How Word of Mouth Marketing Helped Uber Become More Popular than Taxis

uber branding

Have you taken an Uber? If you’re a smartphone-carrying urban dweller in need of the occasional ride, chances are good you’ve used the high-tech ride-sharing service, that’s giving the taxi industry a run for its money.

What’s more, despite initially serving only the most populous U.S. cities, Uber’s service area growth shows no signs of slowing down. Over the last five years, Uber has expanded from its base of San Francisco globally, with service in 57 countries and 300 cities.

The Uber brand is fast becoming a household name. But how did they do it?

With a little digging, it’s clear Uber didn’t reach the status of a global corporation by accident. Like most big success stories in the Internet age, innovative marketing played a leading role.

Two key tools helped Uber’s marketing take on the $12 billion U.S. taxi industry and come out ahead: word of mouth marketing and branding efforts.

Pulling Off Word of Mouth Marketing: Give Them a Story

Word of mouth marketing can take a few forms. It can exist in real-world discussions:

  • Customers discuss their brand experiences with their friends,
  • The unfamiliar ask questions about how the product works,
  • Fans comment on a recent promotion.

But in recent years, a significant share of word of mouth marketing has been happening online on various social media platforms, often called “earned media” in this forum. Earned media is part of a trio:

  • Owned media created by the brand,
  • Paid media promoted through advertising,
  • And earned media spread by brand superfans.

Regardless of where it takes place, a strong word of mouth campaign can feel magical for us marketers when you realize your customers are now doing your work for you. On the flip side, one reason we say it’s magical is because authentic word of mouth campaigns aren’t easy to pull off.

Still, it is possible according to Michelle Broderick, a former member of the Uber marketing team. A few years back, Broderick told a conference audience the key ingredient:

“You need to give them a story to tell.”

This is one area Uber marketing continues to succeed in. Multiple times per year the brand comes out with new partnerships and promotional stunts. The story of the moment when Broderick was on stage? On-demand ice cream trucks.

With just a few taps on their phones, Uber users were able to order ice cream, have it delivered (and charged to their card on file), and share their experience on YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter for a chance to win prizes.

Brand Awareness: Ice Cream, Kittens, and Tequila, Oh My

Ice cream isn’t the only special promotion Uber has trotted out. Over the years, the company has let users order or deliver:

In fact, there’s a fun list of these and other notable campaigns over at Urbanful. Stunts like these have wide-ranging effects, creating opportunities for brand awareness both online and offline. Consider the following:

  • The Uber marketing team always announces these promotions on its blog a week or so early, giving customers time to learn about the campaign and media outlets the opportunity to cover it.
  • Customers can engage in those real-world conversations before and after: you ask whether friends will order ice cream, your co-worker tells how he sent flowers for Valentine’s Day, a group gets into a logistics discussion about the toy drive.
  • Social sharing plays a big role, with friends and acquaintances on Facebook and Twitter sharing and tweeting their experiences with the new promotion.
  • Even those completely outside the marketplace are potential campaign impressions: your 80-year-old neighbor probably didn’t know what Uber was before, but after you had a Christmas tree delivered or played with a kitten that appeared for 15 minutes, she knows what it is now.

The brand has also engaged in more traditional branding efforts by partnering with celebrities, corporations, and causes.

Actor Edward Norton happened to be the first customer when Uber launched its LA service in 2012. Musicians including DJ Afrojack, Matt and Kim, Diplo, and Andrew W.K. have participated in marketing efforts. Meanwhile, companies including the ASPCA, Cheezburger, Home Depot, Spotify, and TOMS have partnered with the brand for shared promotions.

Word of Mouth Marketing

Measuring Success

With all these efforts, you may be asking: What’s the ROI? More importantly, how do I track the impact of these efforts and justify their expense for my business?

As Gigaom points out, a genuine promotional campaign can be more cost-efficient than some other marketing efforts. The problem, Broderick explained in the article about the ice cream truck campaign, is that you can’t measure and quantify the same stats you would in your other efforts.

However, there’s plenty of indirect evidence to help you analyze your ROI. In Uber’s case, the company could track:

  • How many new users were acquired during the promotion period.
  • Comparisons of the promotional costs versus new revenue created.
  • Estimations of anticipated future revenue from the new users acquired through the promotion.

One Final Thought

It’s important to point out that it wasn’t just the word of mouth campaigns and branding efforts that made Uber what it is today. Innovative marketing had to go hand in hand with an innovative product whose time had come.

Customers were excited about Uber not only because it was new or had fun marketing, but because it solved a problem for tech-savvy individuals who needed on-demand transportation that was safe, reliable, consistent, and took advantage of available new technologies.

If you’re thinking about trying a word of mouth or branding campaign for your business, it could be well worth the expense and efforts. Earned media mentions on social media and through an increasingly diverse set of media outlets, could get your promotion and your brand in front of huge audiences. The most successful campaigns will be those that support great product or service ideas. Lastly, no matter what promotion you do, remember to give your audience a story to tell about the experience.

Have you had experiences with word of mouth marketing or branding efforts? Let us know in the comments.