Branding in the Post Gig-pocalypse World
Branding in the Post Gig-pocalypse World

Gig/share service brands such as Uber & Airbnb didn’t just disrupt the marketplace, they changed the ballgame for brand loyalty.

Say you are in the restaurant business. You are the founder and CEO of Sandwich Shop. You have to find a way to ensure that all of the Sandwich Shop locations and franchises are on brand as Sandwich Shop.

This means all of your employees wear purple polo shirts and khaki pants whether they are in Maine or Nevada. All of your stores display identical signage (give or take a sandwich or two depending on the vegetarian market of the area). Every manager knows there are exactly three slices of turkey and two pieces of swiss on the Turkey & Swiss.

These are time-honored strategies to build your brand consistency and foster brand loyalty. Your customers like your turkey and swiss, and they expect to get the same one in Nowhere, Texas or College Town, Oregon. They know your stores always have clean, single bathrooms, so they choose you when they stop on road trips. Or maybe they just really like purple shirts with khaki pants.

This has been the model for decades. And some have compared franchising to the gig/sharing businesses that are disrupting the market. In both situations someone outside your direct employ is providing a service under your flag. But the similarities end there.

Imagine there is a place called SANDWICH. SANDWICH doesn’t have stores or uniforms or standardized turkey & swiss. SANDWICH just says, “Hey, you need a sandwich? I’ll find the nearest sandwich guy and he’ll bring you one.” The owner of SANDWICH has no idea whether these “guys” are washing their hands before handling the produce or greeting their customers with a smile.

The owner of SANDWICH cannot think the way you do as owner of Sandwich Shop. Part of the whole charm is that the gig/sharing business model has cut out all the very details that traditional brands used to foster brand loyalty. So if you are SANDWICH, what opportunities do you have to distinguish yourself?

But they are a brand distinguishing themselves from other brands. Is it that different?

As outlined above, a good part of the difference is in the details:

  • These services generally do not operate from a fixed, brick-and-mortar location, so they don’t have uniforms, store signage, and many of the other experiential elements traditional brands use to foster loyalty.
  • The “middle men” who provide their services, i.e. drivers for Uber or hosts for Airbnb, are using their cars and their houses in your name. Your standards of cleanliness and friendliness notwithstanding, consumers cannot count on you to provide consistency among experiences.
  • Because you do not have a unique brand experiences, your service itself is more or less a commodity. Besides a basic value level in the type of car or house offered at different price points, there is no big different between you and a competing service of the same size. You are Dawn and Joy in the dish soap aisle.

All that being true, there are still plenty of ways gig/share brands can distinguish themselves.

As AM’s Jesse Greenberg says:

So as consumers what do we care about? Is it all about convenience or price or do we believe that Uber's brand says something about us? Do I feel differently when I am seen by others driving around with a pink moustache or are we only focused on getting from point A to B and using an app that provides the best user experience.

I would claim that brand and content really do matter. Advertising in this arena is not just about being top of mind, it is also about brand and what that brand says about me.

Right now, the disruption itself has created an opportunity for brand distinction.

If you don’t live in Austin, Texas, you might be peripherally aware of the The Great Uber/Lyft Battle that occurred several years ago. In short, Uber and Lyft didn’t want to pay to put their drivers through fingerprint background checks, and the city voted the requirement in. Uber and Lyft left the city for a time, and other ride sharing services tried to fill the gap. The state government eventually overruled the measure, and the ridesharing giants swooped back in and pummeled the competition.

This hasn’t been the only political issue for Uber, however. In New York City, another huge market for ridesharing, Uber is gearing up for another attempt by the local government to cap the number of ridesharing drivers who congest the crowded city. There is much debate over whether this is really for the good of citizens or whether it is for the good of the cab industry that Uber and Lyft are disrupting.

In answer to this latest conflict, Uber has released a video campaign in collaboration with Spike Lee showcasing Uber drivers in Brooklyn. One of the biggest complaints among taxi giants such as Yellow Cab was the apparent racism experienced by black residents who attempted to hail cabs. With this campaign, Uber is distinguishing itself as accepting and anti-racist. The better alternative.

Airbnb has also faced litigation and controversy over their impact on housing as well as allegations of racism in popular markets like California as they continue to disrupt the hotel and travel industry. They launched the highly successful We Accept campaign to dispel some of the more negative qualities of their reputation and distinguish themselves as a brand with modern/progressive values.

AM’s Tom Richardson says:

While being a "gig economy" business, AirBnB's value is inextricably tied to their brand probably more-so than it is tied to their technology platform - and it is investment in that Brand that is keeping them on top.



Gig sharing services are finding ways to reign in brand loyalty through these social and political conflicts. Lines have been drawn in the sand, and consumers are gravitating toward the ones with the campaigns they most relate to. This element may dissipate as these services become more normalized in our culture, but right now they are the guys playing basketball on a baseball field, and they have to sell the how the balls bounce in the dirt as much as they do team names and players.

Another opportunity presents in the “middleman” effect.

One of the trickiest qualities to this whole equation is that a business like SANDWICH would have little control over the vendors providing their services where Sandwich Shop has a lot of control over their locations and franchises. In the Airbnb example above, for instance, the We Accept campaign was an attempt to distinguish the brand values above or apart from the values of their “middle men” or hosts. Hosts might be racist, but Airbnb claims it will take a stand against those hosts.

But more than separating the brand from negative individual experiences, brands must mediate between vendors and customers while maintaining loyalty among vendors. In short, they are marketing to both their consumers and their employees and the relationship between the two.

Our people had some thoughts on this:

In this sharing economy, the actual experience I receive is not controlled by the brand at all. They have zero control. It's all about the individual driver and their allegiance is limited. So maybe content needs to be dedicated more to the suppliers and making them feel proud of being a part of the brand and carrying that forward. Obviously making more money helps, but what else can Uber or Lyft do so a driver says, "I really care about this company and really love making them money too." – Jesse Greenberg

If you want loyal employees, pay them better, treat them better and reward them better than the other guy. Simple as that. No buzzwords necessary. – Tuck Oden

I think it is more complicated than that, though. Yes, they need to treat their employees well, but there is a difference between an employee liking their employer and an employee being loyal enough to put aside their personal feelings and prejudices to be "on brand" for a shared service. I think the real strategy is to proactively weed out those vendors who do not fall in line with a set of clearly defined brand values. – Ryan Winkler Herr

It's absolutely true that the brand can't control the experience that an individual contractor provides, but I would argue that the brand's service is all about mediating the interaction between user and contractor, which includes selection. So if your brand filters out or allows users to filter out potentially bad experiences -- say, by offering more stringent background checks, or by requiring greater qualifications, or by offering features like RideAustin's female driver mode -- you can avoid the negative publicity that comes from one of your drivers causing a wreck or sexually assaulting a passenger. – Tim Herr

And isn’t there still a “brand experience?”

Arguably share services are the very definition of “commodities.” Drivers for Uber are usually working for 3 other similar companies. Airbnb hosts put their properties on multiple platforms. Our people had some thoughts on this:

Tuck Oden compared it to a laundry basket.

I thought about this a bit more last night while doing laundry. Ride sharing services are like laundry baskets. We all have one. It's the one we use. It might be 11 years old and stained with missing handles, but who cares, right? It's a laundry basket. It gets the clothes from here to there.

Sure, there are new laundry baskets out there. They might have some fantastic laundry basket features. They might be slick, BPA free, made in America and manufactured by a company with a superior record on human rights and whatever social issues are trending. They may even be highly affordable. Maybe their company's branding really resonates with me.

But is it worth my time and energy to go get one? And is "new laundry basket" something I'm going to be pumped to put on my shopping list?

Alexandra Bohannon says they are so similar, we just call them all “Uber.”

An interesting brand issue is how Uber is permeating the cultural consciousness in terms of being a generic trademark like Kleenex or Bandaid. However, people who use "uber" don't necessarily mean they're specifically using the ride share service--use of the term isn't an indication of brand loyalty.

Debby Johnson said there could be some difference in programs and app features.

I agree with Tuck on Uber versus Lyft but think other categories are not as generic. Vacation home rentals for one. I suspect there is more brand loyalty there since the risk is greater. Who wants to stay in a less than stellar place given a choice? That's why Airbnb is joining the ranks of most of the tourism industry and creating loyalty programs for their best users called SuperGuest. (It already has a similar program called Superhost where people with more stays and higher ratings get better positioning on their site). How do you create brand loyalty in this category? Buy it.

In sum, gig/share brands should use these strategies to distinguish themselves:

  • Own the change you are creating. While your brand might disrupt the current infrastructure of related markets, you can distinguish yourself as a new and improved dawn to a better marketplace rather than a destroyer of worlds.
  • Respond to conflict with transparency and resolve. You cannot control vendors or middlemen carrying out your services, but you can react when they break from your brand’s values, and the vendors you want will be more loyal because of it.
  • Realize your features are not unique, but keep up. Most of gig/share service distinction comes from where they stand on social issues. Features in apps are easily copied, and as we have mentioned, the drivers themselves and the hosts are usually working on all the platforms. That said, if you are less convenient than the competition, no stance will save you.
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