Of all the off-the-wall schemes for resuscitating the TTC, councillor Howard Moscoe's plan for bingo on buses has to rank as more than a little out-there. As does his proposal for a Dixieland bus, presumably complete with trombone and banjo.But then, how can anyone really take seriously any proposal put together by something calling itself "the pizzazz committee"? Well, at least the maverick councillor is trying. The TTC itself doesn't seem to have a clue that it's in the marketplace and has to hawk its brand.
While transit services in European cities and south of the border offer up everything from coffee and cocktails to racy ads and the odd free ride as persuaders, the TTC sells stodge. Our transit seems not to have grasped the primal business gestalt that riders are clients who need to be coddled, cajoled, won over.
Take the timid new campaign offered this week -- a cut-rate weekly Metropass to coincide with March break. "We're testing the customer's acceptance of the one-week pass," says a statement released by TTC chair Betty Disero. As if the transit provider needed to ask.
A look around North America suggests we're lagging far behind in the creativity department compared to places like Vancouver, where commuter trains offer everything from cappuccino to onboard continuing education classes.
Across the pond, Germany has sleek Mercedes Benz buses and streetcars. Call Dublin's bus service and when you're put on hold you're entertained by Iggy Pop ("I am a passenger / And I ride and I ride....") and a phone message pumping the latest fully accessible bus. Call the TTC and you get, well, you get Bob Hughes, the TTC's director of marketing, who's already raising "safety" concerns about the aforementioned pizzazz committee's bingo and coffee plans.
"The TTC is a very conservative organization," says Moscoe. To say the least. Just check out its new ads featuring the smiling faces of the staff who have made 24 billion rides possible, and ask yourself: is this the kind of merchandising that will lure comfy, warm drivers from their cars and surround sound?
Says Hughes, "We wanted to highlight the importance the TTC has in carrying people around Toronto, and employees who make those ridership numbers happen. We haven't had a chance to evaluate it yet. We do expect a good response."
Other TTC ads, like the one promising those taking transit can save enough cash for a big-screen boob tube, have an air of sophistication -- though they have little sense of who their target group is. People who drive cars and pay downtown parking rates can already afford high-tech TVs. Everyone else -- the young, the ethnic, the financially stressed, the elderly -- already takes public transit. The trick is to attract riders who have other options.
But you can't blame Hughes when he's only got an $800,000-a-year advertising budget -- "peanuts," he says -- to work with. The auto industry, on the other hand, starts targeting its customers while they're very young.
I toured this year's auto show at the Metro Convention Centre recently and was dismayed to discover children's art hanging on the walls, images created by future drivers asked to dream up the perfect car. Funky young breakdance groups were doing their thing onstage amid ads showing cars.
Curtis Verstraete, president of BIG Incorporated, a downtown Toronto marketing firm, says transit needs to push lifestyle not product, and do more than just guarantee passage from one spot to another.
"Right now it's considered a commodity to move people around," Verstraete says. "But there are lots of other ways people can move around. Marketing should focus on the hidden benefits of the TTC, things like safety, the ability to be carefree. You can go out and have a drink and get home, the TTC can get you where you're going safely. We would position the TTC as a conduit to an expanded urban environment. Through the TTC you can experience it all."
A similar point is made by Humber College's business and management program coordinator, Paul Pieper. "The TTC's not just good for the environment. Emphasize that if you take the TTC we'll give you a free paper to read on your way downtown. You can talk to a friend face-to-face, not just on a cellphone."
Then there's sex, the Dublin bus service's useful little trick. The service ran a racy four-ad campaign at Christmas time last year to encourage bar-goers to stop drinking and driving, avoid using expensive cabs and get on the Nite Link bus.
"What comes more quickly than your boyfriend?" the ads ask. "The Nite Link bus." Another of a woman sticking her tongue in a fellow's ear reads, "Please ensure your have the correct partner before exiting the bus. At the end of the night it's a guaranteed ride." A third reminds, "Ladies, the poles are fitted for your safety -- no dancing."
Ridership shot up, says the service's marketing rep, Peter Walsh. "People would see the ads and just laugh."
There's also more the TTC could be doing to promote the multi-tasking experience, says Mike Roschlau, president and CEO of the Canadian Urban Transit Association. Providing plug-ins for laptops, like the ones currently found on GO Transit trains, could go a long way to selling transit as an efficiency.
"Having the ability to do productive things with your time could include newspaper reading, talking on the phone, working on your laptop, applying makeup, sleeping," Roschlau says.
Of course, not everyone thinks sizzle and offers of a deeper experience will sell. Former city councillor and urban planner Howard Levine certainly doesn't. Good transit sells itself, he says.
Well, not quite.