First Manchester have chosen to brand their new busway services as ‘Vantage’, a stand-alone premium service using an all-new livery designed in-house by First’s own design team.
Gold and white lettering sits atop a deep purple base colour, with a fading harlequin-patterned ‘V’ dashed across the rear halves of the vehicles. The same device is placed liberally across associated marketing collateral. Interestingly, there is little mention of First anywhere within the branding, the only indications being a small ‘f’ on the front of the vehicles, and the links to the First website and Twitter feeds.
Disappointingly, it’s in the execution of the idea itself where the problems start to stack up. Good design begins with a strong message; a single guiding principle which the creative work should always attempt to spell out. What does the brand stand for, and what are the values it upholds? What can we offer that compels the motorist to ditch their car and switch to the bus? Are we faster? Cheaper? More convenient for the office?
Sadly, the Vantage brand lacks this key ingredient. The critical element. The core message. To look at the brand as the average passer-by, you would never suspect that this was First’s ‘premium’ offering, aimed primarily at tempting commuters out of their cars and onto the guided busway. The name, Vantage, signifies superiority, but neither the livery nor marketing collateral offers an explanation as to what is particularly superior about the service. Take Transdev Blazefield’s CityZap or The Busway in Cambridge as good examples of getting the core message absolutely right – both of these brands offer an instant explanation as to what their benefits might be, simply by virtue of their names alone.
On closer inspection of the livery, there’s no mention of any of the qualities which set Vantage apart from your regular, run of the mill bog-standard bus service. Nothing about the e-leather seats, quieter engines, USB charging points on board or even – rather worryingly – the actual guided busway itself. Given that the busway is Vantage’s major trump card (which neither the motor car nor Stagecoach can match with their competing 34/X34 service between Leigh and Manchester), this is a startling omission on the part of First.
One has to wonder how this could possibly have been overlooked in the design process; in fact, the exterior appearance of these vehicles has been misjudged so catastrophically that the average motorist will barely bat an eyelid as the buses breeze by through the new priority measures along the A580. From the outside, the only facts drivers might be able to recite definitively are that Vantage travels between Leigh and Manchester, stops at a few other places en-route, and that it costs £4.50 to buy a FirstDay ticket. It’s a real missed opportunity to compel a relatively captive audience to take that leap of faith and ditch the car.
The blame for squandering this golden opportunity, however, cannot all be landed squarely with First. There’s no mention at all of the Vantage services within TfGM’s new 250-space Park and Ride site at the A580/M60 junction, save for a map of the local area pointing out the bus stops nearby. Vantage actually serves the stops outside the P&R site on the A580, rather than pulling into it – but there’s no mention of this anywhere within the facility itself. That said, it would not have been overly difficult for First to purchase the advertising space at shelters in key locations for the duration of the launch period for the purposes of signposting new customers.
Arguably, First are doing a better job of ‘preaching to the converted’ inside the vehicles than they are of providing a compelling message to drivers on the outside. Inside, Vantage genuinely feels like a real premium quality product. First’s black, grey and light purple colour scheme blends smoothly with the darker Vantage accents, feeling fresh, crisp and modern, if lacking a little in warmth. The Isringhausen Ega coach seating upstairs is chunky and reassuringly comfortable, the WiFi is fast and reliable, and the USB charging ports present in the backs of the seats are a welcome touch. The Vantage marque is prominent throughout, embroidered tastefully into the headrests, emblazoned across the friendly messaging at the bottom of the staircase, and printed on the (neck-bendingly awkward to read) cove panels above the seating.
Inevitably, since Vantage is First’s attempt at redefining bus travel in Greater Manchester, we really must look over the Pennines to Transdev in Harrogate’s ‘36’ by way of a comparison. Brand ‘36’ works because it offers not just a livery or an interior, but an entire experience. Personal space, luxury seating and tools for productivity have been combined to offer a real alternative to driving into Leeds’ congested one-way system. The 36 actually matches and betters the experience most commuters could get by driving their own vehicles – and this message pervades throughout the brand proposition.
From the outside at least, Vantage feels corporate. There is no warmth. There is no magic. There is no experience. It’s just another bus route.
This article was originally published in BUSES Magazine Issue 734, May 2016.
What do you think about Vantage? We’d love to know – write in the comments below, or drop us a tweet @transportdsn.