In uncertain times, it is more important than ever to share experience, insights and advice with your peers so we can all learn from one another. With this in mind, we are having conversations with members across various sectors to understand how themselves and their teams have been coping with the COVID-19 pandemic, what they have learned from it and how they continue helping their customers.

For this week’s instalment in the series we’ve chatted to Gerry Culligan, Commercial Director, Iarnród Éireann Irish Rail.


MII: Hi Gerry, can you tell us about how have you been adapting your marketing activities during the COVID-19 outbreak?

As a public transport operator, we are an essential service and have been operating train schedules throughout the pandemic to ensure front line staff can travel to and from their workplaces in a manner that ensures their journey is safe. Consequently, the focus of our marketing activities has pivoted from communicating the benefits of rail travel into advising our customers how to safely use the train during Covid-19. The mandatory wearing of face coverings, sanitisation, the assignment of seats to allow for social distancing and limiting use of public transport for essential journeys only have all been key messages in the current times. The tone of voice has shifted from the joy of rail travel to one of reassurance and confidence in using the train in these uncertain times. We have also engaged with customers on a regular basis to gain insights into customer sentiment which informs and supports these marketing activities.


How have you been engaging with your team?

Since early March, our team has been working remotely which has necessitated a change in our way of working. In the absence of daily face to face engagement, our management process has been modified from weekly management meetings to daily virtual meetings. This ensures that we remain focussed on results whilst at the same time ensuring that there are enough levels of contact to maintain interaction, communication and engagement.

Through the dedication of all we have managed business as usual albeit in a different manner. Our teams have focussed on their tasks despite the stress and anxiety caused by the virus, continuing to work collaboratively and delivering quality results.


What have you learned from a marketing perspective from COVID 19?

Change happens fast and we require to be agile and responsive. Pre Covid, rail travel was at a record high with 50m passenger journeys in 2019 and strong growth for the first 2 months of 2020. Since March, public transport usage has hit a wall with journeys today at a fraction of their previous levels. Issues such as overcrowding at peak time and lack of available seating are no longer significant customer pain points, instead our marketing challenge is how we rebuild trust in the usage of public transport and inform customers of the health and hygiene measures now in place to provide a safe transport environment.

If you had told me in January that the railway’s biggest competitor would be Zoom I would not have believed you. Consequently, how we position our brand post Covid-19 will be a key priority as I expect customer demands at a segment level to be very different to their requirements pre Covid. The understanding of emerging segment trends and their impact on the business will be a critical requirement to ensure our proposition continues to meet customer needs.


How have your work practices changed? What will you do differently going forward?

The pandemic has forced changes in the way we work and live. Remote working is now the norm and online platforms have become our primary means of communication. Business and social interaction at a personal level has almost ceased with team recognition events and the celebration of successes in a social gathering non-existent. Our health, wellbeing and mindfulness is now a key focus throughout the Company as we grapple with the stress of the virus together with the demands of the solitude and loneliness that can be experienced due to lack of direct contact with colleagues and clients.

I believe there are future benefits for all from the adjustments we have made to our ways of working. The speed of migration to remote working and the numbers of people involved are at levels that we would never had previously thought possible. Remote/flexible working patterns have now become a new norm which will endure beyond this pandemic, the extent of which will be far greater than could ever be envisaged in non Covid times.

However, there also exists a requirement for attendance at the workplace to ensure that engagement and interaction contributes to individual growth and development. The optimal combination of remote and workplace working will enable an improved work/life balance, less stress and happier employees. As an employer, the evidence now exists and clearly demonstrates that performance can be maintained and indeed exceeded in remote working conditions. In the future, how we combine the two and achieve the best of both worlds is what will be different.


Has your brand purpose been challenged by COVID 19? How?

The objective of our most recent brand creative treatment ‘Rediscover the Joy of the Train’ was the amplification of simply great travel manifested by rail as the most relaxing, family friendly and comfortable mode for leisure travel. Main features include the room to move about on a train, families sitting together and interacting, catering, reserved seating and arriving relaxed at their destination.
The key messaging of rediscovering the joy still remains relevant however travelling by train now features on-train and in-station cleanliness, hand sanitisation, seat markings to ensure social distancing and the wearing of face coverings. We have modified our messaging to incorporate these measures and reduce the risk from the virus to customers.


What brands or businesses have you admired through this crisis?

I am particularly impressed by An Post with their innovation and creativity in what they are doing to keep communities connected. Also, the manner by which creative advertising agencies have managed commercial ad production is unprecedented with consumer generated self-recorded content, actors remotely filming on smartphones and tablets and editing also managed remotely.

At a local community level, I admire the response of restaurants and cafes as they quickly switched from in-house dining to collection and delivery which is greatly appreciated by the neighbourhoods they serve in these strange times.