3 Things You Probably Didn’t Know That About Grab (Taxi & Car) That Enabled Them to Crush the Competition
By the time you read this, you should have heard that the Southeast Asian ride-hailing platform Grab raised $750 million in equity financing in a funding round led by Japanese telecommunications giant, SoftBank. This makes it their 6th round of funding, totaling 1.43 billion in only 2 short years.
From its humble beginnings as a regular taxi-hailing app, they have morphed into Southeast Asia’s premier on-demand transportation service with millions downloading their app that sees a demand of 8-10 bookings per second. Seemingly unstoppable at this point after seeing off the challenge of a few early competitors before Uber came in with their truckload of funding, they have solidified their standing as one of the startup darlings of Southeast Asia and are valued at more than a billion dollars.
Many have written insightful pieces on the rise of Grab and I do not mean to disagree with any of them. However, let me give my unique perspective working alongside the founders of Grab when they first came into Singapore and share how they rose above the noise to speed ahead of the competition.
1. Focus on Changing Mindsets Forever
Street hailing and phone bookings were the only ways to book a taxi from the first day taxis were introduced in Singapore. When Grab entered Singapore in October 2013, one would assume that the fight was primarily with incumbent taxi companies who were unconvinced of Grab’s industry disrupting app.
The battle was to change the mindsets and behavioural patterns of Singaporeans so that they would even consider, what is only now a commonly accepted form of taxi booking, e-hailing through your mobile phone as a viable option. Grab knew they had a winning formula if they could get Singaporeans to adopt this more efficient method of taxi hailing – optimised taxi-to-passenger matching through a mobile app otherwise known as e-hailing. Therefore, they understood that the real challenge was not against government regulators, taxi companies and other related stakeholders. It was a fight to win over the mind and hearts of Singaporeans who had yet to see the power of this new product.
2. Earned Media Outreach to Spread the Word
Interestingly, rather than just focusing on paid advertisements alone, Grab spent an unusually high percentage of energy and time on getting their story to journalists in the media. In fact, Grab proceeded to develop and launch a public relations campaign targeting media and direct stakeholders to first introduce this foreign concept (in 2013) of e-hailing. They deliberately chose not to focus heavily on product or service launch communication, which would have been too much of hard selling to a cold crowd. Instead, Grab’s media communication strategy centered on industry and trend stories aimed at introducing the idea of e-hailing and its benefits. This gave them the platform to slowly establish the practice as part of the norm for Singapore commuters.
Additionally, they battered it continuously and from all angles into the minds of consumers and taxi drivers that the concept of e-hailing was a viable method to hail taxis. This was unusual in the startup marketing rulebook as the return of investment (ROI) for media outreach was not going to be as clear as a digital marketing advertising campaign.
So you might be wondering why traditional media outreach first instead of the immensely popular social media marketing?
Grab realised that though social media today is where people go to have questions answered, traditional media — radio, television, and print — is where people learn about what questions to ask. Especially since the taxi industry was debated extensively in local media at that point. Grab understood that while online marketing may be the trend, traditional media in Singapore still leads the charge when informing the public about what’s new and important. Since Grab wanted to build long term credibility for such a unique product, the only way to win the hearts of consumers would be through the media platform that is still regarded as most credible – traditional media.
3. Hustle & Rapid Execution
Grab’s success hinged on high volume matching of the number of passengers to taxi drivers to ensure that the former was able to book taxis and the latter received sufficient bookings. While media communications was used to pique interest and increase taxi driver usage, it was not enough. Grab understood that in order to build a sizeable base of taxi drivers to match the demand, they needed to conduct grassroots outreach and it needed to be done fast.
On that end, I saw first-hand Grab staff (including its founders) going onto the streets of Singapore to recruit taxi drivers one at a time. The process included identifying popular taxi driver rest areas to promote educational programmes and to organise informal coffee/food sessions for fellow drivers to introduce the Grab app to them. This was by no means an easy feat considering how seemingly absurd the concept of e-hailing was at that time as well as how opinionated taxi drivers were and still are (for those who have spoken to a taxi driver at some point in your life who probably has a better idea than the government on how Singapore should be run, here’s a virtual high five from a fellow commuter). Bemused taxi drivers initially waved off a large number of staff during the initial phase of outreach – however, Grab forged on.
The task at hand was strenuous, yet Grab knew that execution at that level had to be done to win the game. Through targeted grassroots outreach and strong word-of-mouth communications, Grab built a solid base of taxi drivers while ensuring a steady stream of new drivers into their network. This allowed Grab to build one of the largest taxi networks in Singapore within an unbelievably short time – becoming one of the most publicized startup darlings of Southeast Asia.
In concluding this piece and looking back to 2013, Grab was an unknown brand with an untested concept. Within a year, they were transformed into Singapore’s most popular 3rd party taxi booking app and was one of the founders of the term, e-hailing. The Grab team beautifully combined their public relations efforts through the combination of a targeted media campaign together with direct grassroots stakeholder outreach. This multi-pronged approach laid the foundation of this successful brand-building program, setting an incredible example for other startups to follow.