The Train Game


A few months ago, I was working on a large brand campaign for a train provider. Brands spend a lot of money on these campaigns. And as a creative, they’re the kind of project you dream of working on, because they make a big impact. 

The obvious question when working on a brand campaign, is what should we create? Because unlike traditional direct sales advertising, brand campaigns allow for more creative freedom.

The problem in this circumstance, is that it’s very easy for inverse incentives to take hold. And people often forget the game they’re playing.

So what is the train game?

Turns out, an overwhelming number of people choose to use aggregator sites to book their train travel. Trainline, for example, collates the journeys of 150 service providers in 36 different countries to find customers the cheapest and fastest route to their destination. 

The tricky thing about these aggregator sites is they often remove the brand from the equation – focusing solely on metrics they believe people care most about. In this case, speed and cost.

The problem for the train provider I was working for, was that they were neither the fastest or the cheapest. 

My concern therefore, was that we would spend a huge amount of money encouraging people to travel, and without some clear reason to choose us over everyone else, people would instinctually revert back to their normal purchasing behaviour.

In effect, the more successful our campaign would turn out to be, the more other providers were set to prosper. Precisely the opposite of what we were setting out to achieve.

So what was my idea?

I believe, that to get the best results, you have two options:  

1.      You become the best at the game. 

2.      You change the rules.

As our provider couldn’t compete on either speed or price, I felt there were two clear ways to change the rules of the game:

1.      Instead of spending all our money ‘telling’ everyone how great we are, use some of it to actually make the train experience so amazing that people would choose to travel with us, despite time and cost. (Rory Sutherland explains)

2.      Or, option two, do the opposite of what is expected and don't talk about ourselves at all. But instead, directly address many of the things people hate about traveling with other faster, cheaper providers – overcrowding, having to sit on the floor, overloaded Wi-Fi, queues for the loos, and the general loss of humanity. Always highlighting that ‘this doesn’t happen with us’, because ‘insiders come direct’.

These approaches could still have been executed in a big brand campaign style. But I felt that changing the rules was the only way to make this campaign a success. 

Trains aren’t the only game in town, however. Here are a few others that exist, and examples of those who have won by changing the game.


The Sportswear Game:

The biggest sportswear brands sell their clothing by sponsoring the biggest athletes. Nike understands this game very well. That’s why they were able to dominate skateboarding, a sector they had no interest being in, because they convinced the biggest names to ride for them. This is also the reason Under Armour made such a splash a few years back; scooping up numerous endorsement deals everyone expected to be won by Nike.


Sportswear Rule Breaker: UFC

In 1993, no one watched ultimate fighting. The owners of the UFC brand couldn’t sell clothing by sponsoring the biggest athletes, because there were no big athletes to sponsor. Instead, they made the platform to create superstars. By building the biggest platform, they attracted the best talent, and in order for fighters to enter the UFC, they had to agree to UFC’s terms. They effectively monopolised the market for the best fighters, because if an MMA fighter wanted to get wealthy, the only way of doing so, was by fighting in the UFC. 


The Book Game.

To get wealthy writing books, you have to create a bandwagon effect. The tried and tested way to do this is to top The New York Times Best Sellers List. The books that reach best-selling status are often no better than the books of other authors, but they sell many thousands more copies than those who don’t reach best-seller status. In order to reach this, you need to shift roughly 9000 books in the first week your book goes on sale. That’s why in the run-up to a book’s release you’ll see authors participating in as many press opportunities as is humanly possible. Ultimately, the authors with the best marketing connections are more likely to win the race. PR and marketing will always be important for authors, but the real game is not so much about having a great book, but a great first week.


Book Rule Breaker: Seth Godin

Seth Godin is an exceptional marketer. Over the years he’s amassed quite a following, not just for his books, but for his thoughts, advice, workshops, podcasts and his general quality control. Seth believes in finding a book for his audience, not an audience for his book. A few years ago, he decided to create a huge, premium, book that was 15 times the weight of a standard hardcover. No retailer would ever sell this book. No normal person would want to buy it. But he knew, for a select few, this would be their favourite book of all time. To encourage people to buy it, he told his audience that there were only 6000 copies, first come, first served. 6000 is less than 9000, but the book itself cost 10 times as much a normal book. The scarcity effect made people act, and the book sold out in no time. The book now sells for £350 on Amazon. 


The Shower Gel Game.

In the world of men’s shower gel, there has never been any real point of differentiation. This means that whichever brand has the biggest budget to throw at creative advertising, supermarket positioning, fancy masculine packaging, and price reduction, will ultimately end up in our supermarket baskets. 


Shower Gel Rule Breaker: Old Spice

Old Spice was failing. No one was buying their product anymore. But they worked something out… it turns out that almost all supermarkets still market to women, because figures show that supermarket purchases are heavily weighted in their favour. When it comes to shower gel, men are happy to use whatever’s within arm’s reach. If that means rubbing (cringe) orgasm-inducing Herbal Essences shampoo all over ourselves, so be it. By identifying this, Old Spice changed the game. Instead of trying to market their products solely to men, they decided to appeal equally to women. The campaign they created appealed to both sexes, but the line ‘The Man Your Man Should Smell Like’ suggested that when women buy the product for their man, not only will they get a nice-smelling partner, the men will stop pinching their favourite shower gel. Sales rocketed.

Sometimes changing the rules has huge benefits.

·      UFC could have tried sponsoring unknown athletes.

·      Seth Godin could have spent several weeks flogging his new book.

·      Old Spice could have continued trying to sell to men who simply weren’t buying their product.

But in every case, they first asked ‘what game are we actually playing?’ and then they questioned the rules accordingly.

So, the next time you’re working on a project, work out what game you’re playing and ask yourself…

Can I do well inside the confines of the game? 

Or do I need to change the rules to win?

Ricky Richards