IT'S DARK. IT'S RAINING.
We’re about to drive 700 miles from coastal Mississippi to central Texas.
We are 100 yards into the journey--and have stopped dead.
Clanging bells. Flashing red lights.
The gates at the rail crossing have descended.
The windshield wipers are swiping away. Ker-thunk. Ker-thunk. Ker-thunk.
Did I mention that the middle of our route features a tropical depression?
We sit there in the dark, watching an immense freight train crawl past.
Amid the rumble and the rattle, I’m looking at the markings on the cars. I’ve certainly seen freights before. But I’ve never thought much about the markings on the car.
Here now, at railbed level in the dark, I’m looking my headlights shining on the sides of the cars.
Each passing car has a four-letter code stenciled in the lower left-hand corner. It’s clearly an identifier of some kind.
There’s so much similarity in the string of cars, and the stenciled codes all have identical "art direction."
But there’s one code that stands out from all the others. Ready?
You can see the difference, can’t you?
There is little difference in the four-letter code itself.
But right underneath it in simple, block type, it says: “THE TANKCAR PEOPLE.”
More faceless codes stream by, followed by another string of “UTLX/THE TANKCAR PEOPLE.”
More cars and more codes. Then, several more “UTLX/THE TANKCAR PEOPLE.”
I’m fascinated by the detail.
Hundred of cars, hundreds of thousands of tons of metal, hundreds of iterations of codes…
But only one code that has people involved.
And clearly people are involved. This required thought and effort.
And now, I’m involved.
What are these codes?
And who are the tankcar people?
Get ready for your rail history lesson of the day.
The code is called a “reporting mark.”
It identifies the owner or lessee of a piece of “rolling stock” used on a rail network.
The code reflects the name of the owner.
And all this makes me think of a phrase often used by a late, great radio guru.
When talking about why railroads failed when facing competition from airlines, he liked to say: “They thought they were in the railroad business. The didn’t realize they were in the people business.”
Of course, he was talking about transporting people and not freight, but you get the gist.
So, who is the owner of UTLX?
Who are the tankcar people, who clearly know that despite transporting fluids, they’re serving people?
Meet the company born in Chicago in 1866 as Union Tank Car Company.
The company was established as a challenge to one of the nation’s greatest controversial business figures, John D. Rockefeller.
It was also quickly acquired by John D. Rockefeller.
In the late 20th Century, the company was acquired by the Marmon Group.
In the early 21st century, Marmon Group was acquired by Berkshire Hathaway. (Are we surprised?)
Today, UTLX is the largest manufacturer, lessor and maintainer of railcars in North America.
It must be true. It’s on their website, which is quite good. It's far more engaging than one might expect from a website about a rail car business.
But what’s most interesting about the great and ugly, ironclad products and sprawling corporateness of the ownership of this century and a half old company?
It’s about the people.
It’s an innocuous little three-word tagline.
It has very little “creativity” involved, but is involving on a level that matters.
Because down on the ground amid a vast and sprawling sea of anonymity, UTLX pops through and makes a simple statement.
In railyards across North America, there are working people who are being reminded that UTLX are the tankcar people.
Thousands of UTLX employees, and hundreds of thousands of railroad workers know who the tankcar people are.
Even a guy sitting at a railroad crossing in the dark and the rain has some idea about UTLX.
UTLX is the code, and the code is about people.
Words good. People important.
Your Lean, Mean Creative Director in Park City
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Blaine Parker is prone to ranting about any and all things related to brand. In many ways, he is a professional curmudgeon. While there is no known vaccine for this, the condition is also not contagious. Unless you choose it to be so.