Thalys becomes Eurostar: my analysis from a brand and customer perspective

When I lived in Amsterdam, I was a loyal Thalys traveler for five years, from 2015 to 2020, and it’s a brand I love.

The first version of this article dates from the end of 2021. I updated it in October 2023, with the latest events leading to the replacement of the Thalys brand in favor of Eurostar.

In this article, I offer my insights as a customer experience and brand professional.

Thalys becomes Eurostar

In 2021, Thalys and Eurostar have announced their merger.

On October 1, 2023, the Thalys brand was replaced by the Eurostar brand. In the first part, I’ll take a look at what this means in terms of customer experience and brand policy.

In the second part, I discuss the cooperation between Thalys and the Air France KLM group, which I believe could be further developed following the merger between Thalys and Eurostar.

Thalys was born in 1996. It’s a consortium between the French, Belgian, and German railroads, with the Dutch as a privileged partner. SNCF, with 60% of the capital, is the main player.

25 years later, Thalys is a great success. In 2019, Thalys carried some 8 million passengers. After a difficult period with the COVID crisis, traffic has picked up strongly since the end of 2021.

In 2023, the new Eurostar Group, which replaced Thalys and Eurostar, is owned by SNCF voyageurs (55.75%), Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec (19.31%), SNCB (18.5%), and Federated Hermes Infrastructure (6.44%).

This article is aimed at anyone with an interest in transportation, branding, or customer experience. I wrote it in 2021 and updated it with the latest events.

It complements the more general public article “Traveling by Eurostar: in the footsteps of l’Etoile du Nord“.

 

All texts in color coral indicate an internal or external link.

Thalys: The big project to merge with Eurostar

The merger of Thalys with Eurostar began under the name of the “Green Speed” project. “Green Speed“.

In 2019, Thalys and Eurostar announced their intention to merge but suspended the operation due to COVID to relaunch it in 2021. The main objective was to generate commercial and operational synergies, creating a stronger, more profitable company. Ultimately, the new entity should carry 30 million passengers a year, up from 19 million before the COVID crisis.

I reviewed this project from the angle of customer experience and brand policy.

Customer experiences differ between Eurostar and Thalys

Let’s first observe how the customer experiences between Eurostar and Thalys are quite different from each other.

Taking the Eurostar is a bit like flying. You must go to the station in advance and undergo immigration, customs, and security checks imposed by the authorities. To get to London, you have to leave Europe!

Thalys is a more traditional rail experience. You can get on board right up to the last minute, thanks to the absence of controls.

Eurostar’s “Business Premier” class lounge is luxurious, with the light food and beverage offer of a top airline (Photo credit below: Eurostar).

Eurostar lounge in Paris

Eurostar buffet lounge in Paris

The Thalys lounge is more basic, offering only hot drinks and water. For me, it’s a slightly more comfortable waiting room. (Photo credit below: Thalys)

Salon Thalys Paris

Aviation inspired the interiors of Eurostar trains. The walls are made of the same white material found in Boeing and Airbus cabins. The smaller gauge of the carriages, imposed by the constraints of the British rail network, gives the train a tubular appearance that reinforces this airline feeling. The colors chosen, browns and grays, play on the seriousness and business aspect. (Photo credit below: Eurostar)

Eurostar Premier Business Seat

Thalys’ interior design in burgundy and poppy red tones is cozy and more reminiscent of a club atmosphere.

Premium seat with Ruby livery on Thalys

Both companies supply three classes:

  • Business Premier on Eurostar and Premium on Thalys offer the highest level of comfort.
  • The intermediate “Standard Premier” class on Eurostar and “Comfort ” on Thalys, both offer the same seat as the superior class, but with more limited service.
  • Finally, the entry-level class is called “standard ” on both airlines, with second-class seats.

Eurostar’s onboard service is renowned. A gourmet hot meal with champagne, a VIP pass and access to the lounge for Business Premier passengers, and a cold, light meal for Standard Premier passengers. The crew is numerous and highly professional. (Photo credit below: Eurostar)

Eurostar Premier Business Meals

The service provided by Thalys on-board staff, while of a high standard, is a step down. A cold meal, similar to that served in Eurostar’s intermediate class, is served in “Premium“. No meal service is offered in Comfort class.

Meals on board Thalys

Pricing policy reflects differences in product positioning. For an equivalent distance, the price of a Paris-London trip in “Standard Premier” is 375 euros (315 euros in 2021!), while Paris-Amsterdam in “Premium” on Thalys is only between 150 euros and 220 euros (between 135 euros and 205 euros in 2021). Similar price differentials are found in the other classes.

In autumn 2023, the customer experience remains unchanged

The difference in positioning is probably due to competition. Thalys has to face car transportation which is less the case for Eurostar. Thalys has the advantages of a domestic route, while Eurostar has to deal with a real border crossing.

Aligning the Thalys customer experience with that of Eurostar, or vice versa, would inevitably have consequences for costs, prices, and product appeal.

On October 1, 2023, even though the products, customer experience, and fare positioning remained unchanged, the Thalys brand disappeared.

In this context, I don’t understand the point of merging the two brands, which are already well-established and well-known.

I guess the marketing teams preferred to remain cautious by keeping the current products, and that merging the brands is above all a political decision, not a business one.

 

Eurostar has become the brand name of the new company: what a shame!

Another misunderstanding: The decision was made to make the Thalys brand disappear in favor of Eurostar. The main reason given is that this brand is better known internationally. I confess I don’t understand.

I would have preferred to keep the Thalys brand. It’s a truly unique and original brand. It inspires elegance and sophistication and is positioned at the top end of the market. What’s more, Thalys has a very European history, with France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany working together to build this brand.

Thalys logo

Eurostar sounds to me like the name of a soccer or basketball team!

The prefix “Euro” and the suffix “Star” seem to me to be overused, and are already associated with a large number of other brands such as Euromillion, Europcar, Star Alliance, and Starbucks, to name but a few.

Finally, Eurostar is primarily a Franco-British adventure and is intertwined with the Eurotunnel brand, whose purpose is linked to transport in the Channel Tunnel.

Eurostar logo

But a merger requires compromise, and I imagine that brand managers must have reluctantly accepted this.

However, I’m not familiar with the political stakes between the two companies, which may have justified the decision to propose the Eurostar brand to the two Boards of Directors, and above all to rule out the option of keeping the two brands, given that the products remain unchanged. A mystery!

Merging visual identities was too great a challenge!

When it came to visual identities, bringing the two brands together was far from obvious. From an aesthetic point of view, Thalys red and burgundy don’t go at all well with Eurostar’s midnight blue and yellow!

But brand colors aren’t just about aesthetics. Above all, they must convey the company’s positioning, and from this point of view, the choice of the Eurostar brand is questionable.

Thalys has combined red and burgundy in dark tones that are unusual in the world of transport. These are color codes generally found in the world of luxury. Air France has adopted a similar red for its top-of-the-range flagship product, “La Première”.

Thalys brand colors
Entrance to the Air France lounge at CDG

Eurostar’s dominant colors – midnight blue, azure blue, and bright yellow – reflect the brand’s youthful, dynamic, leisurely, and affordable positioning. They are very close to Europe’s biggest low-cost airline: Ryanair. To convince yourself, compare the exterior liveries of the two companies! It’s a no-brainer.

Eurostar livery
Ryanair livery

This raises the question of whether Thalys has historically chosen colors that are too upmarket for its brand positioning. And conversely, too low-end for Eurostar?

The challenge for both airlines is to attract both a demanding business clientele willing to pay a high price for the service required and a price-conscious leisure clientele. It’s hard to find the right global brand positioning in these conditions! I know something about this, as my former employer, Air France, has the same problem, with a range that goes from luxurious long-haul Première to very basic economy class on domestic flights.

One avenue that could have been explored by the new group would have been to take advantage of the merger to further differentiate, with appropriate color codes, the three different Thalys and Eurostar transport classes. This was not the choice made.

In fact, the cost of renewing the exterior livery of the trains or the interior fittings is a major constraint on a complete overhaul of visual identities. Eurostar has renewed its fleet in recent years, while Thalys is in the process of renovating its trains. Repainting a single trainset would have cost around 500,000 euros, according to an SNCF project to repaint the first TGV trainset in its original orange color. Less expensive solutions, such as coating, would have been possible, but more short-lived.

 

A successful new star logo

The new Eurostar group has simply adapted a common logo to different train liveries. Pragmatism obliges!

new Eurostar logo

The good surprise is that the new star-shaped logo is rather dynamic and successful. According to Eurostar the logo was inspired by the Étoile du Nord, the original train service linking Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam, the star of Brussels Expo 1958, but also the first Eurostar logo.

A sparkling animated graphic acts as a compass, symbolizing the brand’s aim to bring new opportunities to life, connecting people, places, businesses, and cultures across borders. It’s a great brand promise!

A new, very Anglo-Saxon brand territory

The new brand identity was designed by DesignStudio. The new color palette, typography, and 3D animations are both innovative and nostalgic, with vintage-style illustrations.

I regret, however, that it refers too much to Eurostar and doesn’t draw too much inspiration from Thalys. Perhaps choosing a British agency led to such a choice? I wonder if it wouldn’t have been wiser to use an agency on the continent that would have been closer culturally to Thalys, but that’s just my personal opinion.

What’s more, the brand’s new color palette is no longer reflected in the physical environment of travelers, which, pragmatically, retains the old Eurostar and Thalys colors. This won’t contribute to building a strong brand.

To discover the Eurostar brand territory for yourself, I invite you to visit the new Eurostar website

New Eurostar website

Today, I’m skeptical, but a brand lives in time. We’ll have to see how the new identity evolves in the years to come in the traveler’s environment. Perhaps my opinion will change?

Cooperation between Eurostar and the Air France KLM group

Because of my personal history, I’ m as attached to trains as I am to planes. I am therefore a fervent supporter of the development of combined services between the two modes of transport.

Indeed, the “Green Speed” project explicitly states as one of its main objectives the modal shift from road and air to rail to meet the growing demand for sustainable mobility.

Rather than being confrontational, Air France KLM and Eurostar would do well to cooperate even more.

A historic partnership with Air France

In 1999, Thalys and Air France joined forces to transport passengers from Brussels to Roissy CDG. A first-class car was dedicated to Air France. Faced with its success, Air France even discontinued the air route in 2001.

Unfortunately, Thalys abandoned the route in 2007 for reasons of overall profitability. Air France found a fallback solution in SNCF, which operates TGVs via Lille. However, journey times were extended from 20 minutes to 40, and Air France passengers also lost the benefit of an exclusive car and catering offered instead. This offer with the SNCF is still there today, and it’s not very exciting.

 

What about the new partnership between KLM and Eurostar?

In 2011, KLM followed Air France’s example between Brussels and Amsterdam and signed a partnership agreement with Thalys, which is still in force today.

KLM hub at Schiphol airport

However, the Dutch airline has maintained an important air link to this day, with 4 daily flights, and a visit to the KLM website reveals that the air/rail service is little promoted.

In 2022, KLM and Eurostar have announced their intention to develop the partnership. The CEOs, Marjan Rintel for KLM and Gwendoline Cazenave for Eurostar reaffirmed this ambition in September 2023. So I’m looking forward to seeing how this will play out for customers.

KLM Eurostar CEOs

Development potential with the advent of the new Eurostar group

With its wider network, the creation of the Eurostar group with the absorption of Thalys could provide an opportunity for enhanced cooperation with the Air France KLM group on a global scale.

As a reminder, Eurostar’s ambition is to increase its traffic from 19 to 30 million passengers over the next ten years. To achieve this, the new group will have to expand its current network beyond London, Paris, Brussels, and Amsterdam. We can therefore assume, without knowing the Group’s development plans, that the Roissy CDG service could gradually be expanded. For example, a London – Roissy CDG – Frankfurt route could make sense.

Eurostar Thalys 2021 network map

In this case, connecting opportunities with Air France at Roissy CDG would certainly increase. At some point, it may be possible to connect a sufficient number of trains from London to Air France flights at Roissy CDG, in addition to Brussels and, why not, Amsterdam.

For its part, KLM already benefits from a very good rail service from Paris and Brussels to Schiphol. Eventually, service from London to Schiphol will also be expanded.

View of Terminal F at Roissy CDG

No other major airline can integrate rail services to European capitals with its main hubs. In the current context of political pressure to cut short-haul flights to reduce CO2 emissions, this is a plus for Air France KLM.

Be imaginative to deliver a seamless customer experience

However, marketing departments will have to be imaginative to improve the customer experience so that it is smoother than it is at present.

How, for example, can passengers avoid having to stop at the sales counter of the Dutch rail company NS to collect their train ticket, as is the case today?

Or how to facilitate the transfer of checked baggage?

It’s a real challenge because the air and rail worlds are so different.

Going further by integrating Eurostar into the SkyTeam alliance?

In 2021, my dream was for the new Eurostar group to become a member of the SkyTeam alliance. It even seemed obvious to me.

Making the SkyTeam alliance the first to include a rail company would have been a powerful message! At a time of environmental concerns, it was a way of demonstrating that rail and air can become complementary, rather than competing, modes of transport.

Unfortunately, it was Deutsche Bahn, the German railroads, which first announced on July 4, 2022 that it would be joining an airline alliance, Star Alliance, SkyTeam’s competitor.

DB Star alliance

But nothing is lost!

Indeed, DB’s membership in Star Alliance is above all a publicity stunt. Customers are still waiting to see the real benefits of this cooperation.

Eurostar and SkyTeam have a real opportunity to go further. Thanks to this membership, many SkyTeam companies would benefit from extensive access to the Eurostar network. for the same reasons as explained for Air France KLM.

A320 Air France with SkyTeam livery

By joining the alliance, the Eurostar group would also gain a stronger international reputation beyond Europe . 19 major airlines, including American Delta Airlines and British Virgin Atlantic, are members of the alliance.

One of the major benefits for customers of SkyTeam Airlines is the ability to earn or spend miles while traveling with the entire network of alliance members. This would give the Eurostar group’s loyalty program an undeniable competitive edge. Today, the Eurostar program is very closed, with few partnerships.

A merger between Eurostar and the other two major airline alliances, Star Alliance or Oneworld, would not offer the same potential, as their main bases in Europe do not have direct connections with Eurostar.

 

Eurostar: a group with great development prospects!

As you can see, I’m not keen on abandoning the Thalys brand, despite the obvious advantages of having created a more powerful group by merging Thalys and Eurostar.

On the other hand, I’m convinced that the strength of the new Eurostar group can help bring us closer to the Air France KLM group and even SkyTeam.

As we have seen in this article, the challenges ahead for the new Eurostar group are considerable.

It starts with good control of operations on an increasingly saturated rail network, as shown by the evolution of punctuality, which is at an insufficient level from a customer point of view, as demonstrated by the statistics obtained on the site Infrabel the Belgian rail network operator.

Thalys punctuality

The new Eurostar group has a bright future ahead of it! I wish it the same success as Thalys, for which, despite myself, I’ll always be nostalgic.

Winter landscape on board Thalys

Comments

1 Comment

  1. Hi, Excellent article! Maybe you could also focus on the changes after the merger with respect to customer service.
    I have found many great advantages with Thalys lost after the merger:
    – no more compensation for trains that are 30 min late (which happens all the time)
    – no more lounge access for Avantage members
    – much less points for frequent travellers, for example Avantage: 1,25x instead of 2x points
    Pricing is still very high, as there is no more competition any more between Thalys and Eurostar e.g. on Brussels-Amsterdam route.
    In my opinion, when the SNCB/NS start their new Brussels-Amsterdam line, at 2:00 hours travel time, just a little longer than Eurostar right now (1:53), but much cheaper, Eurostar will lose a lot of traffic on this route.
    Best
    Michiel

    Reply

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