Urban outreach efforts aim to build credibility and put Greyhound back on the right track
Pulling out of near-bankruptcy and restructuring a business model is one thing. But when your company becomes a punch line, it's time to try a radically new approach.
Case in point: Greyhound Lines, a brand that had built its reputation on affordable intercity bus transportation for more than a century. In summer 2001, the Dallas-based company faced severe financial difficulties, accelerated by such factors as the rise of low-cost airlines, Chinese- and Latino-owned regional bus lines, and 9/11's unprecedented increases in insurance and security costs, says Kim Plaskett, Greyhound's corporate communications director. By 2003, riders had fallen below 22 million (from 25 million in 2001 and 34 million in 1985), and it had lost "around $140 million," Plaskett says.
By late 2004, disgruntled riders - fed up with driver strikes, service and safety issues, and interminably long travel times - were ready to put Greyhound to sleep for good. A January 2005 Forbes article contended the company was "barely worth saving."
"The chrome on the dog was tarnished," Plaskett concedes. "We had to completely change how people perceived Greyhound. Everything we're doing right now is really about improving brand regard."
To that end, Greyhound launched an 18-month campaign to entirely restructure its core network, eliminating 260 pickup locations, but stepping up travel times as much as 20%, she says. It's also renovating stations and buses, and rolling out new employee uniforms, customer care training programs, and other efforts to serve the needs of riders. And now that the business is financially stable, Plaskett says, the brand can "really take a look at who our target audiences are and speak to them in the right way."
One previously untapped audience is the young urban consumer, whom Plaskett describes as African-American and Hispanic 18- to 24-year-olds influenced by "hip-hop music, fashion, and art." It's a whole-new passenger focus for the company, she adds, and currently its "number one mindset."
To build brand credibility among this audience, the company introduced a new coach to its fleet at last year's Vibe Awards: the Greyhound Unleashed bus. The flashy black-and-chrome bus goes on cross-country excursions to young adult-oriented community, music, and sporting events, from spring break to Historically Black College and University (HBCU) football games. A sort of vehicular Pied Piper, the "pimped out" coach encourages interaction using celebrity riders, bus-side contests and activities, and Greyhound-branded giveaways.
A completely gutted interior now features leather love seats and pillow-strewn chairs, flat-screen TVs, a sound system, floor lights, Xbox 360 gaming stations, and laptop computers with wireless Internet.
The bus has been a fixture at the AND 1 shoe and apparel company's AND 1 Mix Tape Tours, national streetball events. (The relationship was forged by LA-based The Axis Agency, the multicultural arm of Weber Shandwick, with whom Greyhound has worked on a project basis.) Before the tournaments, bus visitors can participate in freestyle rap contests and hang out at AND 1 gaming stations, as well as send text messages and photos to Unleashed ambassadors. Later, they can log on to a microsite to download event pictures, watch video clips, win trips to VIP parties, buy tickets, and book travel on Greyhound.
"That's the side we wanted [visitors] to see, the cooler side of Greyhound," Plaskett says. "Something they wouldn't have expected."
The effort has generated substantial media attention, from both hip-hop and entertainment Web sites and magazines and car-customization publications, she says. It's also helped evolve Greyhound's online social-networking community, LetsGoDog.com, where Unleashed bus visitors can share stories and post their own videos and photos.
A recent revenue report suggests the old grey dog's efforts are making an impact. Parent company Naperville, IL-based Laidlaw International in July credited a third-quarter profit increase of 16% to a strong performance from Greyhound Lines.
But do the urban outreach efforts translate into ridership-raising street cred? "Ongoing events, like the AND 1 and HBCU tours, are an excellent idea," says Clyde Smith, editor of hip-hop business blog ProHipHop.com. "They seem to fit overall changes in the company, and that's always a good thing."
Still, the young urban community might not choose to go Greyhound immediately. "Getting away from being perceived as the poor person's option when, in reality, that's what you've been, is difficult," Smith adds.
"We're on the right track," Plaskett says. "The bottom line is, everybody wants a safe, comfortable, affordable, enjoyable trip. That's what's most important, no matter what customer segment you fall under."
But bringing a little cool along for the ride certainly doesn't hurt.
AT A GLANCE
Revenues and latest earnings:
$1.2 billion in 2005 (includes Greyhound Canada and wholly owned subsidiaries)
Peter Pan Bus Lines, Trailways Transportation Systems, Coach USA
Key trade titles:
Metro Magazine, BusRide magazine, American Bus Association's Destinations
Torbejorne Purdy, CMO
Kim Plaskett, corporate comms director
Patty Herbeck, marketing director
Ricardo Rodriguez, marketing manager
Marketing services agencies:
PR agencies: Weber Shandwick, The Axis Agency (both on a project basis;
the account is currently in review)
Advertising agencies: The Richards Group, Shift, Slingshot, Grupo Gallegos