LRT: A Failed Branding Exercise

If you are among the three people who have watched me talk about Free to Use Public Transit for London, you know that I love a well-funded and efficient transit system. As receptive as my Ignite audience was to the idea, presenting this case to the City of London went nowhere. My fault, as I still suck at persuasion.

After watching the light rail transit (LRT) debate rage in London for the last few months, I have come to a sobering realization. There is only one reason why city council did not embrace LRT.

They got the branding wrong.

Never mind the business cases. Never mind how it would be efficient, provide students with a reason to stay in London, etc.. Those are arguments based on logic and reason. Throughout my life, I have tried to persuade people based on logic and reason. The result? Disappointment. Nearly every time, they go with another vendor, make the contrary decision, or do something else I deem illogical.

It’s not their fault.

City council made the same mistake in selling LRT as well. They are appealing to logic and reason. “We need LRT to attract jobs and alleviate gridlock.” So? You could make the argument that we need more roads for the same reason.

Another appeal was made concerning other cities. “Waterloo and Ottawa have LRT, so we need it too.” Unfortunately, this appeal backfired. London isn’t Ottawa. London isn’t Waterloo. We are different from them, and what works for them might not work for us. Compare this to an argument heard at some point in every home with a child.

Child: “Everyone else is getting a [insert new fad object here]!”

Parent: “So, if your friends were going to jump off a bridge, you would too?”

Trite example? Sure. But it triggers a similar discussion. X is doing it, so we need to as well. But, X is doing things we don’t like too. This reasoning implicitly triggers the same reaction in people.

Finally, the biggest issue with LRT: the name. LRT. LRT. Let’s look at other three-letter acronyms, courtesy of Wikipedia.

CPU, CEO, CIA, FBI, KGB, FSB, NSA, BBC, GMO, MSG…

Many TLA’s we run into are cold and clinical. And scary. The mere mention of the acronyms CIA, FBI, KGB, FSB, and NSA make people shiver. Dr. Carmen Simon, author of Impossible to Ignore, states that memory is at the root of all decision-making. Considering that 60% of those acronyms conjure scary images, is it any surprise that London didn’t support the LRT?

Knowing all this, how could (future) Mayor Salih revive LRT?

By appealing to our memories and our sense of identity.

How? By introducing the London Streetcar .

Streetcars are pleasant and romantic. They conjure up pleasant memories. A Streetcar Named Desire. Taking the streetcar down to Kensington Market in Toronto. Riding the San Francisco cable car system. That freaking-awesome trolley car that takes you to the neighborhood of make-believe.

For London, there’s another appeal to memory – we had a streetcar company at one point! Combine our sense of identity (being a Londonder) with our memories of the past (London had a streetcar), and you have a potent and persuasive plan (Let’s bring back the London Streetcar).

Change nothing else other than the name, and I would bet money that London would rally behind this change. If this council had ditched the LRT brand and called it The London Streetcar, Jesse Helmer wouldn’t be lamenting right now.

I will leave it to Mayor Salih to make this his priority after the next election.

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