Earning Brand Loyalty: No Easy Task

In business marketing, the concept of ‘brand loyalty’ can be defined as follows:

Brand loyalty…consists of a consumer’s commitment to repurchase or otherwise continue using the brand and can be demonstrated by repeated buying of a product or service or other positive behaviors such as word of mouth advocacy.

Think about it and you’ll see it’s all around you: companies go to great lengths to get families and especially their kids to consume their cereal over the competitors.  Coffee drinkers are confronted with TV and movie stars who use a particular coffee brewer. Streaming services are hard at work producing great content and making their viewing package more attractive or accessible than the others. Convenience stores offer free beverages after you purchase 10 drinks to earn your loyalty and your repeat business. Even our school bus manufacturers and other vendors work terribly hard to gain our trust and loyalty! 

Now let’s apply this idea to our work and our product. Like those companies, we want moms and dads to want us for their kids and we want the kids to love us especially. Seems obvious then that the school bus community must strive relentlessly to define and steward our brand. Moms and dads will not show their loyalty to us if our product and our service to their children is substandard on a wide range of measures.  

Put another way: It doesn’t work to say that we are the gold standard in safety and then not religiously ensure that we meet our own hype.  We must be conscious of and attentive to our brand every morning when our buses roll.  That make sense?

What does that look like in real life? The list I share here will not surprise anyone.  Most will seem obvious, but some will make you shake your head because we all know what happens out on the road each day. I believe in tennis they call them ‘unforced errors’ – cases where we make a mistake that could have been avoided. Those kinds of stories and events harm our brand long after the headline fades.

Let’s take a look at a few of these elements of our brand:

• Nothing makes us prouder than a bright and shiny and well-maintained yellow school bus going down the road in our town.  We want our neighbors to see that same bus and be just as proud as we are of it. But it takes work to maintain the bus.  It’s worth the work. Our taxpayers want to know that the hundreds of thousands of dollars they have invested in your rolling fleet are being taken care of and are safe for the children. Make no mistake: it is important to them. And note conversely that a dirty or unkempt bus reflects on you and on your school or contractor.

• Make clear to parents especially that you have taken great pains to recruit and employ the most responsible and prepared drivers you can find in the labor market.  (And it doesn’t cut it to argue that we sometimes must hire drivers of a lower caliber just to get someone behind the wheel during a shortage.)  Opportunities exist to share your safety history, the safety record of your drivers and their longevity with your operation with your school board or PTA. Parents and school leaders will understand how important a good driver is to the safety and happiness of their children.

• Prevent stories about a school bus driver who blows a 0.10 BAC while driving students, or who is found carrying gin in her thermos while driving our kids. We know this happens enough to make it a news item that damages our brand greatly. While we are all short-staffed, we cannot let that stand in the way of performing such routine steps as reasonable suspicion checks and daily observations of drivers. Here again, our parents and PTAs and school boards should know of your efforts despite the strain of staffing shortages.

• The public should see orderly boardings and departures from the school bus each and every day.  While it seems like a tall order, parents and the public see our loading and unloading and form judgments about our work.  If kids are running all over the street once they are released or they are fighting at the bus stop, the public will notice.  This is true even if we believe the children are not our responsibility until they are on the bus and in their seat.  The public doesn’t think like that. 

• As a corollary to the above, proper boarding and departing a school bus also avoids incidents where a child is struck by their own school bus or dragged by the bus with them stuck in the door.  Those stories plague our reputation and the faith and trust we desire.  Our loading and unloading practices are developed with ultimate safety in mind.  It’s our job to make sure all drivers are trained effectively and adhering to those practices for their safety.

• And school buses crossing a railroad track without stopping and performing the safety regimen for those crossings?  Believe it or not, reports have come from several states of these occurrences.  Proper RR Crossing practices are dealt with in driver training and testing and stem from the tragic events at sites like Fox River Grove and Congers. Failure to comply raises serious questions about the trustworthiness of our drivers.

• When I worked with the New York association, we responded multiple times a year to stories about students being left on their school bus at the end of a route and even more critically in New York winters. What a shot in the gut to our brand that we forget that there is a child on a bus we supposedly checked in the required post-trip.  Unforced error.

• We should ensure that every student is treated with respect and is enjoying the safe space that the school bus is intended to be.  There should never be cases of drivers or aides verbally or physically abusing a student with special needs or a child who is experiencing social and emotional issues. 

As we struggle to increase ridership and maintain our relevancy in the education community, reinforcing our brand is as vital for us as it is for the cereal makers or the auto makers.  Without the loyalty of our customers, we will lose hard-fought ground.  Dollars dry up when public support is tepid or weak.  As an advocate for years, I can attest that when our industry has bad news (like accidents or kids left on buses in the cold), it takes years to erase those memories from the minds of the public, the media, and lawmakers.   

JOB #1 is student safety.  That is our brand and that is what we strive to live up to every day. It is on each one of us.

Peter Mannella (pfman5@gmail.com) is chair of the NAPT Public Policy Committee.