If the British transport system was a cinema, then Southern Rail would be the disaster movie currently showing
When I first moved to Brighton, the sight of the green and white livery of a Southern Rail train lifted my mood. It was the moment a day in London ended and the trip to the coast and my new home began. It was a brand full of promise.
This was before Southern became the worst train company in Britain. Before their 7.29am from Brighton to London failed to arrive on time for any of its 240 journey's in 2004. Before they entered into a prolonged dispute with the RMT union over the role of guards on the train. Before they became a national joke.
I use Southern to travel between Brighton and London and the delays and lack of a decent service are unbelievable. You can just about guarantee that every time you try and get a train, it will be delayed. They are always over-crowded as the number of carriages is reduced through the day as demand falls. And that's after they've got rid of a lot of journeys altogether in an attempt to hit targets - if there are less trains then they will be late less often. I kid you not. But it's made no difference.
The worst thing, it's not accidental - it's not just bad luck. Someone, somewhere is writing this narrative. Someone has decided Southern will be the brand that stands up to the unions regardless of the pain that that causes to passengers. The Department of Transport agreed not to fine Govia earlier this for not hitting targets, which has basically given them carte blanche to behave like this.
This is a company at war with both its customers and its staff. It disregarded its promise to provide a reliable service and became wrapped up in a battle over the future of how railways are run, acting as a proxy for the Department of Transport.
I've never seen anything like it. There are passengers strikes, passengers refusing to pay their fares, passengers picketing outside train stations, in Brighton and Victoria. There are protest groups online. Companies being at war with trade unions is one thing, but at the same time, actually fighting your own customers? That's incredible.
As someone who works in advertising and advises companies on brand strategy, I am fascinated about how you turn that brand around. Especially when a brand has been rebranded in people's minds as Southern Fail.
When the recent set of rail strikes was announced, in a normal situation, you'd expect the public to be against the unions. Southern assumed that and decided to use Twitter to encourage passengers to flame the RMT and tell them exactly what they thought of them and it backfired - and instead Southern got flamed and were humiliated on the national news.
In Hollywood, the scriptwriter's rule is that all character is action. If you want a character to be funny you can't just describe them as such, you need to get them to be or do something funny. Same with brands. If you want to be known as friendly, warm and honest you need to do something that proves you are.
The values of the brand are revealed by the actions of the company behind it.
Southern is owned by Govia which in turn is part owned (35%) by Keolis, which is the largest private sector French transport group and majority owned by SNCF, the French National Railways Corporation. So there's a bit of distance - investors aren't living with the public's wrath so much.
So how could this brand be turned around? It's a tough ask. The most infamous example of a brand being exposed as untrustworthy was Ratner's the jewellers, whose CEO famously boasted he could sell cut-glass crystal cheaply because "it was total crap". He made the front page of The Sun and national scandal followed. The share price collapsed, he was fired and eventually the company was rebranded.
Are Southern another Ratners? Not necessarily.
To turn the brand around they would need to clearly start behaving in their customers' best interests. Put them first for once. They could draw up a series of customer promises, publish them as a manifesto for a new relationship. Then deliver them.
This manifesto needn't be complicated:
Settle with the RMT and end the strikes
Get the trains running on time
Put more carriages on throughout the day so people don't have to stand
Surprise and delight passengers with little things like providing a free wi-fi that actually works.
Will Southern do this? I doubt it. Govia are too distant and too embroiled in political manoeuvring. If there is any future for Southern, it will require a better scriptwriter.