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Public Roads - July/August 1997

Overcoming An Identity Crisis: The Intelligent Transportation Industry and ITS America's National Awareness Campaign


Overcoming an Identity Crisis: The Intelligent Transportation Industry and ITS America's National Awareness Campaign
by James Costantino
Fastoll demo Many consumers are already familiar with intelligent transportation systems such as electronic toll collection.

If you listen to radio, watch television, or read a magazine, you may have seen or heard these slogans before: "We don't make the products - we just make them better." "Intel Inside." "Supermarket to the World." Advertising slogans that speak volumes to consumers are part of the American lexicon, and the benefits conveyed in those slogans are easily understood and remembered.

Unfortunately, for the members of the Intelligent Transportation Society of America (ITS America) and for the thousands of individuals in the intelligent transportation industry, attempting to explain the benefits of intelligent transportation systems (ITS) has been a difficult task. Tying together diverse practices, technologies, and industries under an umbrella group, such as ITS, has helped bring more focus to ITS products and services. But we at ITS America still don't have a simple answer to the perennial question that our members encounter daily: Just what is intelligent transportation?

"It became apparent in the mid to late 80s that all of these emerging technologies we were all working on would be able to increase travel efficiency and capacity without creating new roads. It was the dawn of a whole new era in transportation. Unfortunately, we didn't know how to describe it to anyone other than ourselves," said Dick Braun, ITS America's treasurer and the executive director of Minnesota's Guidestar Program.

Through the use of ITS technologies, such scenes of traffic gridlock will soon become a thing of the past

In the early days of ITS America, Chalmers "Hap" Carr, current chair of the organization's Communications and Outreach Task Force, faced the difficulty of describing "intelligent transportation" to laymen. Hap, a former Air Force man, said his stock phrase to explain intelligent transportation was to describe it as "the application of aerospace technology to the ground-vehicle industry."

Debates about how to deal with this identity crisis have been part of the ITS industry since the beginning. Over the years, ITS America's Communications and Outreach Task Force developed various communications media - videos, brochures, pamphlets, and booklets. Each attempted to explain how intelligent transportation would enable consumers to travel smarter and safer. However, as good as these individual efforts were, overall it was a piecemeal approach to communications. By the summer of 1996, members of ITS America realized a coordinated, well-researched national public relations and advertising campaign was the only way to increase consumer awareness of ITS benefits.

In setting out to educate the public, we knew that crafting a national awareness campaign required four main components:

  • Extensive market research on the message and the audience to fully understand how the public would respond and to which sectors of the consumer public the message should be directed.
  • Development of a new logo as a universal symbol (such as "Intel Inside") to which the public could relate the benefits of intelligent transportation, and development of a memorable tag line, or slogan, to accompany the symbol.
  • Creative advertising to clearly and effectively introduce a new ITS logo and tag line and to communicate benefits.
  • Extensive media and public relations efforts to buttress the advertising, excite local newspaper editors and television commentators, and generate the "free media" that would carry the ITS message home to audiences in ways paid advertising cannot.

We chose the Washington, D.C.-based public relations and advertising team of The Jefferson Group Inc. and Henry J. Kaufman & Associates to craft a program. They proposed a multitiered communications program to accomplish three goals:

  • Elevate the awareness of intelligent transportation's benefits among the general public, industry leaders, and public officials.
  • Build to a future in which ITS benefits are so well-understood that the public does not simply accept, but demands, ITS products and services.
  • Engage the transportation industry as a whole in a cooperative manner to help promote this new identity of ITS to many different audiences.

The campaign is being led by Bob Carr, who, during his 18 years in the U.S. House of Representatives, was a champion of the ITS industry, especially as the chairman of the House Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee.

"Much of what ITS is all about is behind the scenes. It's intended to be that way - the GPS (Global Positioning System), the toll-collection sensors - all so user-friendly that the technology's invisible. This is what ITS is all about - solving [potential] problems before they become problems. Once consumers clearly grasp how intelligent transportation can change their lives for the better, we'll be able to measure the success of any communications outreach," said Bob Carr, explaining one of the difficulties in communicating ITS benefits.

Beginning in January 1997, ITS America's contractors conducted research, developed an ITS industry logo and tag line, and designed a series of paid advertisements for the mass media. All of which were unveiled at ITS America's annual meeting in June.

The key advantage of this program, unlike any other communications program we've tried before, is research. We began our research in January at the Transportation Research Board annual meeting in Washington, D.C. Delegates were invited to fill out questionnaires and participate in videotaped interviews. Nearly 500 delegates responded.

The results were not surprising. More than 90 percent of the respondents believe the public has little or no understanding of intelligent transportation or the benefits of ITS. Almost the same percentage said that - as deployments were occurring across the nation and as critical public funding sources, such as the reauthorization of the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act, came up for debate - the industry needed to advocate ITS with a single, unified voice.

To encourage industry participation in this groundbreaking research, we created a partnership program for ITS America members. The "Research Associates Program" became a key tool for companies to actively participate in market research, creative brainstorming, and communications strategy development. This approach is a key component of our overall strategy to build strong partnerships among the many companies and organizations within the ITS industry.

The main effort of our research was a series of focus groups held in St. Louis, Atlanta, and Seattle, where we gauged the depth of public awareness of ITS benefits and tested some initial creative concepts. Many focus group participants said they already encountered in-vehicle navigation systems in rental cars, and some had seen or were experiencing electronic toll collection, congestion monitoring, and the like. They understood the benefits these technologies offered for their day-to-day lives. Participants also responded favorably to the concept of a well-developed, creative logo representative of intelligent transportation.

Our partners in the Research Associates Program were impressed with the initial research findings. "We had an idea that if consumers were presented with a slogan or symbol that could immediately conjure up direct benefits for their own day-to-day transportation, they would interpret that symbol to mean intelligent transportation. This really is a big development," said one partner.

With the research findings as our guide, we launched our test advertising and public relations campaign last spring. Articles and advertisements began appearing in national and industrial publications. These articles and ads featured a new position statement for the campaign - "IntelliTrans: Bringing new thinking to transportation." Combined with the specially designed, new campaign logo and in conjunction with ITS "success stories," this slogan was widely tested among consumers across the country.

Through a consistent and coordinated effort over time, we can educate a broad cross section of the American public about the benefits of ITS. As consumer awareness leads to public demand, the opportunities for public-private efforts to design and deploy ITS systems will multiply. That's the bottom-line benefit for the ITS industry and for all Americans.

Through the ITS America National Awareness Campaign, intelligent transportation will no longer be viewed as a future means to improve mobility and transportation. It will be viewed and demanded as the intelligent way to meet today's transportation challenges.

James Costantino is the president and chief executive officer of ITS America.