In 2020, Uber’s business flatlined as lockdowns came into effect around the world. Two years later, as business recovers, we check in to see what’s happening at the ride hailing company in India. In a conversation with Storyboard18, Prabhjeet Singh, president of Uber India and South Asia, tells us about the company’s multi-modal vision and its new marketing campaign for low-cost mobility solutions. Singh sheds light on how the company plans to tap into the next 100 million rides and unlock India’s mobility segment with auto and moto. We also ask him about his turn as an Uber driver and what the company is doing about the issue of ride cancellations.
Q. What are some of the pandemic-born insights that are informing your strategies, specifically on the marketing front?
What the pandemic showed in some form was what is happening with new India. The new India is young, keen to get out, keen to make sure that they’re able to pursue their dreams, despite whatever challenges there are. I like to call them the “resilient aspirants” of the country that are moving the country forward. And coincidentally, if you look at our business, as well as the mobility business, they’re also seeing massive growth in low cost affordable solutions.
The same technology which used to power Uber cars is now powering three wheelers and two wheelers, which are categories of Uber Auto and Uber Moto that are growing at record pace. In fact, many of these categories are now double the size of what they were before the pandemic and form a big part of how we want to serve the next 100 million consumers.
Q. What’s the genesis of the new 360 degree marketing campaign—‘Bas Socho Aur Chal Pado’—that’s focused on your auto and moto portfolio? What are the insights driving it and what is the campaign’s objective?
In addition to celebrating the spirit of indomitable Indians, these are campaigns which are inspired by real life stories. Through these stories we want to be able to focus on three key insights that make these products unique.
There is a unique proposition which each of these products offer. The average Indian does not travel in air-conditioned cars, they use three wheelers, two wheelers and public transit.
So we’re talking to the needs of affordability, safety and convenience.
The campaign celebrates the desire to chase dreams and overcome mobility as a barrier.
As we did our research, we heard from men and women, and especially for women, mobility becomes a barrier to access economic opportunities. So if you look at the stories, they celebrate the desire to chase your dreams. There’s the mother returning to her government job with her baby. The bride who is starting a new chapter in her life but at the same time continues to pursue her passion for education. The young man who is appearing for an interview but has certain duties and commitments, and he wants to find a way to not choose between the two.
The third is that we are also celebrating the functional benefits. Today you are able to get the same services and the magic of Uber in auto or moto at your doorstep.
Q. Uber has a premium image in the market when compared to your competition, Ola. Is that a challenge when it comes to your marketing initiatives or how you build and brand your low cost mobility solutions?
We don’t like to think of ourselves as a premium brand. We’d like to think of ourselves as a brand which stands for a promise of safe, affordable and reliable rides. As we grow our business in different geographies, we want to be able to talk to our consumers, whether it’s riders or drivers, in a way in which they engage deeply with the brand.
This journey is a multi-year journey as the product portfolio diversifies. Today, for example, one out of two trips on the platform is outside the four-wheeler category.
Despite being a global brand, we reflect on market insights and use multi-language campaigns and are committed to being hyperlocal. We’ve also made sure that, in terms of the way the imagery comes out, you can see the vibrancy of India.
I do hope that millions of consumers, which are the next 100 million consumers we want to target, are able to relate to that.
Q. Where do you see the growth coming from for your low-cost mobility offerings?
We are in a very early stage of our journey in India even though we have been here now nine years, we still serve less than five percent of the total population and there’s no reason why that number shouldn’t be 10x of what it is today. However, to do that, we need to do three things.
First, have a product market fit, which is at a price point and a proposition which talks to consumers. Auto and moto fit in very well.
Second, geographic footprint. We are in 100 cities and we intend to get to 200 additional cities.
The path to that is going to go through low cost affordable solutions like auto and moto.
Many of the new cities we are launching in are actually auto-first or moto-first where you may not find the traditional Uber Go product as the first product in the market and that will allow us to talk to what we call the Bharat cities in a very material way.
Third, even within the urban centers, while public transit is growing, last mile connectivity is a big issue. And that is a deterrent for many people to access opportunities. We believe there’s a massive opportunity for two-and three-wheelers in the market to migrate and e-hail. There are already thousands of two-wheelers and three-wheelers in the market and with just the tap of a button if they can come online, the way multiple other categories have during the pandemic, it will create a very reliable solution for consumers.
Q. Not too long ago, we saw videos of you driving customers become quite popular on social media. How was that experience for you?
It went more viral than I would have anticipated. To be honest, this is not something which I’m doing for the first time. Every few months many of my colleagues and I do spend a few hours driving just to get live feedback. This helps us improve our product and service.
It was no different this time. I think it helped me build deep empathy for what a driver goes through. This is a tough vocation. The real heroes are the ones who have to do it every single day to earn a respectable livelihood. I also got some pretty direct feedback on how we can make our service magical.
Q. Recently, on social media platforms, we’ve seen a lot of complaints about issues like ride cancellations. How are you addressing these issues?
We don’t shy away. We want to confront this because that’s the best way for us to improve our product and service. We recognise that there has been some impact on the service over the last few months particularly post the pandemic. We are rolling out multiple measures to address it based on the insights from riders and drivers.
For example, we are experimenting with a large number of drivers, by showing the rider destination upfront, so that the drivers can make an informed choice whether to take that trip or not, instead of asking the passenger. We are also incentivising and compensating drivers for long pickups. It has to be economically sustainable for the driver particularly as we see fuel prices go up. We are also educating drivers on how to really think of the trips they do and encourage them to do as many trips. We do warn drivers in case there’s a certain pattern, which we believe is inconsistent with our community guidelines. So it’s an ongoing process. We are aligned with the problem and I’m pretty confident that our consumers will start seeing the magical experience which they always expect.
Q. The past couple of years have been extraordinary. Uber’s business just flatlined in 2020 and we saw bouts of recovery in 2021. How would you summarise the impact in terms of how the company’s leadership maps Uber’s future and the future of mobility?
The last two years were not just a health crisis, but a humanitarian crisis. And as a company, which is in the business of moving people from point A to point B, it did impact us in a very material way. But having said that, it also brought out the best of Uber and its driver partners during this phase.
As I reflect back, the three big learnings are: one is the benefit of being able to pivot and innovate very quickly. As the pandemic impacted the country we were able to leverage technology and supply chain infrastructure to support the country in what mattered most—from moving essential healthcare workers to moving goods and being the last mile service provider for ecommerce players. As the country again began to open up during intermittent waves, we were able to step up and provide free rides for vaccination of riders, for instance. So I think that being able to stay agile and make sure that we are able to respond to what the country needs is a big learning.
The second was truly the power of resilience of the portfolio. Globally, we were able to really scale the second leg of the delivery business, and even within mobility in India, we were able to diversify our offerings. And third, at the heart of it, I think it was a reflection on the indomitable spirit of the people and the frontline workers. Now we are seeing a massive uptick in demand and we are pretty confident that we’ll continue to scale the business and add more drivers and riders.