if more brands = more passengers, why should marketing question its logic?

A year or so ago, our managing director Roland Scull wrote an article for Passenger Transport in which he questioned the logic of bus companies having so many disparate brands.

The article got a fair bit of stick in bus circles as it took aim at a practice that is commonplace in the industry. A logic that says that if you want to grow patronage, you grow your list of brands. After all, if many a successful and respected organisation does it, then it's the right strategy for everyone, right?

But let's flip the emphasis and look at it from a marketing perspective. Would marketers be lambasting the article with the same vigour as those bus industry bods?

Here are some questions they might expect answers to before the brief goes any further -
  • The consensus is customers want a number of local brands over a single group one. Did they ask for local identities unprompted or was it a loaded question? 
  • Would growth forecasts be the same if we introduced new all singing, all dancing buses (which invariably accompany the new brand) in a group livery? With this in mind, do we think the new brand or the new bus (and its additional marketing spend) is the reason for growth?
  • Does introducing another brand help or hinder us as a company in the long-term? Does the growth in patronage far outweigh the logistics and costs of managing a portfolio of brands?
  • Are any of the brands scalable? Can we take the brand equity and distribute it to other areas of the business or are they limited by the likes of geography?
  • Is one single brand more beneficial to the business than a number of smaller ones? 
When you start asking objective questions like this I think the bus argument starts to cough and splutter a little, as it goes against long-established principles of growing a strong, scalable retail brand - one of marketing's main remits.

Unfortunately, I get the feeling the industry is so far down the 'new brand = new customers' approach, that it will be hard to alter this particular thinking any time soon.

UPDATE - since this article was tweeted there have been a number of comments on it, mainly of the 'local branding works, it's what people want' variety. None actually tackling the premise of the original piece, which to my mind concentrates on the marketing principles behind having a number of disparate brands that may not be scalable.

New brands are more often than not introduced to coincide with new/refurbished buses of a higher spec than their predecessors. This makes them an easier sell purely because there is something new to sell.

A good experiment would be to launch a local brand and a parent brand bus on similar routes, at the same time, with the same total marketing spend (there would less to spend on selling the local brand as there are initial design, production and logistical costs to develop it) - and see if there is a discernible difference in patronage growth over a six-month period.