If You Won’t Ride Amtrak’s Trains, How About Drawing Them?

In crisis times, the national railroad wants people to imagine better days ahead

Imagining riding the rails is the closest most of us will get to getting out there for the foreseeable future. Amtrak

Key insight:

These are, to put it mildly, brutal times for the nation’s transportation sector. With airline passenger traffic down by 95%, even Berkshire Hathaway dumped its $6 billion stake in four carriers over the weekend. Car rental companies have taken less of a hit, but business is still off between 50% and 75%, with Hertz rumored to be preparing a bankruptcy filing. Bus companies report that somewhere been 80% and 95% of their bookings are gone.

And when it comes to long-distance trains? Amtrak, the nation’s passenger railroad, has seen its losses tally to $700 million even while running on a drastically curtailed schedule as passenger counts fell roughly on par with those of the airlines.

You might ask, then, what kind of marketing a railroad can possibly do at a time when nobody wants to board a train. Well, it can try getting them to draw a train instead.

Last week, the Stories section of Amtrak’s Instagram account gave followers an unusual challenge: Take a look at a photo of the train, take a few seconds to memorize it, then draw it and send in your artwork.

But what might at first seem like a rather cheesy, low-budget bit of marketing looks a lot shrewder when you consider that traditional travel messages are out the window right now: There’s little point in advertising vacation packages, special fares and the leisurely pace of train travel when Americans can’t or are refusing to leave their homes.

“We’re focused on informing and engaging with our users: hearing stories of their past travel, encouraging them to daydream of their next adventure, and to have some #Amtrak fun at home by way of activities, projects, and content,” Amtrak’s director of digital media Andy Jasenak told Adweek.

The idea came out of brainstorming sessions with the railroad’s social media team, which was looking for ways to “keep the brand top of mind for future travel,” Jasenak added.

The photo that players were asked to draw shows the Chicago-bound Empire Builder with two Genesis-series P42 locomotives consisting of Superliner bi-level cars, heading away from the Rockies in the distance. The scene is a basic exercise in geometric sketching and perspective, but that didn’t stop fans from submitting a range of interpretations, from the impressionistic to the pseudo-cubist to something Bob Ross might have attempted.

But the point isn’t to create fine art, of course—it’s to get consumers to stay excited about rail travel, even as they cool their heels at home. And this mission appears to have been accomplished, especially since Amtrak is reposting some of the more colorful submissions. “We’ve noticed a boomerang effect,” Jasenak said. “Users repost our mention and continue the conversation.”

Amtrak’s tactic also reflects the new reality facing most every travel company during the Covid era. With traditional advertising having ground to a halt (not only are Americans not traveling, transportation companies trying desperately to conserve cash have little to spend on pricey campaigns anyway), the kind of homespun efforts like the one Amtrak is doing are a cost-effective way to at least keep some degree of brand messaging out in the world.

Already a major trend among influencers and brands since 2018, Instagram Stories is increasingly the social channel where companies are building community and awareness on a budget during the pandemic. Reyka Vodka is having weekly quarantine beard contests; NYT Cooking held a live lasagna cook-along with chef Samin Nosrat of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat; and Nikon is hosting weekly livestreams with photographers as well as issuing quarantine-appropriate photo challenges.

Denmark’s Faroe Islands, which mastered low-budget tourism with sheep cams in 2016, last month launched a virtual tour, a helmet-cam adventure that allowed users to control their own “hike” by using their phones at home, went viral.

Amtrak’s next train-related Instagram challenge will go live Thursday.

@UpperEastRob robert.klara@adweek.com Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.