to be awarded to an operator with a bad reputation of running trains and buses. Clearly SWTs excellent reputation was of no consequence when the Government awarded the franchise on purely financial considerations.

  2. Chris Gibb, former Co says:

    Brand value for a TOC is so much more than just punctuality, as suggested in this piece. A successful brand attracts the best employees, who are proud to be part of a well thought of company. A successful brand also enables a TOC to get better deals with its suppliers, and get more commitment from them – they all want to be part of a team seen as successful. But it all works the other way too: a brand with a poor reputation has the opposite effect. At the end of the day it’s all about people – employees, customers, contractors – and leadership. Branding of train services by their operator is good – it puts a company’s reputation and brand value on the line, literally, and this impacts on share price and profits. So, in my experience, branding is a good thing, and should be encouraged by governments, passengers and operators.

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