A fun little article on How to brand or rebrand our bus routes

One of the key parts of the Department for Transport’s National Bus Strategy is local branding based on community focus instead of operational needs. At present, there are some examples of best practice with Transdev and The Go-Ahead Group marketing its bus routes under memorable names. So much so that passengers are able to remember their bus routes by name instead of number.

With an effective route branding strategy, knowing the number is secondary to the name of the route if it has a catchy brand name. If, for example, your local bus route is the R1, you would remember it as one of Rosso’s Rochdale Runners. The idea of having a few routes under a common banner is far from new. Back in late 1986, the A1 route from Crowhill to Ashton-under-Lyne – Hazelhurst was an Ashton Mini Lyne route, and one many local names that GM Buses used to publicise its high-frequency minibus routes.

To tackle the onslaught of Manchester Minibuses Ltd’s The Bee Line Buzz Company, GM Buses replaced all these local names like Ashton Mini Lyne, Chaser and Hopper with Little Gem. Or to be really pedantic, Little GeM (because they were, after all, little GMs – GM Buses in miniature form). Over three decades on, both The Bee Line Buzz Company and Little Gem live on in the memories of bus passengers, past and present.

Since 2010, there has been Little Gems running in Greater Manchester – albeit as a trading style of Go-Goodwins’ stage carriage operations. In the last year, they have made a return to Tameside and Oldham in a much bigger way. In 2006, UK North resurrected the GM Buses name – but their use of a well-regarded name reeked of cashing in on Greater Manchester’s transport heritage.

In addition to Little Gem, there was also GM Buses’ one and only Super Gem route, the 571 (Great Lever Circular). This used standard sized buses instead of the Dodges, Ivecos and MCW Metroriders of Little Gem’s ilk. The 464 was also known as the Whitworth Valley Way and branded as such on GM Buses’ journeys.

GM Buses’ name for their 464 journeys would have fitted the DfT’s “local branding based on community focus instead of operational needs” premise. Ashton Mini Lyne did as well, as does Go North West’s Middleton Minis for the 129 route and its friends. Both also tick the ‘operational needs’ box by dint of its typical rolling stock. (See also the Calder Cubs name used by Yorkshire Tiger).

Eins, zwei, drei, vier, fünf, sechs, sieben, acht

For continuity across an operator’s network (or better still, a countywide network), there needs to be a logical set of service numbers that avoids duplication. Each route is registered with VOSA by its number first and foremost. It also makes for instant reference on bus stop flags, timetables in their analogue and digital forms.

Now imagine if we registered a route to VOSA as The Tame Valley Rambler instead of 343 or 344? Though we would say it goes from Hyde to Mossley [Brookbottom] via Dukinfield and Stalybridge, The Tame Valley Rambler name wouldn’t fit on a standard TfGM bus stop flag. Nor it look good on the top left of a TfGM Bus Guide. Unless there was a glossy (designed by Best Impressions) leaflet with reference to walks a bus stop away – or an enticement to alight at Armentieres Square for Magpie’s Nest.

This is why the Yorkshire Coastliner family of routes are numbered 840, 843, X40 and X43. The last two are more express variants of the 840 and 843 routes. The numbers denote each variation of the Yorkshire Coastliner‘s route.

The secrets of a distinctly memorable bus brand

I cannot claim to be an expert on this (which is why they speak to Ray Stenning at Best Impressions instead of this ratbag who loves Northern Counties bodied Leyland Atlanteans in the white, orange and brown of Greater Manchester Transport).

  1. Catchy brand names: from experience, I have noticed how the most memorable bus branding schemes have memorable names which strike a chord among occasional users. Witch Way and Yorkshire Coastliner is more likely to reach new converts instead of the converted than X43, 840, 843 and X40. The converted will know the numbers after acquainting themselves with the ‘brand’. Which is why Heinz Baked Beans isn’t known as 56: Haricot Beans in Tomato Sauce (via Tin Opener) with 56x or 56A for smaller tins, or X56 for tins with ring pulls.
  2. Humour: this is where the copywriters who work with Go North East come into their own with Whey-Aye Five-0 for the 50 and 50A routes from South Shields to Chester-le-Street and Durham. This offbeat approach sells the route to me on its own – even if it terminates at Chester-le-Street after 7pm.
  3. Locality: Go North East’s 50 and 50A route respects the County Durham vernacular by fusing it with a popular late-1970s TV show. This is where association can be a secret weapon; for many people, Burnley means witches – whether the Pendle Witches or Moorhouses’ superb strong ale. Hence the X43 being known as The Witch Way (which is a gazillion times better than Timesaver which Ribble used for all its express routes).
  4. Dedicated liveries: through treating each bus route or a group of bus routes as a brand, this is where dedicated liveries come into their own. This approach is even more effective where competition isn’t as fierce. Even more so if the same buses stay on the same set of routes.
  5. Promotion: behind each memorable bus brand is an effective marketing campaign that uses old and new media. With smartphones the most dominant form of browsing media, this means greater use of social media (TikTok, Snapchat and Instagram as well as Facebook and Twitter). For physical media, direct mail campaigns shouldn’t be ignored as not all potential passengers have an iPhone or Android smartphone.

Examples of successful route branding, past and present

  • Magic Bus: Stagecoach’s no frills brand is a byword for cheaper and more cheerful bus travel on trunk routes, with the Wilmslow Road corridor being a notable example. On the other hand, it has been a trojan horse to undercut rival companies (Dennis’ Coaches for example on the 216 route). It is one of the first post-deregulation brands – starting within the first few hours of the 26 October 1986 with Brian Souter in rabbit suit taking fares in Glasgow.
  • The Witch Way: after Blazefield Holdings gave the hitherto unloved Stagecoach Burnley and Pendle operation some more love, they made an impact by upgrading the X43 route and branding it The Witch Way. Today, it is part of the Transdev furniture, offering a real alternative to the car from Manchester to Burnley.
  • Yorkshire Coastliner: the Yorkshire Coastliner name predates bus deregulation when National Bus Company used Coastliner for its local express coach routes along the English and Welsh coastlines. The West Yorkshire Road Car Company constituent of NBC used the name Yorkshire Coastliner in early 1980s. Part of Transdev Blazefield, it is a bus branding success story with regular routes to Scarborough, Whitby and York. To allow for social distancing and higher visitor numbers, there will be two buses an hour from Leeds to Scarborough!
  • The Oxford Tube: for affordable travel from Oxford to Central London (Victoria), the Oxford Tube gives the rail service a run for its money with buses every half hour to the capital.

We have ways of branding or rebranding your local bus route

Local branding based on community focus could run the risk of being too parochial. If we go down the road of being too parochial, it may give the impression of making the local bus route ‘too local’.

To confuse things a little, our definition of ‘local’ has changed due to our working patterns and travel habits. What could be local to the motorist may vary with carless passengers. ‘Down the road’ for our driver could be Newcastle-under-Lyme if s/he lives in Knutsford. Supposing our driver left his or her car at home, ‘down the road’ by bus could be the Dun Cow off the 88 route.

With some of the bigger bus owning groups, specific local brands have been eschewed in favour of national brands. One case in point is Stagecoach’s operations where its standard brands are Stagecoach Gold and Magic Bus as well as the regular Stagecoach buses. FirstGroup, inspired by events with The Go-Ahead Group and Transdev, have taken to broad local branding. This time by eschewing the Barbie version of the Olympia livery with regional variations.

The masters of localised branding are The Go-Ahead Group and Wellglade (Trent Barton). The latter, before it became part of High Peak Buses’ operations, had a dependable one with Transpeak. With this success, came Rainbow and Black Cat routes, and a cast of dozens of branded spin-offs. 57 varieties of Trent Barton buses from Chesterfield to Burton-upon-Trent.

Where next in the high powered world of bus rebranding?

Here’s a few ideas of our own.

343: Tame Valley Rambler

One of the most remarkable things about the 343 route is how many walks can be done from any part of the route. I have identified ten possible walks that are a 343 bus ride away from Strinesdale Reservoir to Jet Amber Fields. I have used it myself to get to Walkerwood, Brushes, and Swineshaw reservoirs and Cowbury Dale – finally finding a use for those sections I have merely tolerated ‘taking the long way home’ from Oldham.

389: Three little ducks

The 389 has more than its fair share of reductions. Though the chances of getting that route terminating at Marple again are slim, the least that could be done is a reinvention of the 389 as a higher frequency local route. Possibly as part of a circular route taking in the now-missed 41 route. Perhaps a renumbering to that of 222 might do. As it stops near Cosmo Bingo Hall, and covers the Stalybridge and Dukinfield electoral ward, it could be called Three Little Ducks with state-of-the-art Optare Solo SRs or short Enviro200s.

408: River Beal Rider

Thanks to the 408’s northbound extension into Rochdale, the latest version of that route could claim to cover the River Beal valley in its entirety.

435: River Beal Rider

The 408’s sister route (operated by Rosso instead of First Greater Manchester) could claim to be another River Beal Rider route. There is great potential for this route, the 408, and other routes around Shaw, Newhey and Milnrow to fall under this brand. Possibly with River Beal Minis for shorter distance routes.

701: Ludlow Zzapper

Minsterley’s Ludlow Town Service has great potential for a sizzler of a brand that has a nod to the town’s recent history. Instead of being the 701, it should be called the Ludlow Zzapper and renumbered 64, in honour of Newsfield’s groundbreaking Commodore 64 magazine Zzap! 64. Perhaps we ought to get cover artist Oli Frey on board with Best Impressions and have minibuses called Julian Rignall, Gary Penn, Roger Kean and Gary Liddon. What about having Rockford and Thingy between windows?

Before I go…

Feel free to add to our suggestions for rebranding local bus routes. Should the 346 be ‘officially’ given its lewd nickname? Should the White Moss Circular be revived as the Two Fat Persons’ route? Comment away, articulately of course.

S.V., 11 April 2021.

One thought on “Fun With Bus Route Branding

  1. Three Little Ducks, Wonder where you got that idea from haha (maybe you had the idea as well before I even mentioned it when commenting on your last post). The Cosmo Bingo hall connection never occured to me, Good Thinking Stuart!

    I still think the Three Little Ducks 222 should be a kind of sister route to the 220 and 221, serving Stalybridge to Manchester via Dukinfield, Audenshaw (Sun Inn & Trough), Droylsden then straight down Ashton New Road. And the suggested Dukinfield/Stalybridge circular should be the 388/389.


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