Monday, December 22, 2014

Lyft vs Uber in a Broader Cultural Context

About a week ago I wrote about how the United States was reindustrializing, and how a personal connection to the production of goods, or a personality in the case of services, was a key component of the new offerings. Today Mashable wrote an article called "Why Lyft is trimming its pink mustache" that speaks to this topic in the context of the Lyft vs Uber, David vs Goliath battle.

As Lyft's new CMO, Kira Wampler, puts it, Lyft is the more human alternative in the ride-sharing/personal transportation market. Personality is an asset in its fight. I'm glad she said this; I was going to talk about this in my reindustrialization post, but I decided it was too much to add to one post. In a world where consumers care about the personality and story of the companies they interact with, and where the general business ethos is moving towards greater social responsibility, it was inevitable that a company like Uber, whose ethos is based on ruthless efficiency, would make more than a few people uncomfortable even before its latest round of scandals. I would go so far as to argue that our underlying discomfort with Uber is the reason its scandals struck such a nerve. Uber's personality leaves a huge space of opportunity for Lyft, with consumers, drivers, and potential employees.

However if Uber goes too far in the direction of ruthless efficiency, Lyft errs too far in the direction of amateurism. In April of this year I was in Denver for the Craft Brewers Conference. Lacking my own vehicle I used both Uber and Lyft to get around. I started with Lyft, which was cheaper and more available, but I ended up switching to Uber because I needed more personal space. Lyft was cool at first, mostly because I was interested in the experiences of the Lyft drivers and getting to know Denver a bit better, but having to talk to the driver every time I "took a cab" (to use the old-fashioned parallel) was exhausting.

But that was the Lyft expectation. When you get in a taxi, or an Uber, it's clear: the driver is a professional, doing his job, and you're the customer. You tell him where you're going, and he leaves you alone unless you want to engage or he needs to ask something related to the ride. When you get in a Lyft, it's ambiguous. The slogan is, "Your friend with a car." It would be weird to get into your friend's car, tell him where to go, and then ignore him the rest of the ride. Most of the Lyft drivers would start a conversation to break the silence, and even when I told them I had a headache, or just wanted some personal space, some of them had trouble with the concept. I can't blame them; it's just part of the ambiguous dynamic of the sharing economy.

That's why I was glad to read the article about Lyft trimming its mustache. I think it will be easier for Lyft's brand to grow up than it will be for Uber to make its brand more friendly. That's not a guarantee of its success; Uber remains a formidable opponent and currently has a vast lead in market share and cash on its balance sheet. It's hard to ignore that efficiency is tremendously important in the transportation and logistics market. But it should make for a more interesting battle.

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