Didi marketing chief on pivoting the rideshare challenger's brand position

Didi head of marketing talks about the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on building community connection, plus how the rideshare provider needs to evolve its marketing strategy as it achieves a national footprint

Brand building and authentic community connection are key for DiDi Australia’s head of marketing as the challenger rideshare business looks to mature its marketing strategy while navigating the tumultuous COVID-19 climate.

The brand recently launched a partnership with lifestyle publisher, Urban List, and supporting campaign, ‘Make it a date’,  as a way of encouraging Australians to reconnect with friends and family while supporting local businesses impacted by the COVID-19 crisis. The partnership centres around Urban List curated recommendations of top social destinations supported by driver and rider feedback. The list stretches from winter igloos at Sydney’s Cargo Bar, to gin masterclasses at the Gold Coast’s Wildflower Gin and drinks in an old bank vault in Perth.

Riders also received 15 per cent off an express ride to nominated destinations across Brisbane, Sydney and Perth between 2-16 July. The campaign has not been extended to Melbourne at this stage given the second wave of COVID-19 infections in Victoria and subsequent restrictions.

DiDi head of marketing, Douglas Toy, said the date locations list came from 1000 recommendations made by riders and drivers. The wider program is driven by a desire to support communities as Australian tentatively looks to step out of the COVID-19 crisis shadow.

“As COVID-19 was decreasing and retail was lifting, we felt the biggest impact was on riders in isolation. We also knew local businesses were really hurting, so we wanted to support both through our partnership with Urban List,” he told CMO. “We want to encourage people to reconnect and reopen repair the damage isolation causes.”

Community support

It’s one of an array of offerings DiDi has debuted in recent months to support its rider and driver communities as the COVID-19 crisis has played out in Australia.

“As soon as COVID hit, our OKRs around brand and performance didn’t really matter. The company instead pivoted and focused on just being useful and supporting the community in Australia,” Toy said. “It’s not just about trips anymore, it’s supporting our community through a difficult period of time.”

On the driver side, DiDi cut service fees to 5 per cent in the wake of COVID-19 to support their income, then launched a US$10m fund for drivers who couldn’t work as a result of the pandemic. It introduced masks and sanitiser products for drivers, and worked on an education program to ensure both drivers and riders were protected and as safe as possible.  

Douglas ToyCredit: DiDI
Douglas Toy

This led to the launch of ‘DiDi heroes’, a new product for medical and health workers based around discounted rides with top levels of hygiene. That, in turn, expanded and pivoted into the ‘DiDi Care’ offering. As part of this, DiDi is tapping into artificial intelligence (AI) to scan selfies of drivers daily to ensure they’re wearing a mask. Perspex screens are also on the cards.

Through it all, Toy said the emphasis has been on brand authenticity. “As marketers, we have to continually try to authentically support our community,” he commented.  

“There’s nothing more important than authenticity as a brand, particularly in a crisis. And  particularly when you are a product such as ours, associated with the movement of people, functionality and service. People rely on our ability to protect them and keep them safe.”

Evolving the marketing playbook

DiDi, a China-backed rideshare player, has rapidly built out its Australian presence since entering the market in 2018. To date, it’s operating across eight cities, including Sydney from February, and will be launching a further 20 cities in August, thereby solidifying its national presence.  

For Toy, who joined the business as its sixth employee in April 2018 and has spearheaded local brand development, this milestone signals a new phase of business and will usher in a new marketing mindset.

It may be China’s leading rideshare platform and a significant player in places such as Latin America, but DiDihad zero brand awareness locally when it launched as Australia was the first English market to come online. Not surprisingly, the marketing approach to date has been very launch focused.

“Rideshare by its nature is very city specific, and our marketing strategy and focus has therefore been on launching in each city,” Toy explained. “We developed a playbook for our marketing strategy to effectively go into a city, with no brand awareness, then rapidly grow our awareness.”

With rideshare dominated by Uber locally for several years, Toy said DiDi had less to do around educating the market, and more around providing a distinct alternative rideshare platform. The key has been DiDi’s ‘low-fare rideshare’ positioning, he said.

“We are very affordable, safe and high-quality alternative to the category leader. As we are so efficient, we charge less than other providers, but can also give drivers industry leading conveniences,” Toy claimed. “This is a potent combination for both sides of our platform, and allows us to be very disruptive. It’s a strong story.

“From a marketing point of view, the main focus has been to try to as clearly as possible communicate that, and shorten the space and time to break through and be viral in the city we’re launching in.”

This is undertaken in two phases, the first when recruiting drivers prior to turning the app on in a city. “For a 6-8 week launch period, we then go very local and loud in the marketplace to capture share of voice,” Toy said. In some cases, this has seen DiDi go from zero to 40 per cent marketshare in a city in eight weeks.

With an eye to efficiency with budget and mix, one hugely successful tactic for achieving this has been ‘DiDiDays’, where riders get free rides on a certain day of the week. Usually this is every Saturday, the busiest day for rideshare.

“Owning Saturday leads to riders jumping on board and talking about it with friends. And we have a referral program for riders and drivers in place,” Toy said.  

“It’s not necessarily our job to grow the size of the category. It’s about alternatives with affordability, safety, quality and incentives. We target people that will switch and adapt who are already using rideshare. Those trying us first are from younger demographics, such as uni students or young professionals, and 18-34 years old.”  

Because of the demographic and challenger brand positioning, DiDi has focused on digital channels and social media for communication, with most campaigns again designed to be shareable. The Urban List partnership was a social-first campaign, for instance.

“Content has to be engaging enough to share with friends for us to get reach. Social first been extensively successful for us,” Toy said.  

However, DiDi did try its first Australian TV advertising campaign last December when it partnered with the latest Star Wars movie release: Star Wars; The Rise of Skywalker. Creative showcased dressed up fans using the rideshare platform to head to the cinema and again highlighted the affordability of the platform.  

But with a national footprint now in its sights, Toy said DiDi’s marketing strategy has to evolve and become more brand-led. The down side to a city launch-based approach is it’s a short burst of intense activity, followed by minimal long-term advertising, he said.

“Now we’re maturing in cities, we need a shift in thinking,” Toy said. “For example, in Melbourne, we had been heavily focused on our paid aspirations. Now we need to back that with long-term brand building, and develop the brand in this category. We know brand is very powerful in Australia from a consumer perspective.”  

Toy drew a parallel between DiDi and discount supermarkets, and noted most people are switching because of the affordability aspect and DiDi’s competitive price points.

“As a brand, we’ve highlighted that with clear messaging. ‘low fare rideshare’,” he said. “To go to the next step, we have to evolve the brand and push further. It’s more than just low price, we need to evolve to be the smarter choice, where saving money enables you to do more.”

Yet with the COVID-19 pandemic in such a fluid state locally, Toy said the brand will need to continue to adapt and pivot to suit the needs of its community. And that comes back to brand authenticity.

“It’s not the time for gimmicks, it’s time for trying and supporting community as much as possible in authentic ways,” he added.  

Read more of CMO's case studies on brands pivoting their brand positioning:

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