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Marketing the mainstream

Changing travel behaviour requires a finely tuned and sustained marketing strategy, write Amanda Pearce and Amy Boyle

iTravel video presentations on handheld devices and poster campaigns
iTravel video presentations on handheld devices and poster campaigns


When it comes to sustainable travel, first thoughts may not turn to marketing and communications. That’s understandable; most Local Sustainable Transport Fund (LSTF) projects need to focus significantly upon infrastructure to make sure that the quality and availability of sustainable travel options for residents and local businesses are the best they can be. However, it may not simply a case of ‘build it and they will come’. 

Changing behaviours and creating new ‘norms’ is always challenging. In terms of sustainable travel, we’re working against people’s habits, outdated ideas of what public transport is actually like these days and irrational choices: “I’ll drive to work even though it’s more expensive than the bus that stops two minutes from my house… I nearly always get stuck in traffic and have to drive around for twenty minutes to find a parking space…”

It is not enough to just provide the means to travel sustainably – there is a need to sell sustainable travel. It is important start thinking about how this will be done as early as possible. They need to persuade people to change how they travel, and that takes a great deal of insight, understanding, creativity and, most importantly, persistence. 

The selling starts with the thinking…

A successful marketing campaign always starts with understanding where people are at and where we need them to be. That’s true of any marketing campaign, but when it comes to travel behaviour, it’s particularly important to understand and consider how and why people change their travel choices. As behavioural change specialists, we have adapted the internationally recognised transtheoretical stages of change model (Prochaska and DiClemente, 1983) to demonstrate the process of modal behaviour change that people go through (see chart below).

What are key elements of a travel behaviour change marketing campaign? As with most things, the recipe for success has many ingredients. Here’s a checklist produced from diva Creative’s extensive experience in sustainable travel and behaviour change marketing:

  • Raise awareness: Ensure as many of the target audience know about the sustainable travel options as possible while selling the benefits that will appeal to each target audience segment. Don’t assume they’ll already know.
  • Motivate and educate: Motivate the target audience to want to use sustainable travel and educate them on the specific benefits of using it. This should be delivered with targeted communications that resonate with people and tap into their emotions.
  • Trigger action: Get those who are considering using sustainable travel to take action, this could be triggered by promotions such as one-day free trails, competitions, and discount rates.
  • Meet expectations: Once your target audience segments have started using sustainable travel modes you need to ensure that the services available meet their expectations and that they have a positive experience. Regular customer feedback should be welcomed, monitored and responded to, to ensure the service is the best it can be.
  • Develop customer relationships and loyalty: Developing customer relationships will ensure their loyalty and make them less likely to move to use a competitor (in this instance, the car). Current sustainable travellers can also act as advocates and refer friends and family especially if there are referral reward schemes in place.

This is a process, so if only part the marketing mix is delivered then it will have a limited impact – for example, you could successfully raise awareness of alternative modes and motivate change by selling the benefits, but then actually provide insufficient information to enable people to change their behaviour. Alternatively, you could provide excellent information to enable people to plan alternative sustainable ways to travel but not raise awareness of this and motivate people enough to actually consider them, thus limiting potential modal shifts.

From theory to practice: A tale of two website campaigns 

Diva were recently commissioned to promote sustainable travel through the LSTF programme in two areas, focusing on the development and promotion of a local website for each area. Their websites were recognised as a key tool to change people’s travel behaviour, both in terms of providing important relevant information, and in encouraging people to travel sustainably.

Both websites are similar – they each feature a travel planning tool to enable people to compare and plan different modes of travel. This is accompanied by information and advice on travel, thus fulfilling the requirement to provide guidance to enable modal change in those that are motivated to do so. 

However, one website averages over 12,000 hits a month and the other only averages 1,000. A stark contrast and, by no means, one that could be explained simply by differences in demographics. For the less popular site, diva were not asked to develop a marketing strategy, or deliver on and offline promotion, the content is less frequently updated and consequently the site gets less visits.

So, having a well thought through marketing strategy that ensures a website has good content and is constantly marketed, offline and online, is essential.

Speaking directly to people about travel when it matters to them

Over the last 12 months, we worked with our other client to promote the website, with campaigns that educate and motivate people to consider sustainable travel and sell the benefits of sustainable travel modes for different types of journeys. These campaigns have all tapped into people’s lifestyles and what’s happening in their lives, from promoting sustainable travel for Christmas shopping to public transport when they move home. 

Each campaign had a different message and focus but the call to action was the same – to visit the website for more information and advice on local travel options. Thus the marketing activities were consistent and delivered the strategy to drive traffic to the website to enable informed choice of travel options – without a preachy message to ‘ditch the car’. 

A range of communications channels were selected for each campaign including  videos, public engagement events, outdoor advertising, online advertising, and social media promotions. Branding also played a key role, with the development of a strong brand and illustrative style. 

Launching new ‘products’ to generate interest

More recently, a travel planning tool has been launched on the website. To promote this diva developed a high impact campaign that saw website hits soar to over 27,000 a month. To achieve this we again selected a mix of communications channels, including events at local supermarkets where we demonstrated the planning tool for the public.

Sustaining momentum

Just because a website is doing well now does not mean it will continue to do so. If the content stops being updated, and the targeted promotions tail off, then very few new visitors will access the website. This is why sustained marketing activities are so important throughout the lifespan of LSTF programmes. 

We only have to look at the corporate marketing sector to see this. Big brands like East Midlands trains and Cross Country trains continue marketing themselves year on year because it is a necessity to sustain sales. They cannot rely on people remembering they exist because they ran a campaign a year ago. It is the same with sustainable travel, especially at this very early stage when we are just succeeding in influencing the early converts. It would be a shame to stop now before we approach the tipping point at which sustainable travel options become the ‘norm’ for some journey types. 

When this happens, and sustainable travel truly becomes part of the mainstream, we will have succeeded, but until then we need to sustain our marketing activities. Then we can be assured that the investments made in sustainable travel infrastructure are cost effective and the LSTF programme will leave us with a positive legacy for the future.  

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