By Russ Jackson, Guest Commentator; December 30, 2022
Editor’s Note: Russ Jackson taught broadcast advertising at a California college and has been an active rail advocate for over 40 years. – Corridorrail.com Editor
There are two different types of advertising message. One is to motivate the customer to quick action, the other is a more generalized “institutional acceptance” of the advertiser and its message is to establish or improve its image hoping the viewer will remember them. Arguably, a third is to do both.
An example of a motivational ad was for Winchell’s Donut House years ago. Winchell’s, “Home of the Warm ‘n Fresh Donut®,” is the West Coast’s largest donut chain with over 170 units, in 6 states, plus locations in Guam, and Saipan. Their TV spots showed only a counter of warm donuts ready to eat; nothing else. Within minutes store owners would see people running into their stores to buy donuts. We’re selling train travel here, not donuts.
On November 2, 2022, Ad Age magazine provided a glimpse at Amtrak’s new TV spot that aired on CBS This Morning, the lowest rated morning show and likely the least expensive to buy time in. Ad Age estimated its cost was $73,343. The ad’s theme was home for the holidays with “warm and fuzzy” shots of happy folks riding inside trains. The narrator says, “The magic of the train is more than how it takes us away. It’s how it brings us together.” The final title shot says, “Just an Amtrak away,” which is also used on some print and internet ads. Nice thoughts, but which ad caught your eye? Which one tells you what the ad is “selling”?
Okay, let’s look at what advertising messages for a passenger transportation company could be like, if they have been out of the public eye for a long time as Amtrak has because of the pandemic. Denver, Colorado, is a large community served by Amtrak, and Fort Morgan is 60 miles east of Denver and has had rail passenger service for generations.
Fort Morgan, Colorado. County population, 28,000. Every morning Mike Jensen takes his camera to the train station to record the arrival of the westbound California Zephyr, which is due around 5 AM. He shows the world on the internet that the train arrived and how many passengers get on or off. Where are those folks going? Mike reports when he knows, some are going to Denver but most beyond to Glenwood Springs, Grand Junction, or even the West Coast. Folks arriving there are coming from anywhere east of there. There were 3,473 riders in 2019, or almost 10 per day between westbound Train 5 and its eastbound counterpart, Train 6. Those riders don’t need advertising to tell them about the train. That station has been there since it was built by the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad in 1922.
Denver, Colorado. Population over 700,000 and a Metro area of almost 3 million. From the one Union Station in downtown Denver, ridership on the California Zephyr in 2019 was 143,947. Many of those riders were intrastate, coming and going from the ski areas. From an advertising standpoint what should Amtrak be talking about in Denver? Warm and Fuzzy? Or, What is Amtrak? Where does it go? When does it go? Why should I take the train? How much does it cost? Amtrak should be concerned about its advertising reach and frequency, or how many people see it and how often.
Market-specific advertising in Colorado’s huge market should not only have local background visuals but narration about destinations like the ski areas, yes, but how about Chicago or the West Coast. You can get there on the train, and it leaves Denver in the morning going West and evening going East. Onboard, you can relax with snacks and drinks in the Sightseer Lounge and have Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner in the Diner. Take the train because there isn’t the hassle of an airport or being locked-in on the Interstate. How much it costs to ride depends on where you are going, but if you take a Sleeping car, all of your meals are included. On print ads display Coach fares from Denver to Omaha or Reno, etc., not just the end-point cities.
Denver station is busy at train time. While the Fort Morgan folks don’t need “selling,” there are millions in the Denver area who have never heard of Amtrak or have ever considered making it a travel choice. Future Colorado ads must BE SPECIFIC: A Southern Pacific ad decades ago was self-explanatory: Next time try the train. That should now be Next time you travel from Denver take Amtrak’s California Zephyr train.
Have you looked at Amtrak’s webpage, Amtrak.com? Rail Advocates know what we want and have no trouble looking through the site to find what we want to know and/or buy tickets. What about those who want to find out what Amtrak is all about? What about those who never heard of Amtrak? Let’s say someone like that finds the website, what should be found? What, and how much. Look at the website now; they have some beautifully designed illustrated descriptions, but the first thing you see is buy tickets, which is so poorly designed that if you want to buy, the steps are disjointed. The website first page should have five link choices:
What is Amtrak and where do the trains go?
When do the trains go and what is onboard?
Buy tickets now
On-time information for currently running trains
These questions should be followed by Enjoy the trip not just the going!
Amtrak advertising right now on some routes would be useless, because Amtrak is not increasing seating capacity on the long distance/inter-regional trains. What seats they have are being filled by people who already know about them; many trains are sold out, and there is no chance additional seats are being added to accommodate even current demand. Amtrak needs a GROWTH attitude that will permit expansion of service capacity by adding cars nationwide not just in the Northeast Corridor, but out here in “flyover country” where each ticket is more productive. “Even if a train runs full every day it is so small that it cannot generate enough revenue to sustain itself,” said Andrew Selden. Until then Warm and Fuzzy is all the advertising they need to do because it helps keep the country’s eye on the company, but it must say What Amtrak Is not Enchanting Travel or Just an Amtrak Away.