Launch of the Northstar Commuter Coach
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Holmes Report
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Launch of the Northstar Commuter Coach

In addition to attracting commuters to ride the NorthStar Commuter Coach, Mn/DOT also desired to raise the department’s visibility and raise awareness of its mission, known as Moving Minnesota.

Paul Holmes

With a very tight timeline and a limited budget, Mn/DOT contracted with LaBreche Murray Public Relations to announce the new service.  In addition to attracting commuters to ride the NorthStar Commuter Coach, Mn/DOT also desired to raise the department’s visibility and raise awareness of its mission, known as Moving Minnesota.  LaBreche Murray succeeded and set a new precedent for how quickly a public transportation project can be launched. 
 
Among the time and budget constraints were several additional challenges.  First, it was complex (it involved LaBreche Murray managing two subcontractors’ work and jointly working together to conduct market research and analysis and brand development for everything from the NorthStar name, logo, brand, design on the bus wraps and the launch of a Web site).  Second, this project was completely new to Mn/DOT and many of the details of operation (e.g., bus schedule and bus route) were still being ironed out at the last minute.  LaBreche Murray was also challenged to identify key messages both for the project as well as Mn/DOT’s overall program and to solely lead all public and media relations efforts.  Finally, despite the media’s focus on the tragic events of September 11, which comprised nearly all news stories during this same time period, the NorthStar Commuter Coach was often the only non-tragedy-related story to air during the local newscasts. 
 
Research
 
In the span of just four weeks, LaBreche Murray managed a market assessment for the new service.  The assessment included a review and summary of secondary research, four focus groups, and approximately 400 telephone surveys. (For complete details and an analysis, please review the enclosed market assessment document).
 
The market assessment confirmed some assumptions and highlighted some challenges.  Safety concerns rose to the top of the list, both in terms of being most important to address and having the largest disparity with perceptions of ability to address this concern.  Therefore, the marketing efforts needed to focus on the NorthStar Commuter Coach as a service that was safe, reliable and a viable option for commuters traveling to and from work each day.  Surprisingly, the “premiere service” was one of the least likely attributes to draw a high importance rating, likely because it is a new feature of which respondents were unfamiliar.  What this suggests is that the marketing efforts needed to educate people about the amenities.  Finally, the assessment uncovered a dramatic disparity between the marketing requirements for each of the two park-and-ride locations. 
 
In the case of Coon Rapids/Riverdale, potential riders already had bus service available and were arguably more familiar with transit options.  Most important, however, was the extrapolation that in order to fill 50 percent of the NorthStar buses at this location, only 3 percent of likely riders from this area would need to ride.  However, in Elk River, the second park-and-ride location, they have never had bus service.  Therefore, a new market needed to be created in Elk River and the surrounding communities. 
 
LaBreche Murray recognized the importance of these potential riders understanding the logistics and benefits of utilizing this premiere transportation service and the challenge to fill the buses in Elk River was much greater.  In order to fill 50 percent of the buses in Elk River, 15 percent of likely riders would need to ride.  But the most dramatic figure the market assessment found was that less than 10 percent of the population in Elk River commutes to Minneapolis, compared to more than 22 percent in Coon Rapids. 
 
Description of Planning Process
 
LaBreche Murray served as the lead agency and developed a comprehensive marketing communications plan, managing and leading two subcontractor partners, in partnership with Mn/DOT staff.  During the first few months, LaBreche Murray hosted weekly meeting with these groups to keep the project on schedule and provided project updates in spreadsheet format.
 
Statement of Objectives
 
PRIMARY OBJECTIVES
Attract and maintain ridership for the NorthStar Commuter Coach.
Generate enthusiasm, support and positive perception of public transportation along the Northstar Corridor.
 
SECONDARY OBJECTIVES
Increase public awareness of the importance of multimodal transportation systems.
Promote transit as a network of services.
Raise the visibility and awareness of Mn/DOT as a provider of transit services.
 
Strategic Approach
 
The NorthStar Commuter Coach is the first mass transit system owned and operated by the Minnesota Department of Transportation (Mn/DOT) and the first commuter bus service to extend beyond the Twin Cities Metropolitan Region, providing long-distance commuters an alternative to driving alone.  The NorthStar Commuter Coach is also a demonstration project operating in the Northstar corridor, which is the fastest growing corridor in the region, and it is anticipated that the project could be replicated in other corridors as part of the interregional corridor plan to connect Minnesota’s regional trade centers.
 
Given these reasons, every effort, from the design of the logo and Web site, to media relations efforts and interviews given by spokespeople, was focused on providing a consistent message:  the NorthStar Commuter Coach is a luxury coach-style commuter bus service that provides convenient, safe and reliable transportation service between Elk River, Minn. and downtown Minneapolis.  In addition, Mn/DOT is committed to providing many different transportation choices to citizens and the NorthStar Commuter Coach is just one of many transportation options.  LaBreche Murray strategies included:  

        Securing media coverage about the benefits of the NorthStar Commuter Coach bus service.

        Communicating directly with potential riders through events, advertisements, flyers, and Web sites.

        Involving public officials in the promotion of the new service.
 
Campaign Execution
 
The NorthStar Commuter Coach was introduced in late September through a short, but intensive media relations campaign.  A media kit was distributed to key media representatives in the Twin Cities and along the entire Northstar Corridor.  The kit contained background information and details about the new service, information on Mn/DOT’s Moving Minnesota mission, and a personalized letter inviting the media to an “Open Bus” event to preview the new buses and speak with Mn/DOT officials about the new service.  The contents of the kits, including logos and graphics, were also posted on the Web site, www.commutercoach.org
 
Finally, in order to secure the maximum amount of coverage in a short time period, LaBreche Murray personnel diligently responded to all media inquiries, including setting up last-minute interviews and early-morning live-shots.  A few weeks after the launch of the new service, a “Grand Celebration” was held to officially kick-off the new service.  A news conference, featuring the mayors of Elk River and Coon Rapids, Transportation Commissioner Elwyn Tinklenberg, U.S. Representative James Oberstar and Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura was held at the Elk River park-and-ride.  In addition, NorthStar Commuter Coach passengers enjoyed a week-long celebration, which included prizes and free commuter gifts, such as an imprinted NorthStar Commuter Coach coffee mug.
 
Summary of Results
 
More than 11.94 million impressions were generated with our target audience through 143 separate news items that appeared in local broadcast, radio and print media.  The overall return on investment (ROI) Mn/DOT received totals 149%.  For every one dollar Mn/DOT invested in public relations efforts during this three month period, the return on this investment equaled $1.49, or 149%.  Most importantly, overall ridership significantly increased – the main objective of LaBreche Murray’s marketing communications plan.

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