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I like to tell personal stories here. I think by doing so it helps me frame the context of an issue I want to talk about. And if anybody reading this has spent anytime in a diary about Amtrak or trains, it also clear I am a huge fan of both. Lets combine those two shall we.

At another time in my life, in the mid-90s I was the head of a market research department at an ad agency that did a ton of work for Amtrak. I was tasked with doing a few months of market research for an annual meeting with some "heavy hitters" at the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) annual meeting.

The reason was simple, if you could convince travel agents to actively promote Amtrak, they could see a huge boast in ridership without spending any direct money on advertising.

It was one of those experiences I will never forget.

I did dozens of focus groups. Surveys. Read mountains of research they had conducted in previous years. Heck they flew me all around the country (yes I get the irony) so I could take some of their "signature" trains/routes and conduct one-on-one interviews with passengers.

A few days before the meeting with the travel agents, I had my report finished, with my recommendations, and I presented it to the client. I was known for making waves. Not to be difficult just to be difficult, but when you conduct market research correctly the client often doesn't like the results. They don't like to hear, after spending a few hundreds thousands dollars to conduct said research, that everything they are doing is wrong. They would rather a report they can plop down on their bosses desk that shows they are a "super star."

That was just what happened here.

Before I go on, let me explain for a second why I am telling this story. Obama and many progressives are pushing hard to add high-speed rail throughout the country. New routes. You name it. That is wonderful, I am behind it 24/7. Heck I wish we'd do more.

But here is the thing, if rail isn't sold correctly to the right audience, it will fail. Not enough people will use it and Amtrak will lose even more money then they already do. It is my direct experience Amtrak can't see the forest for the trees and doesn't understand how to sell, much less market what is a wonderful, wonderful product.

Back to the story. I explained to the client that they were not marketing their service correctly (which was also a slam against my employer BTW). They talked, endlessly about the expense compared to air travel and speed, that it wasn't really that "slow." That was their "primary" message at many levels.

I said that works for a business traveler in the Northeast Corridor, but our audience here were individuals and families going on vacation. Outside of a few routes in densely populated areas Amtrak was not close to as fast as planes or even cars. Plus folks love their cars.

I went on to explain individuals that view Amtrak like a plane, just a way to get from point A to B, a means to an end, wasn't their audience and they shouldn't waste limited ad dollars trying to convince them otherwise.

I then cued up a few minutes of video of individuals in the focus groups saying stuff like:

I rush to work each day in bumper to bumper traffic. I don't have a single moment to take a deep breath at work. I rush home, late as always. I then run around taking my children to band practice, soccer, a play date. My head hits the pillow at night with not a moment to relax the entire day.

I said this was their audience. Middle to upper middle class folks that work their butts off and when they do get a vacation, well they want to relax. They don't want to be herded onto a plane after standing in line after line (keep in mind this is pre-9/11). Run to this connecting flight. Try to keep three young child seat-belted and quiet for a five hour flight.

That is too much like their other 51 weeks out of the year. Work. Not a vacation.

I went on to explain that I felt the research clearly indicated that Amtrak should market their service not as a way to get from point A to B, as they were doing, but as an actual part of the vacation. That you get where you are going is just an added benefit.

I then cued up some spec creative we had done for a TV commercial. It showed a couple in their late 20s. Clearly newly in love. Going from Norfolk, VA to New York City for the first time. It showed him pulling out a checker-boarded table cloth and placing it on a table in a dining car. Opening a cooler with some cheese and crackers and a small bottle of wine, while they looked over a Frommer's guide to NYC finalizing their plans for the weekend. Giddy every moment.

I think the tag line for the spot was, "you can't do that on a plane."

There was maybe the longest stunned silence I've ever had in a presentation, and I've done hundreds of them. They were looking at me like I had a third hand growing out of my forehead.

I went on to explain, as I know many folks here know cause it is the same in politics, you have to take your primary negative and turn it into a positive. And their primary negative could not have been more clear, trains are slow!

So what. You are on vacation, what is the rush? Read another chapter in a book. Play a couple hands of Gin Rummy with your wife. Go to the dining car and order a Bloody Mary.

I could see I had totally lost my audience, even my own fellow employees.

As I said in the intro I like to tell personal stories, so I told one with a couple questions to the Amtrak executives, many who had flown in from Chicago to DC that day.

Did you talk to anybody on the plane you didn't know getting here? Before they could reply I said they had sent me on like a dozen trips, in every instance you'd see somebody get up, walk a few aisles to engage a person with an LSU tee-shirt on, cause well they had gone to LSU 30 years earlier. Or two ten year old children, not related start to play together.

Because I am always selling, I am sure I threw in the tag line I wanted them to use, "you can't do that on a plane."

Long story short I never did a single second of work for Amtrak again after that meeting was over. They didn't listen to a thing I told them. Still not really to this very day. And even though I know for a fact I made the research department something like $575,000 in profits that year, I was laid off a few weeks later.

I say all this cause I can't stress this enough, if we spend tens or hundreds of billions to expand rail the service has to be sold correctly. I am not sure Amtrak is capable of that.

Again keep in mind this meeting was pre-9/11. IMHO I think my point-of-view works like ten times better now. This shouldn't be a hard sell for Amtrak, you know train travel. I didn't not use this word in my presentation to them. But I have seen it mentioned in Diaries here for years by people who like Amtrak. It is a "civilized" way to travel.

I will just end with this. Amtrak executives are a conservative bunch, not politically, but from a marketing point-of-view. Heck their offices at the time of this meeting were just like a stones throw from the Capital building. They were scared to death to piss off elected leaders who often visit to yell at them for losing money.

Well if I was advising them, and of course I don't, I'd have the "touch my junk and I'll have you arrested" guy doing a TV ad that said something like, "I rode Amtrak and they didn't touch my junk" running 24/7. But I guess that is kind of in your face and accurate.

Originally posted to webranding on Mon Nov 22, 2010 at 04:00 PM PST.


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