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The Singapore Love Bus: Does the branding work?

Recently I boarded the bus number 196 on my way to work.

Instead of it being the usual SBS branded double‐decker in its purple, red and white livery, the bus was vibrant green with a large logo emblazoned on the side which read ‘SG (heart emoticon) BUS’. The change in branding made me curious, so I jumped online during the journey to find out more.

The Singapore government has appointed new bus operators for the island nation. As part of the exercise, Singapore commuters were asked to vote on the colour they like on buses. Red and lime green were the two options provided. Clearly, lime green was the favourite.

For a country that is known for having created a “city in a garden”, the choice of colour makes complete sense.

Crowdsourcing is not new. It is an effective way of engaging the public when bringing about change. It is a savvy initiative by the government as they seek to improve bus services across the country. In recent years, the government has had two bus operators providing services to commuters – SBS and SMRT.

I am now trying to establish whether SMRT and SBS are still operating services. From a branding perspective, catching a bus has just become a lot more confusing. Some buses have had all SBS branding removed. The SBS livery still exists; however, there is no branding on the bus. Others have had ‘Go Ahead Singapore’ (a UK logistics operator) or ‘Tower Transit’ (a new local transport company) put on them – often patched over where the SBS logo was.

To make matters more confusing, I’m now seeing lime green buses running around the city with ‘SG (heart emoticon) BUS’ on the side. Some of these buses have a white Tower Transit logo close to the ‘SG (heart emoticon) BUS’ logo, or a Go Ahead Singapore logo on the side.

It feels ambiguous, but I remind myself that more will no doubt be revealed in coming weeks.

In the interim, it’s worth reflecting on the core purpose of a brand. Brands exist primarily as a point of differentiation and also as a mechanism for enabling trust. Currently, there are green buses travelling around with a variety of bus operator’s names on them. Personally, I find it confusing. I’m unsure about who is providing the service. The progression in thought from this, therefore, is who do I “trust” to get me safely to and from work.

Furthermore, if I’m unhappy with the service provided should I contact the SG LOVE BUS company or do I reach out to a brand such as Tower Transit who I have no relationship with and know nothing about?

Brand confusion aside, there is one more interesting aspect to the recent change in bus branding. The “I heart” emoticon was first used in 1977 for a mass campaign by New York City. It was highly successful and copied by many other brands and cities around the world. The heart symbol became synonymous with “love” which has become the lexicon for wherever and however the emoticon is now used. I have not seen the heart emoticon successfully used as “loves”.

It’s a bold move to use such a well-­‐known symbol in a different manner.

The branding on the new lime green buses appearing on Singapore’s streets reads as though the heart emoticon is being used in plural. What I gather from my conversations with colleagues and other commuters is that this doesn’t seem to be cutting through. Instead the new branding is being perceived as “The Singapore Love Bus”.

You can reach your own conclusions as to what this implies. One also wonders whether the new form of branding will be extended to other modes of transport in Singapore. Trains would be okay, but ferries emblazoned with “The Singapore Love Boat” will no doubt trigger some amusing memories from those commuters that remember the American TV series featuring a white cruise liner touring the Bahamas in the 1980’s.

We are witnessing a gradual transition with Singapore bus operators. This will no doubt lead to improvements in service and overall reliability. One of the core facets of branding is to have a compelling single minded idea that underpins the many different aspects to a brand.

Based on what I’ve seen, thus far, there remains ample scope to help the travelling public better understand the new bus system being deployed across the city state. A more definitive branding system could be the panacea to the current ambiguity.

The writer is Nick Foley is the president for Southeast Asia Pacific & Japan for Landor.

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