NS is a household name in The Netherlands. The railway company was founded almost 180 years ago, and since this time, trains have become part of our daily lives. Meanwhile, the NS brand is not only a practical way to get from A to B, it represents an experience: from planning your trip via your smartphone, to lunch at the station and renting a bicycle. I spoke with Rutger Hamelynck, Head of Brand Management at NS, about the development and future of the NS brand, the impact of digital transformation and the biggest challenges in the field of brand management and customer interaction.

What is the greatest challenge for NS in terms of brand strategy and management?

Rutger Hamelynck: Every day, millions of people use our products and services. It’s expected that in 100% of cases, their experience will go well. We do not offer a luxury product but fulfill a basic need. Just like water, you open the tap and expect water to come out. It’s also expected that a trip will always go according to plan. But of course, that isn’t possible. We are dealing with complex processes, collaborations with other parties and various external factors.

The fact that NS fulfills a basic need means that our brand is under a magnifying glass, and the increase in digital media ensures that we are vulnerable. Our brand is directly connected to our performance so that’s where our biggest challenge lies. The entire organisation is focused on achieving our KPIs and our brand strategy is directly linked to our business strategy.

"The fact that NS fulfills a basic need means that our brand is under a magnifying glass."

The NS brand has also expanded considerably. In the past it was only about trains. Now it is also about complete stations, our travel planner app, public transport bicycles and even shared cars. The company has gained more and more different brand touch points. We also work with other carriers and it’s not always clear to travellers where their experience with NS starts and stops. This is a growing challenge in our brand management.

What has changed with the NS brand in recent years?

RH: The focus of the outside world is, of course, very much on our performance, but what we should not forget is the transformation of the entire travel experience. Much has changed in recent years. In the past, the station was a collection of platforms. Nowadays, it is nice to have some extra time at the station for aspects such as service and retail, as well as design and architecture.

Since 2014, part of our brand strategy has focused increasingly on the experience of our travelers and their emotional response to our marketing and communications. We now show much more of the real world, the traveller and the emotion of travelling. If you look at our advertising films from the past few years, you will understand what I mean. NS has become much more of an experiential brand than a product brand.

"NS has become much more an experiential brand instead of a product brand."

I also believe that when it comes to brand strategy, you have to broaden your view on many products and services. All steps in the customer journey matter. The brand experience of our customers goes much further than from platform to platform. With our brand we want to show that we give people the feeling of freedom. Travelling with NS must be barrier-free and easy.

Is the NS brand now more important than ever?

RH: Absolutely. On the one hand, the brand can guide us internally as an organisation, especially because our brand strategy is so close to our business strategy. The brand then forms a basis, a kind of foundation. Externally, it is mainly customer experience: ‘What do your travellers think of you, how do they see you and how do we respond to their needs?’ Nowadays, you see that new brands are increasingly starting from that customer experience. The starting point is feeling and emotion.

For example, look at Thuisbezorgd.nl, Trivago and Uber. All of them are well-known brands which hold a strong position between customer and supplier. People no longer search directly for a well-known hotel chain or restaurant, they search through intermediaries. If you do not watch out, you will be overtaken or overshadowed by this kind of smart intermediary. That is why you have to move with what the customer needs and continue to build a strong brand.

Which trends have had a major impact on the brand?

RH: Digitisation obviously has a lot of influence on every brand. New technologies make our lives easier, but there’s also a counter-movement. Privacy is an important issue and customers are becoming increasingly critical: ‘What exactly is the revenue model and what is being done with my data?’ Reliability, credibility and transparency are therefore becoming increasingly important brand values. You should not only radiate these, but also prove them. We have already seen that this sometimes goes wrong. Look at the data leak of Facebook and its consequences. Good reputation management is a must at this time, especially for a user brand like NS.

"Reliability, credibility and transparency are becoming increasingly important brand values."

A trend in the brand area which will become important in the future is ‘artificial intelligence’. It is already possible to map data which shows how people interact with your brand. But what you really want is to understand people’s feelings and discover their psychological motivations. In the future, I think that more and more will be possible in this area and for a brand this could become essential. It’s also exciting, because do we all want this openness? I think it’s irreversible and will happen anyway.

Which tools and technologies does NS use to manage its brand?

RH: We use a brand portal which we have implemented and are currently updating with the support of VIM Group. This is also to do with the planned developments of our brand. This year, the NS brand celebrates its 50th anniversary and there are few brands which have remained the same for such a long time. Our logo is just as recognisable in the Netherlands as the Nike ‘swoosh’. Nevertheless, the NS brand is now no longer just about railways, but also the journey around it. That is why we are now investigating the possibilities to give the brand a ‘freshening up’.

We are continuously building on the tools we have in our hands (NS Extra and the NS Reisplanner app) and are experimenting with new options, such as paying with your bank card. You have to manage your brand well on digital channels, because that’s where a large part of your direct customer contacts are located.

Which brands do you admire or use for inspiration?

RH: On the one hand, the big and well-known brands such as Starbucks (how do they know how to keep a fairly simple product so lively?), but also, for example, the ‘Amsterdam’ brand. The city radiates personality, energy and a sense of freedom worldwide, all without central control from one brand manager. The brand, or actually the story, ‘Amsterdam’, you create together, it comes into being in the minds of people. I think that is a very special phenomenon.

I’m also often inspired by brands which are not so well-known, for example the Festool brand. They make electrical tools for the construction industry and have a quality stamp and position in the market which far exceeds their competition. I think this is incredibly clever. In terms of brand image, they do very well. This is of course in the quality of the product, but also in design, storytelling and the right use of ambassadors.

How has your brand department changed compared to five years ago?

RH: Our brand department used to be a design studio which focused on our appearance and corporate identity. The real ‘brand thinking’ only came into being with us later: from thinking increasingly about the customer to where we are now. Our brand strategy is now really part of the entire company. It is no longer just about colours, logos and fonts. It’s about values, the story behind the brand. You can’t centralise that; it runs through the veins of your company and the ambassadors of your brand throughout the organisation are constantly working on that.

"It is no longer just about colours, logos and fonts. It's about values, the story behind the brand."

How do you see the future of brand management?

RH: I expect brands to get closer and closer to the business strategy. Consistency in the brand’s external characteristics is becoming less important. It is about coherence: all brand touch points must contribute to the story and experience a consumer has with your brand. Organisations that do very well are often relatively ‘young’ brands. Think of Tony’s Chocolonely and Coolblue. The reason for existence, the idea behind the founding is actually the brand there. For organisations that have been participating for some time, such as NS, it is important to go back to this idea: where are your roots now? What is your organisations reason to exist? If you bring the brand and the business strategy close together, as a brand you cannot fail, then you are always ‘future-proof’.

Rutger Hamelynck is Head of Brand Management at NS.

Read more interviews in the Future-Proof Brand Series.

In June 2017, Marc Cloosterman and Laurens Hoekstra published Future-Proof Your Brand, a book that explores brand implementation and management, and the insights gained from our 25+ years of experience.