Why bother with marketing? Here’s why

“Television won’t last because people will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night,” movie producer Darryl Zanuck once predicted.

Forecasting the future is tricky. Want to have some fun? Google “failed predictions” for more examples.

Early in my bussy career it was an article of faith that our parents (the Greatest Generation) would soon retire and spend their golden years touring the country they had built… in motorcoaches. Since that was a given, why bother with marketing, particularly in a regulated industry?

A couple of generations later we still cling to the prediction that somehow the next generation will feel the urge to ride in buses. We’ve been safe, fuel-efficient and green—all good things—but apparently not good enough to make the public plop into our seats in the numbers we hoped for.

Sometimes it feels like we’re surrounded. Technology, much of it mandatory, makes coaches costly. We scramble to avoid being swamped by waves of regulation, using energy just to stay afloat. A substantial percentage of the population considers us their last choice in transportation, and we can’t attract and retain enough good drivers.

When General Anthony McAuliffe was surrounded during the Battle of the Bulge, he told his troops: “We have the greatest opportunity ever presented to an army. We can attack in any direction we choose.”

The recent Sales Summit certainly advances us in one important direction. Any product or service, no matter how good, needs to be sold. Having said that, one of our biggest weaknesses is perception. Since WWII we have largely been unable to convince the public of the true value of our service. Once we manage that, margins can rise to reasonable levels, we’ll find it easier to attract quality drivers and the public will choose us over other options.

As usual, I offer no actual solution, but I am willing to predict that if we don’t move that way, we’ll continue to flounder. Re-regulation, whether de jour or de facto, is not an answer. Either would shrink the size of the industry, benefiting a few larger carriers and driving passengers to other forms of transportation. (For those keeping score… two Latin words and a pun in one paragraph).

Whatever we do won’t involve a national marketing campaign. We’d likely be looking at about $3,000,000. The total number of motorcoaches in the US is just north of 30,000. If operators would just contribute $100 per bus… oops, that ain’t going to happen, and the $3,000,000 would be a one shot deal.

I’m willing to predict that assuming that the next generation will gravitate toward bus transportation will fail. Gravity won’t work; we need to somehow pull them in. Jargon hasn’t succeeded: just calling them “motorcoaches” rather than buses hasn’t moved the needle.

If we can’t afford a frontal attack, maybe a bit of guerrilla marketing is in order. Include sales skills and morale boosting in driver training? Use product placement? Carefully constructed and targeted advertising? Obviously some of us are more successful than others, so see what the good guys are doing. If you have ideas, get them out there.

We dare not fall into the trap of thinking we own existing customers. Many, particularly in scheduled service, may not have other alternatives in transportation… now. If we take them for granted, treat them poorly, then when they do have choices, we lose.

Thomas Watson, former chairman of IBM, was a really smart guy, but in 1943 he decided to coast when a bit of action was in order: “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.”


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