For a quarter of a century, Eurostar has been transporting passengers between the City of Lights and the Big Smoke — as well as other mainland European cities.
During this time, the famed train company has hit some impressive milestones. In 2003, Eurostar broke the UK rail speed record, cruising at 208mph (334.7kph) for the first time. A decade later, they carried over 10 million travelers in one year.
On board, premier-class consumers got to sample dishes, prepared by top French chefs and even enjoy a glass of Eurostar’s own brand of gin, Toujours 21. But brand marketers are far more impressed with Eurostar’s creative — and often unexpected — advertising choices.
Just think of the brand’s vintage 2007 “It’s summertime in London” ad, which featured a barber shaving off fur from the bearskin ceremonial hat worn by a Queen’s Guard, and quickly became an iconic reference. Or, consider the 2019 speed dating event on board Eurostar on the St. Valentine's day — an event that garnered a ton of praise.
Yet, Eurostar’s brand is also associated with many controversies — from hanging on at the edge of bankruptcy to slow ridership growth and endless train delays. So, how has Eurostar navigated the tedious process of building an attractive transportation brand?
This brand deep dive tells the story and provides some lessons for other marketers.
Eurostar’s Brand Journey
In 1994, the construction of the Channel Tunnel was complete, and Britain finally got a ground connection to mainland Europe. Soon after, the first Eurostar train left Waterloo International Station and arrived at Paris Gare du Nord.
The public was excited about the prospect of fast travel (only 3 hours to Paris and back!). But Eurostar wasn’t an immediate success. In 1994, the company's losses were £925 million because of lower-than-anticipated revenues from passenger and freight services.
The downward earning trend continued in the late 1990s as Eurostar struggled to attract passengers, though they did try hard. Eurostar frequently engaged the Royal family for publicity, and the Queen rode Eurostar on several occasions. Prince Charles and Prince Harry even took the Eurostar to see the World Cup in Paris.
Eurostar also invited Australian pop star, Kylie Minogue, for a 2001 TV merry-go-lucky ad where she happily zoomed between English busses and Paris couture shops. Still, passenger numbers were much lower than the initial pre-tunnel opening forecasts anticipated.
“By 2010 demand was projected to have grown to between 21 and 27 million passengers. In 1995 fewer than 5 million passengers were carried, and in 2010 only 9.5 million were carried, indicating that the initial forecasts were a factor of 2 to 3 times too high.”
So, how did Eurostar make such huge overestimates? The report pinpoints several reasons:
Pre-construction forecasts indicated that Eurostar would attract a lot of passengers for destinations in Germany, Spain, and even Eastern Europe. That didn’t happen. In 1996, only 3% of Euro passengers traveled to destinations other than France or Belgium.
Likewise, the team assumed more traffic from other regions of England (not just London). Again, only 12% of passengers in 1996 wanted to travel to/from the “rest of England”.
Eurostar also misjudged the demand for the London-Brussels travel route. Brits never saw Belgium as an attractive leisure destination — and business travel volumes weren’t high.
Finally, the team thought they’ll divert some customers from the ferry service. But Eurostar only won over some air travelers and draw little ridership from the ferry.
That said: Eurostar did get some projections right. The London-Paris route was a hit, with 70% of air traffic transferring to Eurostar relatively quickly. By 2000, the team changed its strategy and decided to position Eurostar as a faster, more enjoyable alternative to air travel — a marketing vector they still use today.
In the mid-2000s, Eurostart became even faster, as a new segment of high-speed rails were completed. They also moved from Waterloo Station to a renovated London St. Pancras International station, which remains Eurostar’s main hub today.
Whatsmore, travel times to Paris and Brussels got shorter: 2h 35 and 2h 20 on average. This is a fact the Eurostar team started to actively advertise, along with convenient city center to city center arrivals — as seen in the ads below.
Above: Happy landings on the Champs d’Elysee 2003 campaign and 2003 Eurostar campaigns for Belgium via the Guardian
Faster traveling speeds, improved service levels, and clever advertising seemed to have done the trick. In 2008, just before the financial crisis, Eurostar finally saw a 21% increase in passenger volumes.
Yet, the global economic downturn wiped out some of Eurostar’s tentative achievements — and the company struggled financially. In 2010, Eurostar was finally incorporated as a legal entity in an attempt to restructure finances and implement better corporate governance.
Still, the company ended the year with a £133.9 million operating loss, primarily accumulated through access fees to use the Channel Tunnel and London-Kent high-speed line construction project.
Originally, the UK government had a 40% stake in the company, but they sold it to private investors in 2015. At present, Eurostar International Limited (EIL) is owned by:
SNCF (55%) – a French national rail company
Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec (30%) – an institutional investor
Hermes Infrastructure (10%) — an institutional investor
NMBS/SNCB (5%) — Belgian national rail company
Though a part of SNCF, Eurostar is managed and marketed as a standalone brand.
Post company restructuring, Eurostar decided to add “greener”, more convenient Siemens trains to its fleet. The new trains also had a 20% larger passenger capacity, which the company rushed to fill in. In 2011, Eurostar reports carrying over 9.7 million passengers and revenue exceeding £800 million.
2012 was an even more successful year for Eurostar, as they became a sponsor of the London Olympic Games. Athletes, business people, and tourists flocked to town — helping Eurostar double its operating profit to £52.3 million.
The 2012 Olympic games campaign was designed to position Eurostar as a pan-European brand, connecting different nationalities figuratively and literary. The post-Olympics ads series kept this narrative and poked fun at the differences and similarities between Brits and other Europeans.
Source: Campaign US
Under the spell of increased ridership, Eurostar added more European routes to its schedule — and conceptualized new regional and night services across the UK (both of which failed to fully materialize).
The 2018 London-Amsterdam route, however, was a major success. According to an :
“You’ll be in Amsterdam by 9.12 pm (10.12 pm local time). Celebrate with a round of shots from the buffet car with 15 minutes to go, and you’ll step straight off the train into the heart of the city, without security or passport checks”.
Though, to be fair, passengers had to change trains in Brussels on the way back to go through passport control. However, the new route was credited with a 7% increase in passenger numbers — primarily frequent flyers.
Then, 2019 came — Eurostar’s 25th anniversary. Of course, the brand planned some major promo events and special sales. Among those were:
Plastic-free train debut with no single-use plastic used on board
Public eco pledges to plant a tree for every Eurostar train service and receive a third-start from Sustainable Restaurant Association (SRA) for serving responsibly sourced food.
Shortly after, Eurostar also release its first post-Brexit ad campaign where the world met Seymour — the traveling ostrich.
The first video followed Seymour around a Parisien market, eying up a for-sale portrait and bumping into an antique harp. The second one, targeted at French speakers, showed Seymour being a wee bit punkish at the Camden Museum.
Seymour also made a comeback for the brand’s OOH ad series. And this creativity paid off. In August 2019, Eurostar had its best month ever, carrying over 1 million passengers. Frequent promotions, better service levels, and active advertising drove steady growth from Eurostar till the end of the year.
Then, the pandemic hit in 2020 — and travel came to a screeching halt.
Passenger volumes dropped by 95% starting from March 2020 and revenue fell by €340 million. Eurostar went from operating over 60 daily trains to running one daily round-trip on London-Paris, London-Brussels, and London-Amsterdam routes.
The pandemic strained Eurostarts operations and ruptured future expansion plans. However, things are looking up — and in summer 2022, Eurostar hopes to achieve 80% of pre-pandemic passenger numbers.
3 Brand Lessons from Eurostar
When you ask consumers about Eurostar, opinions are often divided.
Many adore Eurostar for fast, affordable, and more eco-travel between European capitals and London. Others rely on Eurostar for work, life, and love. One loyal passenger even told , stating:
“I am in a nine-year relationship, thanks to the Eurostar. To be very honest, without the Eurostar it might not have lasted.”
Still, negative brand associations are also common. Eurostar passengers complain about constant service disruptions due to strikes (on the French side), frequent delays, dwindling service levels (“Eurostar isn’t as great as it used to be”), and moderately frequent train failures.
But as we know from other brands like Ryanair and Thomas Cook, complaining is a “given” in the travel industry. Force majeure events will happen, and companies quickly lose brand equity because of them.
Here’s what Eurostar did right (and wrong) on its long brand development journey.
1. Use Your Competitive Edge
Eurostar doesn’t have direct brand competition — as they’re the only rail carrier operating in the Channel Tunnel. But Eurostar does still have to ward off indirect competitors — such as ferry companies, low-cost airlines, and buses.
How do you grow such a brand? Eurostar didn’t choose to compete on price or time factors alone. Instead, they developed several other brand differentiators.
Sustainability: Rail travel creates less pollution than short-haul flights. Also, under the Tread Lightly, Eurostar made several other “green” changes. They now use renewable energy sources to power trains, reduced paper ticketing by 50%, serve sustainable food on board — and even plant trees for every train owned. Such initiatives strike a chord with sustainability-oriented audiences.
Sustainability is a prominent trend in the travel industry — and Eurostar has found a way to tactfully tap into it without resorting to greenwashing techniques.
Convenience: Eurostar also emphasizes the fact that taking a train directly into the city center, instead of arriving at a remote airport, helps travelers make the most of their journies. The team runs special promotions for short weekend travel and tries to tickle consumers’ curiosity and re-kindle their adventurous spirit.
The latest “You see more when you don't fly” campaign features Seymor, the Ostrich, and was built on these premises. Earlier campaigns also leaned into this angle, like “London with a Twist” or “Cool for Kids (and Parents too) in Paris.”
The Takeaway: Every successful brand relies on several branding pillars to communicate its main value proposition to different target audiences. Provide consumers with good reasons to choose your company over others — and differentiate you from other options.
2. Adapt Your Marketing to Different Markets
Eurostar has always been a three-country project, led by the UK, France, and Belgium — and later expanded to the Netherlands. The company has an HQ in London, but a French CEO, Jacques Damas — and over 3000 workers in different countries. Plus, Eurostar carries passengers from all over Europe (and other countries, too).
When building a brand experience, Eurostar had to account for all national cultural differences to appeal to their diverse clientele.
For years, chef Raymond Blanc has worked on perfecting Eurostar's onboard menu by mixing different European cuisines. Most combinations amaze and delight consumers. Others — not as much.
When introducing a “press for champagne” button, Eurostar dropped the idea of serving English sparkling wine to French consumers. Likewise, they decided against adding Dutch licorice into dishes served on the new Amsterdam route.
Cultural quirks also became one of the “signature” brand storytelling narratives. In 2014, Eurostar launched a #Bettercloser campaign, which wonderfully commented on cultural differences through illustrations.
Peter Dewar, Director of Brand Language at The Cleaning / Eurostar’s agency, said:
“Our concept – #bettercloser – amplifies how travelers feel about the impact of Eurostar on their lives, celebrating the cultural influences and quirks of behavior that have been shared between the UK, France, and Belgium.”
Source: Trend N’Com
The Takeaway: Rolling out brand marketing campaigns in multiple markets is difficult. Not all messages and creative ideas will translate as well as others. Rather than only translating and localizing marketing campaigns to different markets, Eurostar adapts the pitches to local cultural nuances and creates memorable cross-cultural campaigns for their target destinations.
To create equally creative and compelling messages, use brand monitoring software like Latana to learn how regional audiences perceive your brand and what types of associations they have. Then, localize your campaigns accordingly.
3. Blend Offline and Online Experiences
Eurostar invested a great deal in amplifying the physical travel experience. Business travelers can lounge at an exclusive cocktail bar before departure. Premier class passengers savor exquisite onboard menus and enjoy free champagne.
The company also runs interesting experiential marketing campaigns at its hub stations. For Valentine’s Day, Eurostar set up “Love Booths” around stations — offering passengers the opportunity to make and share cheeky love messages. The takeover campaign generated over 300K YouTube views during the first week and some positive brand buzz across other social media channels.
However, Eurostar is not too active online. Yes, the company has Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook accounts — and runs occasional “buy promo tickets” online ads. But…that’s about it.
Given its niche — travel — Eurostar could do so much more with digital storytelling and influencer marketing. For example, co-create destination guides with local celebrities or popular bloggers, enlist YouTubers to cover major city events, or partner with influencers for destination marketing campaigns.
At this point, consumers are well-aware of Eurostar, so the team really needs to focus on the lower stages of the brand funnel — preference, usage, and advocacy. That’s where digital marketing channels can really help.
The Takeaway: It’s always tempting to stay in a tried-and-tested lane, especially as a heritage brand. But venturing into the new territory — be it TikTok marketing or live streaming — is a given if you want to remain relevant to new audiences and retain existing ones.
From the start, Eurostar was an ambitious project. As such, it didn’t always evolve as planned — ridership growth was slow, service disruptions were common, and macroeconomic events got in the way of growth.
Despite all challenges, Eurostar continued to produce sharp, witty, and memorable brand marketing campaigns that millions of marketers adore.
Did all of their creative choices lead to immediate ROI? No, but Eurostar is used to playing the long game — and we’re thrilled to see what their next creative move will be as the travel sector bounces back!