Co.Design

How Do You Wean People Off Cars? By Rebranding Bikes And Buses

The only way to get consumers to choose cheaper, more efficient transportation is to make it the cool option.

More than half the global population now lives in urban environments, and that number will only grow: By 2050, an estimated 80% will live in cities. This means that in the next 40 years we will need to build the same amount of urban infrastructure as we have in the last 4,000 years. This trend will also have an impact on global warming: Between 1990 and 2007, transportation-related emissions increased by a third, while emissions from other sectors decreased. Regardless of our political views, we can’t afford to perpetuate the car-centric model. It’s time to brand alternative forms of transportation in a way that convinces consumers to opt for higher-efficiency modes over the traditional automobile.

It’s widely accepted and understood that consumer decisions are as much influenced by emotional attachments to a product or service as by the hard facts such as price and performance. So why is it that when it comes to most aspects of human transportation, the world still seems to believe people are rational machines?

Take the spectacular failure of Tata’s ambitious low-cost car, the Nano. In many ways, the Nano seemed like a real game-changer--a car that would do for the auto industry what Ikea did for furniture, Amazon for book retail, and Netflix for video rentals. The vision for the car, as articulated by Ratan Tata, the chairman of the hugely successful Tata Group, was inspiring: Make a luxury car available to the average Indian (and eventually everyone in the world) for about $2,500.

Tata followed the disruptive innovation script to a T. The company innovated all aspects of the value chain to slash the cost of production, building a car with fewer components of less expensive materials while maintaining fantastic fuel efficiency. Even the distribution model was upended: The Nano was to be sold at large supermarkets and electronics stores. On top of that, Tata had devised a contemporary launch plan leveraging social media instead of the expensive TV ads most other car brands adhere to.

With more than a billion people, a hugely growing middle class, and one of the fastest growing car markets in the world, India seemed like the ideal place to make this vision fly. But things haven’t gone as planned. Nano sales never met even its most conservative sales targets and is far from the 20,000 cars it needs to sell per month to break even. The failure of the Nano stands in stark contrast to Tata’s other brands, especially their premium brands such as Land Rover and Jaguar.

So what went wrong with the Nano? An Indian consumer study by a brand strategist from Venturethree, Sandeep Dighe, came to a clear conclusion: Indian consumers don’t want a cheap car; they want a car to flaunt. For Indians, as for people in all other countries, a car is as much about status and identity as it is about transport. Positioning the Nano as the world’s cheapest car was, in other words, a dramatic mistake and a startling reminder that transport is as much an emotional decision as buying soap, maybe even more so.

Other car manufacturers looking to capture the low-end car market better take note. Unfortunately, Tata’s mistake isn’t unique in the world of transportation. When it comes to devising urban mobility schemes, engineers and planners rule. Most collective transport schemes are based on a false assumption that if given a cheap and effective option, people will use it.

Urban mobility is a massive global challenge. The world needs people to shift from big, heavy, fuel-consuming cars to collective transport, including bikes and other low-energy forms of mass transportation. But as the Tata example shows, the challenge is as much emotional as functional. Taking the bus, riding a bike, or driving a cheap lightweight electric car must be perceived as cool, a symbol of status even in places like China and India, where buying a Mercedes is seen as almost a life goal in itself. Here, brands like Tesla and Biomega have shown a way to create aspirational change rather than a functionalistic approach to building more infrastructure.

Actually, in many cases there is plenty of infrastructure already in place; it’s just poorly designed and relatively unbranded compared to cars. Despite an adequate interstate network, traveling by bus is considered in itself deplorable in the U.S. at large, whereas buses in the U.K. have been well-branded.

This is an area where the right design, branding, and marketing could make a huge difference to the world and future generations. These changes might even be one of the huge opportunities out there. Together, cities are already bigger than any individual market or alliance. And urban populations are becoming increasingly uniform as a consequence of globalization. The rise of a large urban market and the need to reduce CO2 emissions is an opportunity ripe for new urban-mobility solutions.

Written by Jens Martin Skibsted and Rasmus Bech Hansen.

Rasmus Bech Hansen is London-based strategy director at Venturethree, a global brand consultancy. He writes on how brands can do well by doing good and has helped to relaunch the United Nations Global Compact brand, the world’s most successful CSR initiative.

[Images: James R. Martin, Jim Hughes, and PB Photo via Shutterstock]

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58 Comments

  • KIKI

    THANKS FOR THE COOL COLUMNS!

    WHAT'S THE TYPE/FONT SPEC FOR THE BODY AND SIDEBAR HEADS?

  • Calumglasgow

    What this article misses is that there are two distinct trends taking place at the moment: one is the urbanisation of the developing world, the other the suburbanisation of the developed world.  Here in Britain, most towns that are growing in population (with the exception of London) are those under 250k people - and many much smaller than that - while the larger cities struggle to maintain their populations. Increasing spatial distribution of living space, workplaces and leisure activity mitigate against walking, cycling and use of mass transportation, and the real danger will come as the presently developing coutries start to follow the same trend (seeing as ours seems to be the lifestyle to follow).  The picture is then further complicated by recent trends showing a slowing in growth of private car traffic while, particularly rail travel has maintained strong growth even in a period of economic stagnation/ decline. 

    The comment that buses are well branded in Britain is seriously mistaken - inter-city buses are very much the 'bottom rung' of the transport ladder, the choice of students, the poor and (in Scotland, anyway) the elderly who get free travel on them.  Outside of London, with a few exceptions such as Brighton and Edinburgh, urban buses in Britain are little short of an embarrassment.

    Also odd that you're running a competition with Porsche!!?

  • eric

    This was the whole idea behind that gay slur joke used in promos for the Ron Howard movie The Dilemma wherein Vince Vaughn's character calls electric cars "for lack of a better word, 'gay.'"

    While the joke is offensive, the idea is the same: re-branding is absolutely necessary for mass transit. It's the same reason I didn't take the school bus that was provided for me in high school but rather chose to spend money on gas for my own transportation, and deal with limited parking every morning before 7am.

  • Eleanor

    I feel that we've made decent (though not enough) progress on rebranding the car away from a symbol of status or prestige.  Take the Hummer for example, which much of mainstream America find to be excessive or wasteful. Likewise, vehicles such as the Prius, Insight, Leaf, and so forth would have been labeled "hippie cars" 20 years ago, but are mainstream today. The question is, how do we move this notion forward to cars in general? 

  • Jody Brooks

    Although thrifty solutions can sometimes have a perception problem, there are a myriad of examples where their adoption is high despite branding:  e.g."two buck Chuck", the $2 wine from Trader Joes grocery chain. Wine is no stranger to status conciousness but people buy Two Buck Chuck in droves, presumably because it tastes good to them. Clearly, there is more to adoption than branding. Not everyone is concerned with status and being cool: not even would be wine snobs.Like many have pointed out here, efficacy is just, as if not more, important. The biggest perception problem the Nano, bike, bus, and train have is that people believe they don't transport you very reliably, quickly, and (in some cases) cheaply. Cost should not be dismissed yet. Between 2010 and 2011, gasoline averaged about $1.35/liter. That's $5.11/gallon. That is astronomically higher than the U.S., especially relative to income. No matter what the branding, cost is a major factor in explaining why so many Indians don't drive but so many Americans still do.Finally, even if you decide branding is more important than boosting efficacy and shrinking relative cost, where's the budget for it? In the U.S. we barely have the political will/budget for the subpar infrastructure we have now. In fact, the house just drafted a bill that guts virtually all funding for bike, bus, and train by converting it to a temporary source. So from where is this branding money supposed to come? Given all this, I hope any precious transit dollars are spent on getting a system that competes favorably with cars on efficacy and cost before we spend money on tag lines.

  • Jody Brooks

    Here is my comment again: hopefully with linebreaks retained.

    Although thrifty solutions can sometimes have a perception problem, there are a myriad of examples where their adoption is high despite branding:  e.g."two buck Chuck", the $2 wine from Trader Joes grocery chain. Wine is no stranger to status conciousness but people buy Two Buck Chuck in droves, presumably because it tastes good to them. Clearly, there is more to adoption than branding. Not everyone is concerned with status and being cool: not even would be wine snobs.
    Like many have pointed out here, efficacy is just, as if not more, important. The biggest perception problem the Nano, bike, bus, and train have is that people believe they don't transport you very reliably, quickly, and (in some cases) cheaply. 
    Cost should not be dismissed yet. Between 2010 and 2011, gasoline averaged about $1.35/liter. That's $5.11/gallon. That is astronomically higher than the U.S., especially relative to income. No matter what the branding, cost is a major factor in explaining why so many Indians don't drive but so many Americans still do.
    Finally, even if you decide branding is more important than boosting efficacy and shrinking relative cost, where's the budget for it? In the U.S. we barely have the political will/budget for the subpar infrastructure we have now. In fact, the house just drafted a bill that guts virtually all funding for bike, bus, and train by converting it to a temporary source. So from where is this branding money supposed to come? 
    Given all this, I hope any precious transit dollars are spent on getting a system that competes favorably with cars on efficacy and cost before we spend money on tag lines.

  • Ramehtar

    To switch to buses and bikes, we need to develop an urban planning system that we like. In the cities, buses compete with cars for space and speed.  They take too long to get anywhere, and cost too much to go short distances, without monthly passes.  This makes it cumbersome on infrequent users, who never evolve into full time users. 
    Bikes are fine, but they too compete for road space, and take forever, since side roads and paths need to be discovered to make shortcuts a reality and the grid-like structure of roadways make short trips long. The main roads have cars, which make transporting children and groceries riskier. 
    Finally, we live spaced out, because we have strict urban planners, and home hungry developers not wanting to build affordable densely packed condos cheap along bus paths making buses the more viable option.

  • Stan Soliday

    We agree with your basic premise. Note though that the Tata Nano has failed in large part because it is a lousy car. Regardless of what is you use for transport, it needs to be well made.

    Your point regarding eBikes is well taken. Our eBikes are like a second car in the small town we live in. However, most people are not willing to try an eBike despite our raving reviews.
    Bikes here are viewed as for exercise and recreating. We get the commeht that eBikes are "cheating" quite often, even though we get the equal of several thousand miles to the gallon! It is an uphill battle here in small town America.

    EVsRock!
    http://www.evsroll.com

  • Erica Schlaikjer

    This is interesting. The nonprofit I work for published a report, "From Here to There: A Creative Guide to Making Public Transport the Way to Go": http://www.embarq.org/en/from-...

    The reports aims to help guide cities and public transit agencies in making mass transit a competitive and desirable alternative to private vehicles.

    Erica
    Media Relations and Online Engagement Coordinator
    EMBARQ
    www.embarq.org

  • Chris Burnell

    I would also suggest that employers need to adapt and encourage the use of sustainable transport for their employees. Showers in disabled toilets and lockers only big enough to fit a pair of shoes won't encourage employees to commute to work by bike, unless their colleagues are prepared to put up with smelly, sweaty people around the office. Do people want cool, practical, cheap, efficient, or all of the above?

  • David S Brumley

    This is a perfect example of attitudes towards mass transportation. The author speaks of people as third parties. Whenever authors write about public transit, it's always for "those other people". When you design transportation for yourself, it always involves a personal vehicle. When you design it for "those people", it always involves squeezing them into a mold of common origins and common destinations, as if everybody lived and worked in the same place. The goal should be to make personal transportation practical and efficient, not to transport the mythical "those people" to places they don't want to go.

  • Darin Hadinger

    Branding is important. More important, is execution. It can have the prettiest wrapper in the world, but if it doesn't work, it won't last. I have been commuting by bicycle for around 20+ years. I drive as well. I have tried mass transit. I do have to say, my experience with mass transit here vs. Germany is the difference between night and day. Use the right tool for the job. Most people have relatively short work commutes etc. I often ask people, " When is the last time you have been more than five miles from your car keys?' We are dependent on our vehicles. Infrastructure will help, education may help more. Also, infrastructure in the way of workplace accommodations, stores etc would be a good start. .....One last note, Tesla aside, they really need to improve alternative vehicle design. Designers have the opportunity to be free of some traditional constraints. Most of these vehicles look like they came out of the same lame design house. 

  • Char7012B

    Why are we constantly putting down the American Life style like we are bad for having For fathers who WORKED thier asses off to make this country able to have the luxeries we do.  We are not bad for having a good life.

  • Karen

    Did our forefathers really work their asses off for luxuries?  I honestly don't think so. As I recall from my studies our forefathers (and their wives) believed in hard work and thrift.  Generations prior to mine (late Babyboomer/Genxer) didn't believe in waste, over-consumption and living larger than what we can afford.  These are the aspects of American lifestyle that I cannot celebrate. 

    Despite considerable education, good jobs and what used to be a comfortably middle class income, my husband and I couldn't afford to replace our one car even if we had to.  Most of our friend, whether they will admit it or not, are in the same position.  Our city and state governments do not have the monies to maintain the auto infrastructure we have, much less accomodate its future growth. 

    I might also point out that for several decades in the 20th century walking, bicycling and buses/trolleys and trains were accepted components of how we thought about getting to where we needed to go and they were largely affordable to all.

    Finally, while having a good life does not make one bad, you could be making a lot of assumptions about who "we" are.  If you work in a low income job (an increasing number of "we'") but lack transportations options to an unreliable car that you cannot afford to gas up or maintain then the good life to which you are referring is likely very out of reach.  My part of town appears to be filled with people living the good life but all the mortgages are underwater.  Several of my neighbors have been laid off and unemployed for extended periods of time in the since 2008.  Most of those who have found employment are working outside their fields for much less money.  Others, like my husband and I, are under constant threat of a pink slip and have seen our wages and benefits reduced.

    Having enjoyed public transit in other cities where I've lived, I would love to experience the cost saving of  not having to fill up the tank or the worry of what we will do if our aging car dies.  In the meantime, I've learned to appreciate the benefits of biking to work and most my destinations.

  • ben

    We are not bad for having a good life. We are bad for having a life full of bad habits - habits that are immediately comfortable, but destructive in the long term(like mass-depletion of fossil fuels). It is possible to have a good life and allow future generations to have good lives as well. 

  • akay1

    While I agree that a rebrand would help, it's not the "only" way to get people on to public transportation, nor even the best way.

    The best way would be to have BETTER public transportation. Mass transit could have the raddest branding you've ever seen, but people will still skip it if it's slow, infrequent, and over-crowded.

    I used to avidly ride the bus and didn't own a car, but years back when Chicago had a big CTA cut, they eliminated the express buses on my route. To add insult to injury, they didn't increase the number of local buses. So there were fewer buses more crammed with people stopping at every single stop.

    My commute time tripled, I frequently wasn't able to sit for my now hour-long trip, and to even squeeze off the bus at my stop was a small battle. At that point, who gives a crap about branding? I sadly went out and bought a car.

  • The Young Bigmouth

    Yeah, come to think of it, the smart consumer's smartness can be tricked with the right buttons.  Crispin Porter + Bogusky did it  to get people to eat carrots (Bolthouse baby carrots) and California has done it to a great extent with bicycles. A good mix of convenience and cool works best. Example - The Metro in New Delhi. Air conditioned coaches, low cost and connectivity has lured people from across all social categories. 

  • Shelly

    I think that It's true that the car is one of the only ways that people are able to express their social standing and I'm sure it is true for the up and coming elite class in India, as in the rest of the world, are drawn to that. However, for the poorest people- which are actually most of the world's population- they probably have other means of reliable transportation that they are using which are not only cheaper than the Nano car, but are also more convenient. For example, where would someone living in a slum put their car, albeit a Nano car? How will you keep it safe? How much would it take to fill up the tank with gas? When a bus or a bike works and is the norm, I think they would prefer to stick to that rather than risk their investment with a car.  I think social issues are more important to consider for these cars, not just economic issues.

  • Aaron Kelly

    It also doesn't help that cities are divesting from their public transportation infrastructure, raising prices, and the like while the downturn has increased people's need for affordable (read: not a car) transportation. However, if public transit cannot compete on price and availability with cars (bike transit only works for shorter commutes where very little additional weight is carried) then we are not likely to see the wholesale shift you are talking about. On the other hand, better branding could also increase public support for funding of transit, which would be great.