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Is the industrial trade show coming off the rails?

A view from InnoTrans 2016, Berlin

So, I am at InnoTrans, Berlin – a would-be train-spotter’s paradise, were it not one of the world’s preeminent, industrial trade shows. 

However, like so many heavy industry events, InnoTrans – impressive for its sheer scale – can be surprisingly low on inspiration, given what the digital transformation of railways and connected life, promises.

To be fair, there are companies that attend who defy convention. A few inject energy and challenge one’s perspective on the world. But, they’re very much in the minority. Walking the halls has otherwise been a pretty soulless experience.  

So, I ask myself, ‘Are industrial trade shows coming off the rails?’  Hopefully, you’ll forgive the pun but there seems to be a missed opportunity by some manufacturers in the rail and social infrastructure business. There’s an opportunity to own the high ground. There’s an opportunity to rethink how manufacturers in the rail business define what they offer the world, beyond their products.

There is also an opportunity to engage emotionally. Think stories around human possibility, personal enrichment, achievement, collaboration, aspiration (or even fears), and ultimately, social good.  

Interestingly, the ICT sector and yes, B2C brands, could be better markers of how to approach B2B marketing in the rail sector. But let’s start with understanding the audience.

The great and the good, shaping burgeoning mega-cities in emerging markets, as well as the public servants concerned with economic regeneration in our mature markets – descend on this vast, German Messe. 

An army of entrepreneurs, rail operators and financiers join them – all looking to profit from infrastructure programs. Also in attendance are the conglomerates providing the technology and infrastructure. And, in their wake, there’s a sea of niche players providing components, systems and consultancy.

So what’s missing?

Well, I am sure the stats on audience attendance will be up, year on year. Given these are ultimately networking events too, satisfaction is probably holding up.  All the same, with a few exceptions, Hitachi being one (although cards on the table here, I’m biased given our involvement with Hitachi Rail) most rail innovators fail to engage emotionally.  Only a few develop experiences around the higher-order themes of human possibility and potential. Much of the innovation on show is presented in boring, boxy environments with a patchwork of demos, wrapped in motherhood statements, jargon and acronyms.

For example, I wandered through a hall exhibiting giant plant for washing trains. Now, machinery for washing heavy vehicles might seem mundane, even pedestrian. However, there’s a no less compelling, human story to tell. A story that gets to the heart of what that the business is about. And the observation that follows applies to even the most obscure metallurgical products, hi-tech widgets, cables, dampers, bogies, hi-vis jackets, you name it. They all have bigger stories to tell. Stories that can forge a stronger bond with the B2B audience than the product ever could.

In my example of train washing equipment the higher-level story is about the brand DNA of rail operators and giving consumers confidence and a feeling of being part of the modern world. A clean, shiny train – be it the bullet train for the intercity dash or the tram for the daily commute – reinforces brand equity. Those manufacturers are selling reputation, brand value and consumer confidence. Those are the hooks (the themes and the stories) the exhibition designer should be bringing to life.

In B2B marketing we sometimes ignore the techniques honed in B2C markets. We assume because the purchase cycle is protracted, highly discretionary, and picked over by engineers and technologists in purchasing that the emotive human stories are fluffy and irrelevant. In reality, the purchase of industrial infrastructure is so complex – often evolving over the course of the procurement cycle – that the reason to buy has more to do with people, values, vision, trust, chemistry and emotional connection than the product. This is why the executive suites, the lounge and bar design are so important on a B2B booth.

Ponder drawing inspiration from other brands.  For example: Google, Airbnb, Apple, Nokia or even Dove soap. Yes, Dove soap. Hear me out.

The future of digital rail is about more lofty considerations, like collaboration and social innovation (aka Hitachi’s mantra) and the joy, productivity, mind space and sense of self-improvement people will get from smoother, more seamless, effortless, journeys.

If I had to hypothesis (and ok, I say this with a wink of the eye) if Dove soap was running a rail infrastructure business, they would probably talk to rail operators about the sense of self-worth and personal improvement and the deeper relationships that come from experiencing new places and connecting with people. And ok, from that point in the visitor’s journey, they would drift into the lounge with a beer or glass of prosecco (or possibly an organic smoothie), to talk about how extracting data from 1000s of sensors will customise the consumer experience, optimise revenue and operations. The key difference is, where they start the conversation, not end it. They would likely start with the benefits to society, the individual and the style of collaboration, and then talk product innovation.

By the way, the Dove example I use above refers to their Real Beauty campaign. Dove is a Unilever brand. It’s renowned for a game-changer campaign that built on the idea of inner-beauty. They tapped, in a timely way, how in a beauty and celebrity obsessed-age, we view ourselves. They challenged what really matters in life and relationships, and how we define ourselves.  They tapped a deep human story and need. With the transformation underway in the transport sector, there are equally moving stories that can engage the business customer.

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