Most people in the UK will have seen yellow school buses in American films. The Yellow Bus brand represents more than simply a bus journey for young people. It is one of the classic icons of American culture, representing a child-centred world in which children's safety and well-being lie at the heart of community values.
Now Yellow Buses are becoming part of the British scene too; First is introducing them to the UK. The company is confident of success, and for good reason. Its research suggests that consumers see the product as superior to any of its current rivals.
In an increasingly globalised world, successful brands such as the Yellow Bus are as important as the goods and services they represent. Effective branding involves creating images that are instantly recognised and valued e.g. the Coca-Cola bottle and logo, the Nike symbol, the Shell sign and the Yellow Bus. With the help of mass communication channels, such brands have become part of popular culture and are instantly recognised worldwide. This recognition helps firms to introduce their product in countries where it has yet to be experienced directly 'for real'.
First is the UK's largest bus operator and a key rail operator, running nearly 20% of the UK's passenger rail services. In the USA, First Student, the company's USA school bus operation, transports over 1 million students to and from school each day in 36 states. As its name suggests, the company aims to be 'First' in the transport market by providing the best and most comprehensive service to consumers.
- First decided to introduce the Yellow Bus service here because:
- The adverse environmental impact of the school run, in terms of congestion and pollution had been identified by the government leading to a clear need for a high quality home to school transport service in the UK
- First was able to combine its US experience of running successful Yellow Bus services with a nationwide network of bus operations in the UK to offer the same high quality service here.
Before going ahead with a new venture, organisations need to assess the business environment. A useful framework for doing this is a PEST analysis. This examines the political, economic, social and technological factors that make up the business environment and indicates just how favourable they are.
First's detailed analysis provided strong support for developing Yellow Bus in the UK. The political climate is right. Currently parents' school runs in cars account for around 20of urban morning rush hour congestion. The government wants to cut traffic congestion and to see the number of car journeys to school reduced. Also, local authorities are seeking to develop partnerships with bus companies that can help them create integrated transport systems that reduce reliance on the car. This involves creating bus lanes, providing better buses, introducing more convenient ticketing arrangements, planning better routes and frequencies, and operating a customer-friendly service.
Social attitudes in the UK are changing as people become more aware of the environmental damage caused by over-reliance on the car. In the UK, bus travel has experienced 40 years of decline, but there are signs that the market is picking up.
Parents, however, have been reluctant to change the way that they transport their children to school because of the perceived safety of the door-to-door nature of the car journey. However, buses are much safer than cars and the yellow school bus is designed to be one of the safest vehicles in passenger service. Recent official surveys showed that parents who drive their children to school would consider switching to a high quality school bus service. So there is a clear opportunity for the Yellow Bus, which can provide an integrated school transport system that will:
- ease congestion, improve air quality, speed traffic flows and promote public transport
- reduce child road accidents
- create a more secure environment for travel and enable children to become more independent
- provide a disciplined start to the school day that also provides early warnings about truancy
- help parents by accepting responsibility for taking children safely to school
- support the transport aims of local government.
First's UK Yellow Bus service is based on existing patterns in the US and Canada. There is a great emphasis on safety. Every year in the USA, over 600 school-aged children are killed in school-hour accidents involving private vehicles. On average there are 9 fatalities involving school bus occupants. Every year in the UK, 45of accidents involving children are road accidents - 200 children die and 9,000 are seriously injured. These are appalling figures. Yellow Bus can help reduce them.
- an elevated passenger compartment on a rigid steel chassis that places passengers above the point of impact of most accidents
- roll-over bars to provide protection from crushing
- high-backed seating and seat belts with extra padding to protect children against the force of a front or rear impact
- enhanced brakes, lamps, mirrors, emergency exits and fuel tank protection
- an instantly recognised signal to motorists to be alert for children
- mechanical checks on the bus at least twice daily.
Each bus is allocated a specific driver, who is often a local parent with children of school age. The driver takes responsibility for checking the safety and cleanliness of the bus in every respect. Training and development of drivers includes useful ideas from teachers on how to build constructive relations with pupils, parents and teachers themselves. This means that the school journey becomes part of the educational process rather than just a bolt-on extra.
The Yellow Bus service helps young people to become more independent in travelling to school as well as providing them with a useful social experience with fellow students. Students are expected to take responsibility for their actions on the bus. Each has an allocated seat and, where necessary, a camera to observe activities on the bus so that the driver, parents and teachers have a record of behaviour during the journey. In this way it is easy to identify sources of vandalism on the bus, as well as other forms of inappropriate behaviour.
The service involves pupils of all ages from primary school to college. Drivers are able to pick up their passengers almost on a 'door to door' basis and the route is planned to best cater for the needs of students and parents. Students are expected to be at a pick-up point five minutes before the bus arrives, but drivers are also trained to look out for any who may be 'on the way'. Those that are continually late may lose the privilege of Yellow Bus travel.
Safety procedures include regular practice of bus evacuations so that students know exactly what to do if their bus is involved in a road accident.
A period of trialling is a key part of the launch of any new product or service. In
introducing Yellow Bus to the UK, First had to consider the implications of operating in a country with a different regulatory environment. The UK needs buses specially built for 'driving on the left' and the European Union operates within a different regulatory framework for safety and emission standards. Adapting the vehicles for use in the UK, together with import duties, mean that a new Yellow Bus for the UK is more than twice the USA price.
Despite these difficulties, First was clear that the UK market offers an important opportunity because the Yellow Bus service is so much better than anything else currently available and the need is there. First still had to convince the government and parents. This involved making a clear case to national government, local education authorities, school managers, parents and children that the Yellow Bus:
- has one of the best safety records of any vehicle in passenger service
- is a symbol of safety across the world, and a catalyst for encouraging parents to rethink their own attitudes and practices
- offers attractions, recognition and respect that no other bus can provide
- entices people back to buses, which reduces congestion and helps the environment.
To test demand for its service, First initially carried out research in Aberdeen. This confirmed the product's value. At the same time First made enquiries with national government (including the views of John Prescott and David Blunkett). Thirty local authorities gave a favourable response. Encouraged by this, First re-designed the bus to meet UK regulations.
The company then produced a range of promotional materials and activities which projected the concept that Yellow Bus is more than just a bus; it is a comprehensive service. The next stage involved developing a high profile for the concept in the media, and winning parental support. First then launched Yellow Bus in Yorkshire, Runnymede, Surrey and Wrexham and received strong public support for the brand. The company has options on 100 Yellow Buses from its US manufacturers. To meet European standards, nearly 50 changes have been made to the standard USA design.
Using the US experience First has looked to recruit and train local parents or part-time school staff to drive the Yellow Buses. Training emphasises that the job is as much about caring for children as driving. The training programme takes about five weeks and includes customer care, safety, security and child behaviour as well as driving skills. At the start of each year, parents are informed about pick up points and times. Parents can influence the routes taken. In addition to the standard runs, the buses are also used for sports trips.
elsewhere, it is a superior product to anything else on offer, and because its operation can be adapted to meet local requirements. The service offers a 'package' that is attractive to education and transport authorities as well as to schools, parents and children. Launching the service in the UK has been made easier by the existing brand recognition and by the strong positive image nurtured through years of exposure in American films and TV series.