Amtrak brand

Tom Dougherty, CEO – Stealing Share

22 June 2010

Amtrak needs to sell “experience.” Or, maybe not.

I’ve got a gripe with Amtrak after a horrendous experience my mother-in-law had with the transportation company recently. To my amazement, she used them at all. She insisted on taking the train from North Carolina to New Jersey, which takes 9 to 10 hours vs. the 1.5-hour flight.

However, the train stopped in Rocky Mount, N.C., because an Amtrak train ahead had accidently hit a pedestrian. Amtrak’s plan, if you can call it a plan, was to have the passengers on her train transported by bus to Union Station in D.C. where they could continue on by train to their various destinations.

“Amtrak, however, can’t sell experience except a bad one.”

051606_AmtrakRail2My reason for telling this story is it leads to the failures of empty brand promises. (Although not as catastrophically as the empty “Beyond Petroleum” promise of BP.)

Amtrak’s promise to strive “for a greener passenger rail with practices and tactics for improved fuel and energy efficiency.” Yet, I doubt many of their passengers are riding trains because of their green element. It is a promise that rings as hollow and will never steal market share from other modes of “getting there” because it’s not an emotional trigger in the context of travel. You decide to take a train for the experience.

If Amtrak believes it is in the transportation business, it is mistaken and can’t compete with the efficiencies and cost of other modes.

If you’ve traveled by rail in Europe, you understand the ability to deliver a brand of experience. No two-hour arrivals before departure. No crimping seats. Lovely scenery, fast travel and the convenience of unloading in the center of your destination.

What’s great about the Amtrak experience?

Amtrak, however, can’t sell experience except a bad one. You’d better be selling more than green if you expect the general population to invest upwards of nine hours on a train. Americans are not very good at altruism when it comes to moving from place to place. That’s why, in many cases, the environment be damned. “I’ll drive by SUV everywhere!”

The experience of my mother-in-law continues from that stopping point in Mount Airy because this where the bad experience gets worse. These inconvenienced passengers were forced to sit on a hot train for more than an hour and half without air. During summer.

After the air was finally on, the passengers boarded a hot bus for the four-hour drive to Washington DC. Once there, the Amtrak “cowboys” herded the passengers along the length of the station and then down to the tracks where the passengers who had booked coach fare were boarded.

My mother-in-law is an 80-year old diabetic woman with bad hips. By the time she was seated, she was shaking, as was another diabetic passenger. It took her about four days to recover from the “Amtrak experience.”

One of Amtrak’s goals is to keep Americas train service alive. If that is really what it wants, it better take a good long look at who those people are it wants to influence.

Otherwise, it’s going to be a cold day in Hell before they reach them, even as an emotional brand.

See more posts in the following related categories: Amtrak Brand Promises


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