Acela means business…

…Or so the new “Take Off” advertising campaign for Acela Express would have us believe. And maybe they’re right. According to the New York Times, 75% of travel between NYC and Washington DC occurs on Amtrak trains. And Acela ridership specifically accounts for nearly 3.4 million passengers on Northeastern corridor rail transit every year.

Here’s a video from the campaign:

When Acela was launched in 2000, it focused on business travel with its offer of speed, efficiency and flexibility. Today, the new “Take Off” advertising campaign hits this proposition well, with a sharp elbow-jab toward the Northeast corridor airlines that comprise the main competition for the business travel dollar.  But the “Take Off” campaign pitches Acela even more ambitiously – it speaks of “reimagining business travel”. We wondered if Acela is really doing that and what it would take.

To create a brand experience that delivers on that promise, Acela needs more than a well-articulated ad campaign. They have to start looking for ways to use innovative spaces, better services, and powerful partnerships to shift the current perception of business travel time from “wasted” to “optimized.” Here’s how we’d get started…

The basics matter

In some ways, today’s Acela merely represents the basic standards that business travel should be delivering. What could their “reimagined” business travel look like? Could Acela be the ‘ultimate mobile office’, and what would it take to be that? Maybe it isn’t so much about luxury or premiums, but about the most reliable basic necessities.

Could Acela ensure that every passenger has a super clean and comfortable seat that doesn’t remind you of the 3.4 million other passengers who are using them? And of course…a working power outlet, maybe even two per passenger?

And how about consistently reliable hi-speed Wi-Fi? While both the Delta Shuttle and many express bus services also offer Wi-Fi, Acela’s ‘ultimate mobile office’ would need to go the extra mile to deliver a fast, consistent service. (Easy for us to say, as we don’t have to figure out the location of cellular towers, router reception, demand load, etc.) Acela could look for an opportunity to partner with a best-in-class mobile Wi-Fi provider, and create an utterly compelling Wi-Fi delivery that locks them in as the go-to choice for Northeast business travellers. Trenitalia’s Frecciarossa, Italy’s state-owned TGV, gets high customer ratings for its Wi-Fi Internet, an experimental network available through a co-operation between Trenitalia and Telecom Italia.  

Delight with fresh food and dining

Given that many busy business travellers often have to travel during mealtimes, quality, healthy food and beverages could go a long way in this “reimagination” of business travel. Would a franchise partnership with Whole Foods or Le Pain Quotitiden enable Acela to differentiate from the low-grade food options served on most airlines? Acela’s café car facilities, compared to airplanes and buses, could provide their brand a real advantage. The ‘ultimate mobile office’ might even offer its first-class passengers the option of hot or cold gourmet meals served directly at your seat. They could take a cue from Virgin Rail’s Intercity line in the UK and the TGV in France for example, which both offer a gourmet food service that creates a distinctly enjoyable travel experience.

Optimizing the space advantage

Given that air or bus travel makes most think of cramped and stuffy space, could Acela maximize its comparative space advantage to help reinvent business travel? We played with some more ideas to put space to work in a way that would change the game.

Conference Call Pods:

Acela’s Quiet Cars are wonderful – no need to blast music in your earphones to drown out your fellow passengers’ important discussions or telephone calls. But given the reality that business travellers do indeed have pressing matters to discuss, could Acela take full advantage of the space offered by a train and provide a car fitted with sound-safe conference call pods? 

Executive Meeting Room:

As time-optimization is high on the list of priorities for all business travellers, wouldn’t it be cool if you could simultaneously nail a key meeting or presentation whilst traveling? Could Acela offer executive meeting rooms equipped with conference table, Okamura or Aeron inspired seats, and a large-format HD screen that connects to a PC for video projections.

Workout Car:

Building on our imaginary executive meeting room, could Acela further optimize its space advantage and offer a fitness car? Maybe partner with Equinox Fitness or CrossFit and install stationary exercise machines so travellers could optimize their time and workout while traveling instead of sitting still.

Legendary service

One of the great things about an Acela journey is the low number of service announcements compared to the seemingly never-ending in-flight announcements suffered on your average flight. Could Acela further focus on reducing travel stress and become known for memorable and delightful employee service? Could they model a program on the Ritz Carlton’s “Legendary Service” training program for employee and customer engagement? Or survey their passengers to really understand what comprises the ultimate in service on-board Acela?  Per our service-announcement point, they might find that less is more. 

21st century rail travel

Rail travel in the US has a long way to go to catch up to European and Asian standards, and perhaps that is more a political question than brand experience. But hi-speed rail tracks that are designed for hi-speed trains would really help Acela deliver on its core promise of speed. And ensure it could truly differentiate from the legacy of Amtrak and freight trains! As the US becomes increasingly conscious of carbon-foot printing (again some way to go to catch up to European standards), hi-speed/hi-efficiency rail travel could give Acela a valid advantage in offering business travelers the greener mode of transport. 

Acela brand potential

We wanted to play with the possibilities that a meaningful brand experience could deliver, and imagine what it might really take for Acela to “reinvent business travel”. By providing innovative spaces, services and powerful partnerships that enable business people to travel and work more efficiently, Acela could potentially reinvent the current perception of business travel time as wasted, and reinvent business travel in a way that delivers high value with a low carbon footprint.

We’re onboard, are you?

Angela Riley is a Strategy Director at Wolff Olins New York. 

As the skies crowd above India, what’s the secret of a successful future for Indigo?

By Zia Patel 

In a timely manner

Indigo’s success can be attributed to its single-minded focus on service – unquestionably, this is the key strength of its brand.

Planes leave and arrive on time. Such reliability makes Indigo the dependable option for business travellers, something that is absolutely essential when managing a busy schedule that requires city-hopping across a country as vast as India. Over and above being affordable, being reliable is the brand’s key driver.

Indigo’s dedication to service and reliability goes a long way to explaining why it has such a loyal customer-based and is one of the few airlines that is making money at a time when the Indian aviation industry as a whole is struggling. Jet Airways is rather like our Indian Parliament, hampered by bureaucracy; witness the recent shocking apology on the death of James Dean, the pet cat that was entrusted to the airline but run over on the tarmac at Delhi airport. The incident reflects how Jet seems to have lost its human side and everything now seems so robotic. For Kingfisher things don’t look so rosy. And as for Air India, it holds the dubious honour of being reliably (and not fashionably) late!

The launch of the new Air Asia / Tata venture, Air Asia India, is primarily going to hurt SpiceJet, Jet Airways and may even sound the death knell for Kingfisher. Because Air Asia India is for now a South India-centric service, its entry into the market won’t affect Indigo much. However, any expansion into North India could cause a few furrowed brows at Indigo HQ.

The risk is that arrival of Air Asia India will stimulate a fresh price war, which won’t do anyone (except perhaps the consumer in the short-term) any good. The way for Indigo to beat Air Asia India’s low cost offer is to offer “real” value and not to lose its nerve. To succeed in this increasingly competitive marketplace, Indigo will need to firmly stick to its guns by keeping up its meticulous timekeeping. Not only that, the carrier should continue to develop new markets internationally. So just as Jet and Ethiad are forging links to capture a bigger share of long-haul traffic, Indigo could similarly consider partnering with Emirates to extend its reach further afield.

Inspiration – who else is getting it right?

There are inspirational models and lessons to be learned around the globe. Remember Go created by British Airways? It was a low-cost airline set up to compete with the new players like Easy Jet that were posing a serious threat to British Airways’ business. It was a strong, contemporary brand with the heritage and existing affection for BA behind it. Ultimately the strategy failed because behind-the-scenes, the logistics weren’t quite at the level necessary to enable Go to remain competitive. However, the carrier earned valuable lessons for BA, allowing it to then go on to compete in low-cost and shorthaul arenas under its own name. Indigo does not have such issues to address, in terms of logistics, it’s sorted!

In the US, Southwest Airlines is a good example of a “better value” alternative to buses, coaches and rail services, and the much-admired JetBlue based in New York features a smart, clean fleet with comfortable leather seats and helpful staff offering a small, but a quality selection of snacks. Both these airlines enjoy high levels of customer loyalty, enabling them to prosper in an otherwise challenging market. With its unwavering focus on service, it’s fairer to compare Indigo to Southwest and JetBlue rather than the likes of Easyjet, Ryanair, Pegasus or even local rival SpiceJet.

Small tweaks but beware too much tinkering

Often when creating a successful strong brand it’s the small steps and considerate, thoughtful gestures that build brand loyalty, and this is certainly true in the world of airline travel. I’m not suggesting massive change at Indigo, but rather minor improvements to the service; seemingly little, but useful, things that their customers want and that anticipate needs. Think about a full brand experience: the flight itself is just one part of the customers’ relationship with the airline and there is an opportunity to engage more with customers- not only at the booking, travel or baggage collection stages. The experience starts from the moment a customer decides to take a trip to when they return home safely.

Improvements might include making it easier for international passengers to purchase tickets, or in fact any meaningful and thoughtful additional services which could elevate it even further above the competition. Additionally, Indigo could do more in the digital space, perhaps by using social media more effectively or automatically sending an update SMS to guests awaiting passengers at arrivals with a flight’s status. The real trick will be to stay relevant, not just different.

Having said this, Indigo needs to be careful not to tinker too much with its brand and its professional business model in the way that Jet Airways has. The last thing we need in India is another Jetlite, Jetconnect, Jet-the-third! Indigo will succeed by remaining dedicated to, and focused on delivering its promise of dependability. It already enjoys high levels of word-of-mouth recommendation—the best kind of unpaid communications a company could ask for and the one that matters most. Like many people, I trust my friend’s recommendation over a glossy ad any day. Way to go Indigo! Keep us recommending you. 

Zia Patel is a senior strategist at Wolff Olins Dubai. 

High performance fashion: Levi’s connects with cyclists

By Melissa Scott

As more New Yorkers take to their bikes this spring, the clothing logistics of commuting can be a challenge—from hot days to sudden downpours, the elements of NYC streets can be unpredictable. The newly launched Levi’s Commuter Series attempts to bridge the gap between fashion, lifestyle, function and fitness.

The collection combines high-performance details from waterproofing and sanitization technology (to keep riders dry, clean and odor-free), to ultra-functional 3M reflection tape (for safety). 
Levi’s connects their strong brand history as the original, American working denim and translates it to innovation for the unique needs of urban bikers with construction-inspired waistbands to hold U-Locks. 

JeWon Yu, a designer of the collection discusses the vision on their blog:
"Simply put, the commuter on the bike—be it young, old, from all walks of life….I feel like this lifestyle transcends any kind of trend and is something that anyone can participate in regardless of where you live, work, or play… It just feels so right for the brand. City landscapes are changing all over the world in response to the numbers taking to the streets on their bikes as their preferred method of transportation. It’s not just about San Francisco anymore, this is totally relevant worldwide and Levi’s, being a global brand, is keen to it and supports it completely."

The brand is also creating a series of Mobile Bike Shops, a partnership with Urban Outfitters, traveling across the country from Portland to New York, offering both bike and fashion services throughout the summer.

As innovation and engagement become driving forces in brands across all industries— creating custom experiences for more specific audiences—based on lifestyle instead of age/demographic—is a better way to make a bigger impact.

For more information, visit
HT Cool Hunting, Video via Levi’s Blog

Melissa Scott (@hello_melissa) is a Senior Designer at Wolff Olins 

To Fly. To Serve?

By Rose Bentley

It wasn’t British Airways fault that the snow fell last Saturday. And they weren’t solely to blame for the anaphylactic chaos at Heathrow. But for those of us who were caught up in it all, it was a ringside opportunity to experience a brand totally out of kilter with its promise.

Let’s start with that BA promise: To Fly To Serve. What does that mean to its people? 

Not much to one BA steward who chatted to us during the hours we sat on the tarmac as the plane kept missing its slots. He shrugged and said that yeah, Management had done something with the brand but it didn’t mean anything to him: ‘ We just get on with it don’t we?’ 

Not by the BA ground staff who patronized us all as we were herded back through Terminal 5 when the flight was finally cancelled, aghast that we might want some more information rather than a vague wave towards the hotel bus. Or the ones who greeted us the next morning at Terminal 5 and replied to our questions with  “No one tells us anything”.

And certainly not by the pilot of our second plane – which left 5 hours late and sat another two hours on the tarmac before take off – whose parting words as we landed at our destination were: “ It’s been a difficult time for all of us – especially for the crew. I hope all of you will agree that British Airways has fulfilled its contractual obligations to you.”

If BA had been true to its brand, that 36 hours could have played out so differently. I would not have reached my destination any sooner or less frustrated but my loyalty to BA would have strengthened thanks to a better experience. 

But it didn’t.  To Fly to Serve is not a promise, it’s a strapline. Its people don’t live by it, its consumers make a joke out of it. 

That’s bad for the brand. Which means that’s bad for business.

Riding the City

By Melissa Andrada 

In recent years, more bike lanes and racks have emerged in New York. The changes in infrastructure and rise in bike riding got me thinking about what the urban retail environment might look like in a five years. Could bike riding transform consumer habits in New York City in the way that cars and freeways did in California in the 1950s? How might you build a retail experience if New York City were designed for cyclists?

Melissa Andrada is a brand and content strategist at Wolff Olins New York. She’s passionate about the intersection between technology, social good and brand.  @themelissard

Social Enterprise: The default setting?


When the term ‘social enterprise’ is dropped into conversation it’s usually met with a unanimous murmur of approval. It sounds like a good thing. Something we should be supporting. But most people make a mental note to go home and Google the definition later (in case you’re in this boat, a social enterprise is driven by social and/or environmental purpose, and any profit made is reinvested towards achieving that purpose). There has been a pronounced lack of understanding about what a social enterprise actually is - what it means for a community, a business and society as a whole.

This is probably due to a few legacy issues: firstly, in the past the exact value and shape of a social enterprise was still being concretely defined – a lot of experimentation was taking place but not necessarily leading to any conclusive answers. Secondly, the notion of social enterprise was quickly annexed by purely social and community-driven forces – a means of creating alternative systems to corporate encroachment and monopoly rather than a vehicle for collaboration. And finally, we have been in the grips of a paradigm where profit maximization trumped any other forms of growth and progress. So, rather than being a bridge between business and society, the concept of a social enterprise has more often than not created misunderstanding on both sides of the divide.

But increasingly this is changing. Social enterprise, as a practice and model, has been gaining momentum and not just in the public realm. In fact it is in the private sector where a lot of the interesting experiments in social enterprise are taking place. Reactive, ad hoc CSR policies have shown themselves to be poor tools by which to support and contribute to social progress, an expectation demanded from an increasingly diverse set of stakeholders. More and more businesses are choosing to explicitly link economic and social value, essentially mapping their trajectory to the needs and progress of the communities in which they operate, making social impact intrinsic to their DNA (just see Zipcar/Streetcar, Vestas, TOM shoes, and even Nike and General Electric, as a few examples). Social enterprise has also enabled these businesses to embrace those dynamics – local/global, small/connected - that have previously been difficult to reconcile, giving them the agility to adapt to our rapidly changing world.

At Wolff Olins, having a positive impact on the world is an important aspect of our work. Taking inspiration from the rise of social enterprise, we wanted to go beyond donating or volunteering our time and services to a charity but actually see what it is like to create something in our local community that is active and long-term. This has been the impetus behind starting our own social enterprise, The Honey Club, in partnership with Global Generation and with huge support from The Co-operative and Urban Bees – it is a co-creative initiative that uses beekeeping to bring together businesses, charities and young people for positive, local impact. Not only are we empowering local people to address their needs and participate in the definition of their community but we are beginning to judge our own actions in different ways. From our operations, to our people, to the design we create - we are exploring different qualities to measure our work by – How can we make our processes more collaborative, open and connected? How do we grow the business without compromising our local roots? Could we be more experimental and adaptive with our working structures and business models?

These are difficult questions but ones we believe all businesses should be trying to answer. It’s early days for us, but if we can be part of reinventing the business landscape by creating new models and prototypes that we can share with others, then that’s something we’re really excited about.

The Honey Club

If you would like to keep up to date on our progress with the Honey Club follow us on Twitter at @HoneyClubKingsX

Hullo John, got a used motor?

Tesco are selling used cars. Many leaders in the car industry used to think that a retailer like Tesco would never do such a thing ‘because they couldn’t live with the margins’. Hmm.

Tesco are going into banking. Have gone into mobile phones. Have gone into financial services, clothing, furniture, electricals, opticians, jewelery and even film production.
Is there anything the Tesco brand can’t get into? And is there any brand that shouldn’t see a brand like Tesco as potential competitors?

Brands like Tesco, Google, Apple, Tata, Virgin are defined less by what they do, and more by what they believe. This makes them immensely powerful as it allows them to gatecrash categories which have grown complacent. If you have a trusted brand you can enter – pretty much – whatever category you like.

As Tesco’s move into car retailing shows it is much easier to buy capability than to build credibility. Which means it is harder for bank to become a trusted brand than it is for a trusted brand to become a bank.

The brands that will win in the future will build deep, trusted relationships with customers and expand what they do to fill more of those customer needs. The measure of success is now share of wallet – not market share.

Baby you can drive my car

The announcement by BMW’s sales and marketing chief that the carmaker is no longer just an auto company is yet more evidence that brands are changing what they do to serve more of the needs of their existing constituents.
By launching the DriveNow car-share service for people who want short-term access to a car without the responsibility of owning one, BMW is expanding its role to meet the needs of a changing world – no longer looking for just shareholder return but shaping the way we live our lives (in this case in mobility).
Business is no longer about making something and finding as much market share as you can, it’s about establishing relationships with customers and expanding what you do to serve more of their needs – think of it as share of wallet, not share of market. And it entails a way of working which is fundamentally collaborative, not competitive – it’s a new way of doing business.
If even BMW is starting to think like this then this will fast become a movement.

(Nick Keppel-Palmer)

Our friends electric

Last week one of the UK’s brightest stars got snuffed out. Modec was a maker of funky electric commercial vehicles – near silent delivery trucks that the likes of Tesco, UPS and FedEx had started using. (You really have to look both ways before crossing the roads nowadays).

Electric Vehicle technology may not provide all the answers to sustainable mobility – but few will deny that it’s a pretty important area. But the most interesting and forward thinking players are small, starved of capital and seemingly perpetually teetering on the brink. ThinkEV, Tesla, BetterPlace, REVA – all really exciting companies, all well respected, none of them more than niche. Meanwhile the mass manufacturers like Renault see Electric Vehicles as a source of future differentiation and therefore something to be protected and defended at all costs. Getting all paranoid about putative Chinese spies under the bed.

Why get so competitive about it? Why not collaborate? The world needs sustainable mobility, and the means to achieving it stretch way beyond the resources of one company. Think how much more the auto industry could achieve – together – if all the players dropped their ‘default competition’ mode and started thinking in ‘default collaboration’ mode. The most forward thinking brands in the world are those that understand clearly the role that they play, rather than obsess about the ‘position’ they are defending.  They seek out partners who share their aims and they work with them to achieve their common aims. Think Boots and Macmillan; M&S and Oxfam;  Kate Moss & Topshop; Nokia and Microsoft; Tata and Docomo; iphone and google maps; and even Heston Blumenthal and Little Chef. This is the end of competition as a business model.

Getting electric vehicles into the mass day-to-day market requires a massive sharing of resources (smarts, technology and money) if it’s going to happen at anything more than a snail’s pace. And we need it - fast. Fuel prices are heading skywards. But without a fundamental change of thinking in the boardrooms of the automotive oligopoly it won’t happen fast enough.

I hope Modec is an exceptional case. I fear it isn’t. 

(Nick Keppel-Palmer)