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Cooperation

Isn’t this refreshing?

SORTA advertises accross the river!

With the understanding that public agencies rarely get positive feedback, I want to take a moment to thank SORTA for this awesome ad that I saw on the way to class today. If I had a nickel for the number of times I’ve overheard someone (in Ohio) asking their friend how they can get to the airport only to hear ‘taxi’ as the reply1, I’d have a fist full of nickels which is still not enough to take a taxi to the airport. It’ll buy me a trip on the 2X though($2), which if I may add to the ad, has lovely plush seats that are much nicer than a dirty taxi anyway :-)

Hooray for inter-agency advertising!

Are these sorts of ads anywhere else? I’ve only seen them on UC’s campus, though I’d like to think XU, Cincy State, and (dare I dream) even some of the neigborhood business districts have advertising with their own localized, practical and relevant suggestions.

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  1. I always interject at this point.
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SORTA Improved Advertising

Not sorta improved, quite extremely improved! I commented a few posts back on SORTA’s abuse of the concept of branding to advertise the m+. Well, either someone was listening, or I had absolutely nothing to do with it and they just got better on their own. Found pinned up in the hallways of UC’s Braunstein hall, just steps away from my little desk, I offer you Exhibit A:

poster advertising SORTA transit services

I don’t care how this looks. I don’t care about the brand colors or the consistent use of fonts. What’s great about this ad is that it tells us something. It even does it succinctly!

QUESTION: Want to go to a ballgame?
ANSWER:
Here is exactly how you can go from where you are(UC) to the ballpark.

Exhibit B:

poster advertising SORTA transit services

QUESTION: How about a movie?
ANSWER:
Here is exactly how you can go from UC to either of two movie theatres. Take your pick!

Yes! I do want to go see some movies! And I could take either of those buses to a movie theatre right now if I wanted to. I actually did not know that before I saw this ad1. This ad has offered me new information about my possibilities. My plans could actually change as a result of this.

Like I said, I don’t care about the graphics. What makes these ads unusually great for SORTA is that they tell you how you can use transit and why you might actually want to. But while we’re here, let’s talk about the graphics. They’re good. They’re eye-catching and dynamic. They’re succinct and to the point. They’re even clearly observing the rule of thirds! Whoever designed these, SORTA, please give them this person’s job.

Seriously, I hope this the result of a new hire or something, because I would like to see more of this kind of work coming out of the transit agencies.

Show 1 footnote

  1. In my case because I didn’t know about the theatres.
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How not to advertise transit

avertisement

Why is this the wrong way to advertise transit? Let me count the ways:

  1. What is “METRO * PLUS”? This ad does not tell us.
  2. Seriously, point #1 is a huge enough fail that I’m going to give it two points. To reiterate, this ad does not even hint at what “METRO * PLUS” might be. Is it a cell phone plan with good uptown coverage?
  3. Assuming we know it’s some sort of transit which is already a pretty big leap for suburbanites and/or foreign students or almost anyone else who would see this ad on UC’s main campus, where the hell does the thing actually go? “Connect uptown” to what exactly? When? For whom?
  4. Assuming we’re informed enough to already know what the m+ is and where it goes, let’s think critically abut the statement: “METRO * PLUS is the smart way to connect uptown.” Why would this be so? Why would the m+ be the smart way? Is the m+ the smartest way for someone living on Ludlow to get to campus? It doesn’t go anywhere near Ludlow. That would be decidedly not smart.
    map of uptown cincinnati
    The smart way? That depends on where you are and where you’re going! For a great many people, indeed, thousands a day in uptown, the #17, #78, or #46, #31, #51, or #19  seem to be the smarter way to ‘connect uptown’. These routes are going where they’re going. Taking the m+ to somewhere you don’t want to go would be one of several dumb ways to get around. The m+ is the smart way to get around uptown when you’re starting somewhere near one of the stops and ending somewhere near another one of the stops at a time when the m+ is running AND when another route couldn’t serve you better. The m+ is the worst possible way to ‘connect uptown’ on the weekends(when it doesn’t run).
  5. Finally, are we relying on a minor local celebrity to sell positive associations with an abstract concept and/or set of brand colors or are we trying to tell people about a new transit service they might actually use to get to some real, specific place? It would seem SORTA had the former in mind.

I posit that the person who made and/or approved this advertisement does not themselves use transit much nor do they understand at all therefor how it works or why people would want to use it. This ad probably makes sense to someone who has a degree in marketing, and who sees it as their job to ‘promote Metro’s brand’ or some equally bland, abstract thing. This kind of person would probably be a great fit at P&G where they could work to systematically put smiling, pretty people(potentially also wearing bowties) next to bottles of shampoo or sticks of deoderant. Such products rely on brands because they’re all essentially the same and the differentiation that makes them stand out from the competition must be almost entirely fabricated.

Transit however is substantially, even enormously different in kind from it’s potential competition. Brands  simply do not work in such a market in the same way. When products are tremendously different, like a personal car vs. a fixed-route bus, a brand or celebrity endorsement will not be the deciding factor. The facts of either option will be. Which gets you there faster? Which is cheaper? Which is better? This kind of ad tells us absolutely nothing that will help us make a decision about how to get around.

For a transit agency this kind of marketing is just nonsense.
And SORTA just keeps churning it out.

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SORTA Drunk: “When it’s just better to take the bus”

wine and spirits store sign

With apologies to the color-blind, it appears that SORTA has recently seen it’s first copy-cat business! Located right in the Mercantile Center, this liquor store shares a wall with that little shop where you can buy transit passes and pick up your route maps.

The Mercantile Center in Cincinnati

Did the owners subconsciously pick up some inspiration from their neighbor’s color scheme? Or did they think that SORTA’s brand colors could provoke some positive impressions for a business located across the street from thousands of daily transit users with a few minutes to kill?

SORTA brand colors

literally ten feet away

Either way, it would look to be a good indicator of the success of SORTA’s very consistent branding efforts. Perhaps we can all celebrate with a drink?

As far as I know, which isn’t very far, the only other place I’ve seen something like this is in Manhattan where several major shops who’s names and locations are lost to me prominently display signs that could very, very easily be mistaken for a subway entrance.

pitcher plant

Photo By David Eickhoff

By the way, can we seriously think about making the title of this post into the concept for SORTA’s next major ad campaign? When you have a name like that you simply must take advantage of it!

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Advertising: TANK is doing it right

I was in the airport last night on a late flight from DC and behold: What do I see greeting me unavoidably on my way down the escalator toward baggage claim? A giant sign telling me I can take transit to downtown for only $2.00.

It changed to another advertisement before I could calm my trembling heart and reach for the camera phone but I hung around for another minute and caught a picture of this:

southbank shuttle airport advertisement

A few steps further found me walking below this sign:

public transit ahead

And to my right, a kiosk toward which I quickly scampered

TANK transit kiosk at the airport

The kiosk is basically a big fancy machine that shows you a PDF of the 2X schedule. Normally I don’t approve of such complicated things, favouring instead a simple rack of paper schedules, but I have to say that this thing was really attractive, easy to use, and perfectly informative.

2x schedule kiosk

It gave you the times, the prices, the route map; it gave you everything you would need to just go outside and take transit right now.

That is perfectly informative.

That is perfectly informative.

But where exactly, you might ask, should you “just go outside?” Can it be that easy? Boom! The stop is right out that door.  Go. Now. Just do it. You’re so close!

CVG transit to downtown sign

This applause might sound pretty obvious, but many of the most important routes in the city lack this sort of pointed, direct, this-is-what-transit-does kind of advertising. I’d like to see more of this, particularly for routes that aren’t aimed narrowly at tourists(which is to say: almost all of them).

TANK wins 3 points for clear and effective communication and pulls into the lead.

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The Streetcar – 5 – On the back of branding

This is the fifth in an 8 part series on “The Streetcar”.

  1. Conceptual Flaws: civic boosters lead the charge
  2. Errors of Geometry: split one-ways are dumb
  3. The role of transportation in economic development
  4. Symbolic Transit
  5. On the back of branding
  6. Separate and Unequal: on the rails of division
  7. Chicken or Egg: Shaping the future or following the past?
  8. A New and Highly Sarcastic Plan for Economic Development

The streetcar will be one of four lines in the region that are heavily reliant on branding and advertising to stand out from the crowd and attract riders. The other three are the Southbank Shuttle, SORTA’s #1, and the 2X. I’ve touched on this idea before as it relates to the first two, so I do recommend you check out those links. Let’s try and unpack some of those thoughts here though and see how relevant they are to the streetcar. First, we’ll need to establish a baseline: what sort of advertising/branding treatment do most transit lines get? And then we can move on to what sort of treatment they might warrant.

Both agencies do some advertising for their services generally, but little to none for specific lines except for the three just mentioned.

Bus shelter ad

Part of a larger campaign aimed at weakening ‘bus stigma’ by introducing relatable characters

SORTA places billboard ads, bus shelter ads, has booths at fairs and festivals, and buys various print advertising to promote several campaigns aimed mostly at getting people comfortable with the idea of using transit. They also have pens and keychains and stuff like that to hand out at events.

SORTA pen

TANK doesn’t seem to do quite as much advertising, which would reflect their smaller overall size1.

little girl holding a balloon

Anyone who can find me a TANK balloon will get a cookie. SORTA: You need balloons too. Get with the program.

They do evidently have balloons which is pretty cool and they sponsored my transit map, getting their logo on the back. Also, because I really want an excuse to share this photo from their facebook page, I’ll tell you that they also seem to do some public events for charity.

TANKMAN

TANK-Man: protecting Northern Kentucky every single day from over-whelming the burdens of car ownership.

So generally speaking, both agencies do things to keep their organization in the minds of their customers and supporters(pens and balloons and TANK-Man), things to gently reach out to people who are transit-curious(SORTA’s billboard ads)and obviously, things to give specific information to people who are looking for it(maps, schedules and websites).

There are exceptions…

Bus shelter advert for the #38X

Bus shelter advertisement for the #38X

…but they seem rare. This advertisement for the #38X is the only one I can think of so I guess it’s the exception that proves the rule. Only three lines really get a special treatment. Here’s a sampling of it:

2x advertisement

The 2X becomes the ‘Airporter’

TANK southbank shuttle

The Southbank Shuttle. I really like TANK’s photographer, whoever (s)he is.

1 4 fun

And the #1 for fun (Not for serious use)

We have a few things going with these lines:

And really, it’s only these three. Other lines get ads all over their interchangeable vehicles, have no distinguishing marks except for the changeable electric signs, and are known only by numbers and sometimes an extension name like “17 Mt Airy”.

scientology ad on a bus

This is NOT SORTA’s Scientology line. it’s just the #11 wearing a costume.

The #4 doesn’t have a big permanent sign on it proclaiming it the ‘Norwooder’ (Hehe… Norwooder), it’s just the #4. That makes sense, too. Often it’s useful to switch a bus from one line to another, such that it might be the #4 coming into Downtown, but when that same bus leaves, it’s running as the #28 with a simple change to the sign. The number is an indication of a path that any given vehicle could follow. Marking up vehicles with special branding just means you can’t use them for other lines and ties your hands a bit when you’re planning schedules or even doing maintenance. Say you need 3 buses to cover a given route at the busiest part of the day. You have to assume that any one of those three could break down unexpectedly or need significant scheduled maintenance so you need to have four or more buses in the garage so you can always be sure of having three ready to go. If all your vehicles are interchangeable, you spread out the risk of a breakdown on any particular line and can have fewer extra vehicles sitting around just in case.

Anyway, back on topic! These three lines do get special treatment. I used the phrase “stand out from the crowd” earlier. That’s essentially what they’re trying to do and the advertising, often aimed mainly at tourists, can be pretty heavy handed. Here for example the rest of the system is completely ignored:

Downtown Cincinnati guidebook map

This map, from the Cincinnati Chamber’s free guidebooks to Downtown, while hard to read, shows only the #1 and the Southbank Shuttle. The guidebooks are all over the place, but are particularly present at places like hotels and the convention center. They’re designed for people unfamiliar with the City. In a word, tourists.

And here special signs make the Shuttle’s stops stand out quite a bit more than normal:

Southbank Shuttle stop sign

A crude measurement involving my computer monitor and a ruler reveals that the Shuttle literally gets more than 100 times more space on this sign than any other line. By the way, at this stop I’m pretty sure all of the other lines are going to Cincinnati and Covington too, but the sign totally fails to mention it.

The streetcar will likely stand out like this too. Every map of the route that I’ve seen has completely failed to acknowledge the rest of the transit system.

streetcar development map

From the Cincinnati Streetcar Blog

People have held design competitions for the stops, each of which will be a large, expensive and highly visible change to a significant piece of the sidewalk rather than just another number on a post.

archinect.com

The stops that are already preemptively(and presumptuously) marked actually already have larger signs than most other stops. The streetcar doesn’t even exist yet and it’s more visible!

Cincinnati streetcar sign

And then of course there’s the vehicle itself which stands out dramatically from the rest of the fleet and won’t likely carry any general advertising for Scientology or cars or other nonsense.

There is a problem with “standing out from the crowd”, and that’s the direct implication that the rest of the transit system is a “crowd”. To increase emphasis on one line so dramatically is to decrease emphasis on every other line.

For many people, the numbered lines(~97% of the system2) drop into a second category of “other routes” and the only lines they know are the ones that have distinct vehicles and maps that are highly simplified. The “other routes” all look alike, don’t tell you where they’re going, and are literally harder to spot. When we create such a distinct hierarchy, every visual cue tells people that the “other routes” aren’t as important, rather that the Southbank shuttle is very important and so is the streetcar. The shuttle may actually be important, but every other line is important too. Every parent thinks their kid is the center of the universe, but everyone who’s not a sociopath realizes that asserting just that to the kindergarten teacher would be way over the line. That is to say that their kid is not the center of the universe. They may feel that way, but they realize it isn’t actually true and that other children are equally important to themselves and their own parents.

Just so, this lopsided emphasis of some lines over and above others wouldn’t make sense if we assumed that all lines are equal. All lines aren’t equal, but not in a way that favours the streetcar. Some lines, like the #33, #17, #4, and #43 are significantly more important than the rest. They go more places, more frequently and as a consequence have many more riders. The corridors they form are critical for thousands of people every day. This just simply cannot be said of the #1 or the Shuttle, or yes, the streetcar.

So I think we’ve gone pretty far out of balance here. We have some lines that we’re effectively advertising to people as the only thing they need to know about, but none of those lines(I’m excepting the 2X from this now) is actually very useful at all in the big scheme of things. They’re really pretty minor routes and are so by design. I suspect that that actually may be why they get so much advertising to begin with. When we design a route with only a small subset of people in mind(say, tourists or yuppies), we make a line that is destined to have relatively low ridership. We most often see these lines designed to fulfil a political end3. I think perhaps that when people see the (structurally) low ridership of a less useful line they try to correct it in a way that’s familiar to the people who helped instigate it, that is, the people who applied the original political pressure. What do they think of first? Advertising. Branding. Distinction from that mess of “other routes” that they don’t actually understand very well. This is ‘their’ line in question, intending to serve people they know well, and they actually do know what reaches those people. So they make simple maps and big signs that ignore the rest of the system while explaining just one tiny part of it that they think is important to a particular group.

What’s perverse is that if they did understand the mess of “other routes”, in almost any case, they wouldn’t have proposed a narrow solution for a small constituency in the first place and it wouldn’t have needed the expense and sillyness of a distinct brand because it would have just been plainly useful from the start.

If most lines don’t need special advertising and branding, I think we need to ask ourselves collectively why only a few lines should get it and which those should be. I think we might also usefully ask why only some lines get a distinct brand when just about any line might benefit from it(Norwooder! :-P). It seems like the very strong brand and high level of visual distinction being created for the streetcar is probably in part a preemptive defense against the political embarrassment that would result from the naturally low ridership on a poorly chosen route.

Show 3 footnotes

  1. Also, I don’t live in KY, so I could just be missing some of it.
  2. Source: My ass. But still, it should be close.
  3. Definitely true for the Shuttle(Chamber/tourism people in NKY I’m pretty sure) and the #1(Arts orgs and I think it even get’s money from the casino if I remember right. Don’t quote me on that).
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