This marketing company with political ties is getting paid millions to “humanize” the MBTA brand
A consulting firm led by the son of Gov. Charlie Baker’s 2018 reelection campaign chairman is getting $5.5 million to “humanize the brand” of the MBTA as it embarks on a massive capital projects plan—and deals with bad publicity on a near-daily basis.
State officials say the connections between the MBTA and Boathouse Group, which is run by the son of Baker reelection chair and Boston power broker Jack Connors, were not a factor in the contract.
While the T hasn’t followed all of Boathouse Consulting’s proposals—such as giving the CharlieCard custom names like “Nia” or “Jose”—it has adopted some of the firm’s million-dollar ideas.
“Such an effort is especially important now as we roll out our $8 billion, multi-year improvement plan to upgrade and modernize with the end goal of providing a better travel experience for all our riders,” T spokesperson Lisa Battiston wrote in an email.
Two years ago, the T “made the decision to adopt a comprehensive and consistent customer-focused planning effort to communicate regular MBTA operations and activities to our riders and stakeholders,” Battiston said. The agency solicited bids for a marketing agency of record to “execute a comprehensive marketing and communications plan to support the Authority’s efforts to engage with our customers and stakeholders, as well as to support the MBTA’s brand development and major marketing initiatives,” according to a request for proposals issued in August 2018.
Part of that work included placing media buys with an expected media budget of $1.5 million to $2.5 million a year, according to a summary that was released with the bid. In the document, T officials said they’re open to sponsorships and partnerships, want to see a “cohesive brand” with the Keolis-operated commuter rail, and are looking for increased ridership—but don’t have research on nonriders. The materials suggest the agency wants customers to feel they’re being heard, but doesn’t know how to make that happen.
Of 11 responsive firms, the T picked Waltham-based Boathouse Group Inc. to handle the campaign at a price not exceeding $5.5 million. Boathouse has a history of working for state agencies, in the past consulting for UMass and Massport along with private companies like Eversource. In Boathouse’s response to the bid, the company highlighted its work for Eversource in a case study, describing the company’s rebranding after Boston-based NSTAR merged with other New England power companies.
“Phase one was launching a high-profile campaign to announce the name change, followed by two highly choreographed mirror campaigns that positioned Eversource as the energy leader in New England,” Boathouse boasted. “The launch timing coincided with rising energy rates, so a campaign was created to educate customers and create positive sentiment around Eversource doing the right thing for its customers. … Creatively, juxtapositions were used to message this affordability in a different style and to layer in storytelling with the employees and community at the core.”
According to Boathouse, the strategy worked: “Within the first six months, Eversource established the highest awareness for any utility in New England, with levels surpassing brands that had been in the market for years,” Boathouse added. “Eversource also successfully established credibility for attributes that were most important for customers: reliability and outage restoration. This was a tall order, given the rebrand was during the worst winter in recent history and followed a rate increase.”
Establishing credibility doesn’t come cheap—a list of rates for the proposed MBTA team ranges from $100 to $300 an hour, with CEO John Connors pulling in $400 an hour. The son of longtime Boston power broker Jack Connors, a co-founder of marketing giant Hill Holliday, and a major presence in Hub political and philanthropic circles, John Connors has connections in the halls of power. As the bidding process for the MBTA contract was underway, in September 2018 his father became the chair of Gov. Charlie Baker’s reelection campaign.
Boathouse employees have donated to various political campaigns, with John Connors giving $5,000 to the Democratic State Committee in 2010 and $5,000 to the Republican State Committee in 2014, with another $1,000 to Baker in 2015 and again in 2016. After Jack Connors took over as Baker’s campaign chair, John Connors and Boathouse principal Robert Parks each gave the governor $1,000, while Boathouse co-founder and CFO Christopher Boland dropped $5,000 into the Republican State Committee’s coffers.
A Baker spokesperson said the Connors’ relationship was not a factor in Boathouse’s selection. Battiston said there was no connection between Boathouse ultimately winning the bid and the company’s ties to Baker and said the T received several strong proposals.
“The MBTA was fortunate to have so many first-rate firms respond and eager to partner with us to tell the T’s story,” Battiston said. “The selection committee was very impressed by the creativity of the various approaches presented and by the different ways the MBTA could communicate with our multiple stakeholders about the improved comfort, quality, and reliability of the customer experience coming in the next five years.”
Boathouse did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this article but was paid about $1 million through August 2019, according to the most recently available financial records from the MBTA.
The 2018 request for proposals lists numerous areas of work for the winning company to help the T improve customer service and increase ridership and sponsorship opportunities, including researching T use, making media buys, and evaluating the success of marketing campaigns—including more active social media work.
“Develop a robust social media strategy to reach more customers and humanize the MBTA brand,” reads one of the responsibilities in the RFP.
The RFP also says the winning bidder will “prepare creative briefs for approval by MBTA.” A Freedom of Information request for those creative briefs submitted through late 2019 produced two documents, but Battiston said there have been other proposals.
“Boathouse has pitched a number of researched idea proposals to the T since 2018. … Some ideas are implemented, some are not,” Battiston said, adding that selected proposals were then processed through the T’s customer experience department.” A few examples of Boathouse proposals the MBTA has implemented: the highlighting of “over the weekend” work throughout the system, an updated “Winter” campaign, the late-night bus service campaign, “customer information reports included in local print publications to inform riders of upcoming work and for riders to plan ahead.”
One of the proposals released to this reporter was from a meeting on Dec 6, 2018, that looked at potential copy for text alerts. The tag, “Find out what’s happening and why. Now customized for your commute,” was appended to a dozen slogans, several of which referenced internet slang—“More ETA. Less WTF”; “Learn when service will BRB”; “Never be IDK about delays.” Others used more conventional wordplay, like “Think of it as an ‘out-of-service’ service.”
An “MBTA Brand Creative Presentation” by Boathouse, delivered last April, is more comprehensive. It opens with several tiers to emphasize—safety, capital, performance improvement, fiscal discipline—and lists objectives, perceptions, facts, and messaging opportunities. One objective for the “Delivering The Capital Program” is to “Put the money to work,” while a slide headed “Civic Brand Marketing Objectives” lays out a philosophy: “We believe that providing the people of the commonwealth with a safe, reliable transit system is our core responsibility … We must humanize the brand, demonstrate we care about the needs of all our communities, and tell a consistent story of access and opportunity through reliability.
“We must take a position that is hard for people to oppose,” it concludes.
The presentation lays out numerous ad ideas and topics promoting the T, with the tag “Together” —headed by the T logo—accompanying copy. It looks at emphasizing reliability in general and capital improvements in particular, like proposed posters showcasing hybrid buses. A social content section suggests using videos with community leaders and scientists to talk up public transit’s ability to produce equity and its environmental and affordability benefits. Another proposed video would showcase a “series of riders, each with their own information bubbles over their head, giving us a look into who they are and where they’re headed.” An entire section titled “Humans” looks to personalize the T, with posters containing the Together text and slogans like “explore,” “celebrate,” and “discover” emblazoned on photos of people using and working on the T.
The “Humans” section also included what appears to be the most radical suggestion made by Boathouse—a “change,” the company projected, that “will literally touch every rider.” “Change the name of the smart card from Charlie,” the presentation reads. “We suggest picking 8 to 10 names every year to issue the cards with,” Boathouse suggests, offering names including “Nia,” “Mike,” and “Jose.”
“Similar to what Coke did over the summer, this one move plants the flag that something new is going on. And also communicates that this system is built and run for the people who ride. Together.”
Asked about this possibility, Battiston, the MBTA spokesperson, wrote, “We are not planning on renaming the CharlieCard.”