Lyft CMO: Uber Is the Wal-Mart of Transportation. We Aren't.
When Lyft launched more than two years ago, the idea of getting into a stranger’s car and paying for a ride was a far out, somewhat sketch idea. In a bid to make the idea less scary, Lyft co-founders Logan Green and John Zimmer had drivers within their ridesharing network affix oversized magenta mustaches to the grill of their cars. Not only did the mustaches serve as identifiers, but they gave the brand a warm and friendly vibe.
Still, as the concept of ridesharing matured and became particularly popular among the business set, being picked up by a car with a bright pink mustache became a turnoff for some people. Plus, there was the climate factor: in cities like Boston and Chicago, a ginormous, fuzzy mustache on the hood of a car could turn ugly in winter slush.
Those realizations catalyzed a transition for the startup. Just a couple of weeks ago, the Uber competitor retracted the giant fuzzy mustaches in place of smaller, glowing mustaches that go inside the car on the dashboard. The alternative is decidedly more practical. But it’s still a magenta, fluorescent mustache.
Even as Lyft grows up and becomes more sophisticated, it is maintaining its position as the friendly, fun ridesharing brand -- a position the company hopes can differentiate itself from the 10,000-pound gorilla in the room: Uber.
It may be Lyft’s best bet. Uber has raised billions of dollars in venture capital ($4.9 billion to be exact) and is valued at over $40 billion. It’s also operating in 54 countries -- from Peru to Germany and Singapore; Lyft, meanwhile, only operates in the U.S. Recent data shows that there are more than 160,000 active drivers in the U.S., up from approximately 10,000 drivers in 2013. And Uber does a whole lot more than pair drivers with passengers. Recently, it has been experimenting with programs that provide helicopters on demand, help people move large cargo from one point to another and deliver toilet paper to your doorstep.
All of that growth and expansion has made Uber the Wal-Mart of the transportation industry, says Kira Wampler, Lyft's newly-appointed CMO. The company “is building a very efficient delivery service. It is about optimization, maximization.” That’s not a bad business model, says Wampler, pointing out that other massive delivery operations are making uber amounts of dinero (FedEx, for example, made almost $12 billion in the the three months ended in November of 2014), but it just isn't the one Lyft wants to emulate.
Lyft instead is staying on course, focusing on the peer-to-peer, casual driving market. And more importantly, focusing on its image.
Wampler says she wants the Lyft brand to sit at the intersection of Mini Cooper, Virgin America and Southwest Airlines. She wants a ride that you take with a Lyft driver to be characterized with personality. It should be fun and memorable. This “experience” of a Lyft ride is what’s behind the company’s newest tagline: “Driving you happy.”
To support this messaging, Wampler speaks of a Lyft driver with a disco ball hanging in the car or the man known as “Doodle Lyft,” because he likes to draw and exchange art with his riders or the retirees driving because talking to passengers gives them company and entertainment.
The company also launched a Driver Destination feature in November that allows drivers to pick up passengers along its route -- a sign that it is dedicated to elevating the casual driver.
But despite slight differences in pitch, Uber, Lyft and Sidecar are all humming the same tune. They are all playing in the same sandbox. That’s a tough row to hoe when you are not the biggest kid in the sandbox, though, which may be one reason Lyft is working overtime to distinguish itself image wise.
It will be curious to watch the story play out. Is a pink mustache enough to earn you a spot in the sandbox with a gorilla?Related: Who Exactly Are Uber's Drivers?
Catherine Clifford is senior entrepreneurship writer at CNBC. She was formerly a senior writer at Entrepreneur.com, the small business reporter at CNNMoney and an assistant in the New York bureau for CNN. Clifford attended Columbia University where she earned a bachelor's degree. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. You can follow her on Twitter at @CatClifford.