The ride-share industry has run into some bumps along its path to remaking the business of transportation around the world.
The sector’s already tense competition only heated up in recent weeks as China’s Apple-backed Didi Chuxing scored a record $5.5 billion funding round after effectively blocking Uber’s mainland expansion efforts. Gett also acquired smaller rival Juno for $200 million.
While Uber, Travis Kalanick’s once-indomitable market leader, stumbles from one crisis to another—the latest being a federal investigation of its “Greyball” software program—perennial underdog Lyft sees an opportunity to position itself as a socially conscious alternative in a crowded, cutthroat field. This opening comes nearly a decade after founders Logan Green and John Zimmer pioneered the model with campus-based Zimride.
Lyft hits the gas
On the marketing front, the nearly five-year-old startup recently made two big changes by hiring Pandora veteran Becca Lawson as its vp of brand marketing, and choosing Wieden + Kennedy New York and DigitasLBi San Francisco as its new creative and digital media agencies of record, respectively.
“Becca is a world-class marketer and the right person to lead Lyft through our next stage of growth,” said the startup’s vp of marketing and fellow Pandora veteran Melissa Waters. “[Her] commitment to compelling and effective campaigns will have a huge impact on Lyft’s brand.”
The account went to W+K after a late 2016 review that involved some of the hottest shops in the business like Droga5 and Alldayeveryday (Uber currently works with Deutsch on a per-project basis).
“We are pretty selective, and for us this was a no-brainer,” said Wieden + Kennedy New York managing director Neal Arthur in explaining his agency’s attraction to the business. “We just love the category and how disruptive they are within it.”
Arthur cited a “personality” that permeates everything the Lyft brand does, from the pink mustaches that once defined the company to its decision to donate $1 million to the ACLU in response to President Donald Trump’s proposed immigration ban in January.
“We’re energized to be partnering with Lyft to educate consumers about the benefits of ride-sharing and what it means to be a part of the Lyft community,” added DigitasLBi North America CEO Tony Weisman. “Lyft not only invented ride-sharing—they also care about their people and the communities they impact, just like us.”
Where the rubber (soul) meets the road
But how does Lyft plan to stand out in an increasingly crowded field?
Lawson called her brand’s personality “fun, irreverent and provocative,” indicating that Wieden’s work would focus on “what makes the Lyft experience different.”
Neither agency nor client could discuss the themes of future campaigns, but one big hint appeared in the form of a full-page print ad in The New York Times in March. It promoted “Round Up and Donate,” a program that allows riders to round their fare up to the nearest dollar and donate the difference to partner charities including the USO and the ACLU. Without calling out Uber by name, it sought to differentiate the two companies just as public pressure led Travis Kalanick to step down from his would-be position on Trump’s advisory board.
The new vp called it “an example of perfect intersection between brand, product and values.” She continued, “That is the sweet spot: talking about our difference around care for the community, and allowing our rider base to participate.”
“One of the things that was so exciting about joining Lyft is that I believe building a powerful brand is about making an emotional connection with consumers,” said Lawson. “There is an absolute magic that happens in a Lyft every time a rider shares a ride with a driver. Our drivers prefer Lyft passengers, who prefer Lyft drivers. It’s all about the connection and community that happens in that car.”
Ultimately, consumers may focus less on the personalities of their drivers than the functionality and convenience—not to mention the prices—of the service itself. Yet Lyft seems dedicated to positioning itself as the friendlier, more socially progressive alternative to Uber.
A meeting of agency minds
Lawson isn’t just a veteran of other startups like Pandora. In a previous life, she also led accounts at creative agencies like BBH, Publicis and Goodby Silverstein & Partners.
“Coming from an agency background—particularly GS&P—we are all well-steeped in that desire for an emotional connection between brands and audiences,” she told Adweek in explaining the W+K choice. Arthur added, “We love Becca’s passion; she has an agency background and really gets the way we work as a creatively driven agency.”
Lawson also praised DigitasLBi’s “scientific approach to media planning,” adding, “We felt like we had the trifecta in place” with W+K, the Publicis shop and Lyft’s internal marketing team.
While the company has yet to reveal specifics of its promotional plans, an increased marketing budget will undoubtedly play a role. According to Kantar Media, the company spent just over $40 million on measured media in 2016—nearly twice its total for the previous year.
“A significant investment is being made in brand marketing … but it’s not a change in direction,” said Lawson, adding, “We are not being competitive in nature, just staying true to who we are.”
When asked to name the brand’s biggest challenges moving forward, Arthur said: “Uber is in a leadership position from a business perspective, but how do you continue to drive distinction and grow market share? A good bit of that will be through the personality that [Lyft] has established.”
According to Lawson, the chief goal for Lyft in the coming months is “scaling massively” and continuing its expansion into new cities that may not be as familiar with the ride sharing phenomenon as New York or San Francisco.
“We are focused on telling our story and really expressing our vision for the future of transportation,” she added. “That winning formula has worked for us to date, and it’s why we’re in the position we’re in right now.”