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Federal Highway Administration > Publications > Public Roads > Vol. 62· No. 3 > Marketing: Helping to Develop the Transportation System for the 21st Century

Nov/Dec 1998
Vol. 62· No. 3

Marketing: Helping to Develop the Transportation System for the 21st Century

by John I. Cagle

Private industry is sold on marketing. For businesses such as agriculture that have been around for millennia to more contemporary ones like pharmaceuticals and electronics, the marketing function plays a vital role. But can it work effectively for government? Can marketing techniques - such as demographic studies, focus groups, direct mail, and advertising - help to create a better highway system?

The question is particularly relevant now, as the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) embarks on a dramatically different approach to its field operations. On Oct. 1, 1998, FHWA closed its nine regional offices in favor of four strategically located "resource centers" throughout the country, staffed by specialists in pavements, structures, hydraulics, and other key technical specialties. The fundamental purpose of the resource centers is to support the FHWA division offices in each state in their primary role of program delivery to state departments of transportation, metropolitan planning organizations, and other partners and customers responsible for providing highway transportation and safety services.

Texas Department of Transportation's "Dont mess with Texas" anti-liter campign included television advertising sports and entertainment celebrities. The Fabulous Thunderbirds, shown here after a day-long shoot of their commercial, where once such group. In the 1998 FHWA National Strategic Plan, the vision that "drives" the entire plan - the mission, values, guiding principles, strategic goals, and objectives - is to "create the best transportation system in the world." It is obvious that the success of FHWA in meeting its vision hinges on the agency's ability to "create exchanges that satisfy individual and organizational objectives." That means FHWA must know and meet the needs of its customers (including the general public) and its partners.

To help accomplish this task, each resource center will have a marketing specialist whose responsibilities, according to the staffing plan, include determining "what the customer needs are so that new technology can be developed; as well as determining what technology already in existence needs to be marketed. ... Determine what already has been done in the particular technology area and what the need is for the new technology." And recognizing that success requires the assistance of virtually the entire FHWA field staff, the marketing specialist is also responsible for "instructing and coaching on good marketing techniques to develop these skills in the staff."

Finding a Need and Filling It

The American Marketing Association defines marketing as "the process of planning and executing the conception, pricing, promotion, and distribution of ideas, goods, and services to create exchanges that satisfy individual and organizational objectives." More simply, finding a need and filling it.

As simple as that statement is, it reveals the error of just pushing a particular technological innovation on a transportation engineer at a state or local government agency. It is also wrong to inundate that engineer with a profusion of new products - much like a salesman with a case full of samples. Rather, there has to be a preliminary effort to find out what the needs are.

If marketing is "finding a need and filling it" or listening to what the customer says and then responding, then government transportation agencies since their inception have been doing a form of marketing by conducting public hearings and by gaining input from citizens through their elected officials.

Jack Hammer, the animated spokesperson for work-zone safety. But true marketing goes beyond just listening to the customer. It demands spending time and money to actively seek to become intimately familiar with the customer and to build a relationship with the customer. To paraphrase Rogers and Hammerstein, it means "getting to know them; getting to know all about them." From things as simple as how old they are, how much formal education they've completed, and what their income levels are, to their feelings about complex issues and how they get their news each day, virtually every aspect of their lives merits attention.

These bits of information are valuable - not only in determining the needs of the public, but also in developing a product, service, or program that can fill that need. They're also helpful in determining the best way of informing the public about it and then delivering the product in such a way that it will be accepted and used.

In fact, while most Americans may think of marketing as the realm of high-profile Fortune 500 corporations - such as Procter & Gamble, Coca-Cola, and Nike - the use of marketing techniques today is becoming more and more commonplace in transportation agencies.

In fact, this year marks the 10th anniversary of a landmark in transportation market research. One that, in its overall influence, easily dwarfs that of the private corporations. The product of that endeavor - the post-interstate transportation system - will ultimately cost hundreds of billions of dollars and will impact the lives of literally all Americans.

The effort began in the mid-1980s, when highway industry and government agency leaders realized that the construction program for the interstate system was quickly coming to a conclusion. They asked: "What's next?" Should our efforts now center on simply maintaining the existing system? Should even more miles of interstate be added? Was a totally new approach to moving people and goods necessary?

Rather than simply relying on their own instincts - as good as they were - they took a classic marketing approach. First, in 65 town meetings, hosted by state departments of transportation across the country, customers were asked what they perceived their transportation needs to be for the coming three decades. Responses ranged from simple requests for resurfacing a nearby roadway to more imaginative visions, such as magnetic levitation systems spanning the country.

Next, FHWA brought together experts in a wide range of disciplines to provide background information on the factors influencing transportation requirements. Resource papers were presented at a three-day conference in Washington, D.C., on such diverse topics as economic growth and vitality, demographics and lifestyle, energy and the environment, and new technology. Each paper at the forum was critiqued by a panel of experts and discussed in an open forum for greater interaction with conference attendees.

Industry, too, polled its members to get input from the people who design, build, and provide construction materials and equipment for the roadway system.

Ultimately, the information gathered from the massive market research effort formed much of the basis of the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (ISTEA), which was the most dramatic change in national transportation policy in almost half a century. That change has been further extended through the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21).

NASCAR racing legend Richard Petty. The effort was also the harbinger of a new approach to transportation policy and planning that incorporates marketing techniques developed in the private sector.

NCHRP (National Cooperative Highway Research Program) Report 329, Using Market Research to Improve Management of Transportation Systems, was the product of a national survey of the market research conducted by transportation agencies and organizations. The study, undertaken in 1990, examined 31 market research projects done by departments of transportation (DOTs) in 13 states, the District of Columbia, and the Canadian province of Ontario, and it also looked at two national studies, one sponsored by The Road Information Program and the other by The Transportation Infrastructure Advisory Group. The goals of the projects varied from providing a detailed profile of transportation users with respect to specific modes and facilities to providing a basic "report card" on transportation delivery and to identifying preferences among several transportation alternatives. Several methods for gathering information were used, including telephone surveys, focus groups, public meetings, on-site interviews, and mailback questionnaire surveys.

The Minnesota Experience

The Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) was represented in the survey by six research studies, which was more than any other state. That leadership continues today; MnDOT is one of the few state DOTs that maintains an in-house market research staff.

Lee Brady, statewide market research director for MnDOT, says that when he and another market research specialist were hired by MnDOT, the first thing they did was educate their agency about what market research is.

"When a lot of people think of marketing, they think of the people who develop marketing materials like brochures, videotapes, and the like. We took a presentation to every division in the state DOT and outlined exactly what market research is and how it can help us do our job. Today, every project we do - every new highway or byway - comes as the result of extensive market research," said Brady.

One area in which MnDOT found market research to be beneficial is maintenance. For example, from the standpoint of the customer who uses the highway system, how much maintenance is required?

In an annual survey of customers, MnDOT asked a question with which many state DOTs wrestle. Is it preferable to mow the grass in the highway median and right-of-way to provide the look of a manicured lawn or to landscape with native plants that require little watering and mowing for a wild look? The landscaping option is much less expensive. Eliminating one or two mowings a year can save a bundle of money when a state has thousands of acres of right-of-way.

The survey results showed that Minnesotans didn't see the need for as much mowing as previously had been done. So, the next season, the mowing schedule was reduced drastically.

However, Brady points out the important element of two-way communication in the process. "We made sure to get the word out in the newspapers and other media throughout the state why we were cutting back on mowing. And that we were doing it for a reason. The reason was the survey through which the people told us their desires. The process was a great success."

Pavement marking is another high-cost maintenance activity. This area, however, is more a matter of safety than aesthetics. But how can you find out via a telephone survey the level of pavement-marking reflectivity that motorists need? While machines can be used to measure such things, they don't factor in human elements such as age differentiation.

MnDOT's answer was to create a seat-of-the-pants survey process in which selected motorists were asked to drive through a pre-established 65-kilometer course. Along the way, an interviewer, seated in the back seat, quizzed the driver on specific pavement markings. To promote consistency throughout the process, all participants drove MnDOT automobiles with similar equipment. The course was driven at night, but never during a full moon and never in the rain. Some 160 drivers took the course, and the sample size was large enough to show differences in age groups. The results told MnDOT's traffic engineers that pavement edge lines would have to be restriped once a year to achieve the reflectivity needed.

That national survey of state DOTs in 1990 revealed that, although much market research had been done, states didn't take full advantage of the information they had gathered. Indeed, they got the answers to the basic questions posed, and in some cases, they cross-tabulated the results so that they could see how specific subcategories (age, sex, education) felt about particular issues. However, that same raw data could have been run through some more sophisticated analysis to identify more subtle relationships. One technique, called conjoint analysis, helps evaluate the relative importance of one factor as opposed to another. And in a field where budgets are limited and choices must be made, such a technique is quite valuable.

"We're looking to getting into these areas in the near future - moving through a process of segmenting our customers and doing some trade-off analysis. We've done some work on conjoint analysis, but to date, we haven't done a full conjoint analysis," Brady said.

The Texas Experience

Marketing isn't just research, of course. Putting the research into practice can be just as challenging.

For 12 years, the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) has been conducting a public education campaign that has brought the agency national awards, praise throughout the highway industry, and increased appreciation from the state's citizens. The program is called "Don't mess with Texas," and it features a series of innovative television commercials aimed at reducing litter along Texas highways. Today, the state's highways have 72 percent less litter than before the program. That means cleaner highways, resulting in reduced operational costs to collect litter.

This program is significant for two reasons. First, never before had a government agency taken such a bold approach to a public service campaign. Second and equally important, the program was indicative of what can happen when an agency trusts the findings of its market research.

The research included mall intercept surveys (where passers-by are intercepted by interviewers in shopping malls), in-depth interviews (longer, more probing surveys with individuals), and even an analysis of the litter found along the roads to help determine who was "trashing" Texas highways. The research found that the primary litterers were young men, ages 18 to 34, and a bit more blue collar than white collar. The TxDOT team working on the program lovingly referred to their now-identified target audience as "Bubba." Putting its faith in that information, the agency commissioned the development of television commercials targeted specifically for that Bubba market.

Finding a slogan for the program was also a challenge. A study of previous advertising campaigns against littering found that most ads were targeted to a general audience. The campaigns that did seem to have a focus were aimed primarily at children or environmental groups, clearly not major litterers. These campaigns were seen to be, in effect, preaching to the choir. More importantly, the type of slogans used in these campaigns did not appeal to the Texas "macho" man being targeted in this campaign.

The odds of a bumper sticker with "Please Don't Litter" or "Give a Hoot, Don't Pollute" showing up on the back of Bubba's pick-up truck were - to paraphrase Bubba himself - "slim and none, and Slim's just left town." Thus, the slogan "Don't mess with Texas" was chosen as a tough, no-nonsense statement that would motivate Bubba to be "anti-litter."

The first commercial opened to the strains of "The Eyes of Texas" being played by a guitarist sitting on a stool. As the camera pulled in for a close-up of the guitarist, it revealed a young, intimidating-looking man sitting on top of the stool with a huge Texas flag as a backdrop. His hair was long, and his clothes were flamboyant. His jacket featured enormous four-pointed stars, and a long earring hung from his left lobe. The guitarist was the now legendary Stevie Ray Vaughan, but at that time, he was just beginning to get recognized for his talent.

Some TxDOT executives thought the approach might be a bit too strong, but the skeptics were brought around by the overwhelming success of the program.

Litter bags and bumper stickers bearing the "Don't mess with Texas" slogan became immensely popular. More than 12 million bags and 8 million stickers were given away.

TxDOT purchased some media time on radio and television, but many stations have been so supportive of the campaign that they have provided more than $114 million worth of free airtime for the commercials.

A recognition survey of the slogan revealed that 96 percent of the population recognized "Don't mess with Texas" and knew it promoted an anti-litter campaign.

The campaign has won dozens of regional and national awards, and some 40 corporate sponsors have become partners in the program. Most importantly, as previously noted, litter has been reduced by more than 72 percent.

The series of ads has featured a who's who of Texan culture - from Willie Nelson to George Foreman and the Dallas Cowboys. Sports heroes, musicians, actors, comedians, and other noteworthy Texans have participated. After the success of the program became obvious, some celebrities had their managers approach the ad producers to volunteer to do a commercial.

A couple of years into the program, follow-up market research revealed that much of the litter on Texas roadways now was "accidental" litter and that the average age of the litterer was a bit higher than before. New commercials were designed to reflect these changes.

"Don't mess with Texas" is still going strong today.

FHWA Employs Market Research Techniques

FHWA, too, is responding to what the customer needs and is filling that need.

One major problem area in highway safety is construction work zones. To help improve safety in those areas, FHWA worked in partnership with 21 state DOTs to develop a new public outreach campaign entitled "Get the Picture. Listen to the Signs." This campaign is designed to educate the public about the meaning of the orange warning signs and to motivate them to be alert, slow down, and pay attention to the signs. The campaign features two 30-second television ads with three-dimensional animation, three radio ads, a poster, a bumper sticker, and a media kit.

Preliminary research helped determine the goals of the campaign and developed creative ideas. The research included focus groups, telephone interviews, and a survey.

The focus groups revealed some surprising information. Many drivers either don't understand road-construction warning signs, don't understand how they should react to the signs, or just don't pay attention to the signs. The focus groups also indicated that many motorist aren't concerned about worker safety and respond more to a "what's in it for me" approach. In addition, motorists don't understand the magnitude of the work-zone safety problem in terms of death and injury to both motorists and workers. In fact, most participants were surprised to learn that more motorists than workers are killed or injured in work-zone crashes.

The next step was to conduct telephone interviews with highway traffic safety engineers, workers, and officials of state and local highway agencies, metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs), and law enforcement agencies. In addition, 130 questionnaires were mailed out to state DOT officials, contractors, insurers, MPOs, and law enforcement agencies.

Twenty-four questionnaires were returned by state DOT officials, and 29 were returned by contractors, insurers, MPOs, and law enforcement agencies.

Currently, 10 states are running the "Get the Picture. Listen to the Signs." campaign: California, Connecticut, Idaho, Kansas, Maine, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, and Virginia. Other states have indicated that they will use the campaign in 1999.

Using Marketing to Improve the Highway System

Another FHWA example of a marketing program is in the area of pavement. The program involves obtaining a smoother riding surface, and it, too, began with market research.

Federal, state, and highway industry representatives, under the auspices of a "National Policy on the Quality of Highways," conducted a national survey of the public's satisfaction level with the highway system. The results, which were published two years ago, included a list of the public's priorities for highway improvement. The survey was very valuable because it both provided a national perspective and revealed regional differences in needs.

The introduction to the report noted, "There has been a major commitment within the highway community to promote and achieve new levels of quality in the construction and maintenance of our roadways. The voice of the customer, however, must provide the direction for any serious and concerted quality effort."

The survey consisted of 2,205 interviews, each lasting approximately 18 minutes. The study was scientifically weighted so that it would reflect the Bureau of Census norms for gender, age, race/ethnicity, education, and geographic locale. In other words, it gives a true interpretation, within a margin of error of plus or minus 2 percent, of the American people's feelings about its highway system. Also, it is worth noting that this survey used the more sophisticated statistical models mentioned in NCHRP Report 329.

Safety has always been perceived as the highest priority to the public. Yet, in this survey, pavement conditions came out on top.

"It is clear that the top priority for improving the nation's highways is to focus on the quality of the roadway surface. This is the factor that will most significantly increase public satisfaction with the highway system," according to the report.

How does one increase the "quality of the roadway surface"? More importantly, what does that phrase mean to the public? To many, it means smoothness.

Building smoother highways has always been a challenge, but the Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT) found a way of maintaining its construction budget while getting a smoother roadway. Their solution is a standard specification for smoothness that includes a financial incentive for smoothness. Basically, the smoother the final pavement, as measured scientifically, the larger the incentive.

Now that the incentive program has been in effect for several months and contractors are familiar with it, many contractors are factoring the potential incentive into their initial contract bid. Thus, a large portion of the funds allocated to smoothness incentives are returned to the state through lower bids. In fact, a recently completed project resulted in a pavement so smooth that the contractor received more than $400,000 in incentives. Yet, even with that incentive, the total cost of the project was still below the next lowest bid.

Recognizing this as a "best practice," FHWA wanted to get other state DOTs to adopt this strategy. If they succeeded, the result would be an actual improvement in national road conditions. The challenge was to tell the Arizona success story in a way that would persuade the other state DOTs that using this practice would benefit them.

A marketing plan was developed to identify goals, audiences, and strategies for reaching the goals. The plan identified two key target audiences: state DOTs and pavement contractors. The DOTs were targeted because they are responsible for providing the public with the quality of roadways they want. Contractors were targeted because they are a critical link to the rest of the industry.

To determine the best communication tools for delivering the pavement smoothness message, these two groups had to be studied. Among the questions to be answered were: How do they typically receive information? What is their education level?

Typically, answering one question created additional questions. For example, when it was determined that a video would be an appropriate tool, consideration had to be given to questions such as: How long should it be? Who should appear in it? How can we attract attention to the video, create interest, and get people talking about it?

In looking over the key points of the proposed video, one stood out. Typically, drivers of paving machines rush to lay down the asphalt placed in front of their machines. Then, they stop their machines until another truckload of material is dumped in front of them. This stop-and-start approach causes bumps in the new pavement. The preferred approach is for the drivers to slow down the machines to match the delivery of material. The FHWA marketing team wanted to find a memorable way to portray the difference in the two approaches.

After much consideration, it was decided that someone who was easily recognized as a racing car driver should be featured. He would point out that, contrary to the type of performance he demonstrated on asphalt, the paving machine drivers should slow down to be successful.

An obvious choice for spokesman was Richard Petty, the most successful racing car driver in the history of NASCAR. Petty is known as the "King" of NASCAR racing, which employs American stock cars on an oval track. This type of automobile racing has an "all-American" appeal that makes it more popular with the target audience than European Grand Prix or any other type of motor racing.

Petty agreed to appear in the video as a public service. Wearing his trademark cowboy hat and sunglasses, he is shown sitting atop a paving machine.

To go along with the video, a poster and other supporting printed material is being developed to help the pavement specialists in the FHWA resource centers to make presentations throughout their area. It is too early yet to pronounce the success or failure of the pavement smoothness marketing program. But success will be easy to determine because the marketing plan includes its measure of success - state DOTs must adopt similar incentive-based programs.

The Result of Successful Marketing in Government

Federal and state departments of transportation are in a unique, yet challenging position when it comes to marketing. Unlike the private sector, they don't receive an actual payment when their customer buys a product or service. Rather, their focus is on influencing a target audience to adopt an idea and to use it. It might be FHWA getting a state DOT to take a new engineering approach to paving, a state DOT persuading its citizens to buckle their seat belts every time they get into a car, or a state's Technology Transfer Center convincing a county engineer to try a new winter maintenance technique.

Of course, as more organizations put worthwhile innovations into practice, the nation and all of us benefit. For example, a new technique might save 1 percent of the construction cost of a particular section of new highway. That's great for a $2,000,000 project, but just imagine the savings if that technique is broadly accepted. That 1 percent could be multiplied by the thousands of kilometers of highways built or reconstructed each year.

In every case, using marketing techniques increases the level of success because appropriate marketing - finding the need and filling it - ensures that we are providing the right service or product to the right audience at the right time in the right (most cost-effective or efficient) way.

John Cagle is the marketing specialist in FHWA's San Francisco Resource Center. He has 26 years of experience in all aspects of marketing, including market research, public relations, and advertising. He is accredited in public relations by the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA). His experience includes work for major consumer-products corporations, a market research company, consulting engineering firms, and state and federal transportation agencies. He has taught classes on marketing subjects at major universities and at community colleges, and he has received awards from PRSA, the International Association of Business Communicators, the Texas Public Relations Association, the WorldFest Charleston International Film and Video Festival, the National Association of Government Communicators, and the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. He is a member of PRSA and the American Marketing Association.

The Marketing Concept

From where did the idea of using marketing techniques to develop a vision of the nation's transportation system come?

What is known today as "the marketing concept" began in the early 1950s, when businesses recognized the need for a new approach to get the public to buy their goods.

Previously, the higher ratio of customers to products often meant that if companies wanted to sell more goods, they simply increased production. And where competition existed, the approach was to develop a crack sales staff whose job it was to cajole, bully, or otherwise persuade the customer to buy. Businesses focused on motivating the customer to buy the product being manufactured instead of making a product to fill the customer's need.

After World War II, big business found itself in a dilemma. New methods of mass production allowed companies to make an almost infinite quantity of their products. And with more and more new businesses entering the marketplace, competition was getting fiercer than ever.

General Electric was the first to come up with an answer. They called their new philosophical approach "the marketing concept." It focused first on finding out what the customer needs.

Rather than relying on a staff of supersalesmen or production efficiency experts, a company operating under the marketing concept ensures that all departments are working together to meet those needs That includes research and development, product design, distribution, and advertising efforts. This concept forms the basis of today's marketing programs in the business world, and the concept has been applied to transportation challenges across the country.

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