Nothing can save the taxi industry’s branding issue

Try as it might to fight back against the behemoth that is Uber with clever campaigns and crafty repositioning, nothing can save the taxi industry in the eyes of consumers until its biggest branding problem is addressed. Mumbrella’s editor Vivienne Kelly explores what needs to change.

On Tuesday night I was attacked in a taxi on the way back from an industry event. 

On top of everything else, my phone had run out of battery – which will resonate with those of you who know me and are all too familiar with my standard response of “I’m tired and I need to charge my phone” when asked how I am – compounding the difficulty of the situation I was in.

I haven’t actually revealed to anyone the full extent of what happened and why I was found out the front of my building doubled over and hyperventilating, preferring instead to drip feed different parties different elements of the story so I can manage the narrative without having to spend too long retelling and analysing it at any one time.

Given that Mumbrella wasn’t created for us to all work through my issues via pop psychology – wouldn’t that be great though? – I’ll spare you the minute-by-minute breakdown of what happened.

The incident, however, did raise two serious issues relevant to adland.

Taxis: Can they recover in the eyes of consumers?

One, is the taxi industry’s horrendous branding and image issues.

13 CABS and Adam Ferrier’s Thinkerbell can do everything in their power to reposition the brand, attempt to sell it as a fairer, more reliable and safer alternative to the likes of Uber, and transform the legacy business which struggles with consumer loyalty – but it means fuck all if the reality out on the streets is giving users a different experience.

Above: 13 CABS’ trying to improve its image 

I was so incensed and shattered by the time I was helped inside, that the only thing I could think to do was send Adam an angry email about the disconnect between the company’s rebrand and repositioning, and my actual experience.

(Sidebar: How much Mumbrella / adland Kool Aid have I consumed for branding issues and advertising campaigns to be one of my first thoughts after a traumatic experience?)

Above: Uber’s latest campaign

It must have been such a bizarre email to receive. Sorry, Adam.

I almost didn’t send it, as it really wasn’t Adam’s fault or issue, and I knew that the more rational Vivienne who awoke the next morning would only have more fuel for her anxiety.

But send it I did.

And this is where the brand jumped into action.

Adam had responded by 5:24am and Simon Purssey, 13 CABS’ head of client services, had called by 10:05am.

Even more impressive is that even after it subsequently emerged it wasn’t a 13 CABS taxi involved in the incident, both the company and Adam continued to check in to see if I was okay, and apologise for the conduct of someone who didn’t even work for their brand.

In one sense, my incorrect conclusion that the driver was from 13 CABS shows the all-penetrating strength of the 13 CABS brand – in that I automatically assumed the taxi – any taxi – I was in was the responsibility of 13 CABS.

It also presents an almost-insurmountable challenge for 13 CABS though: they become tied to brands which aren’t their own, and are held accountable for the conduct, experience and offerings of the industry as a whole.

Various circumstances led my traumatised brain to believe it was 13 CABS. So I ran with that in the moment.

I did my Honours thesis a decade ago on history and memory, and the interaction between telling and retelling stories, and how this can create and then re-enforce inaccurate recollections of experiences.

Essentially, every time we tell a story, it alters our memory of what actually happened – and years and years down the track, the way we retell a tale of trauma, hilarity, the mundane, the mediocre and the monumental, can be very far removed from what actually happened. We can alter our own memories accidentally via storytelling, and genuinely believe that something which didn’t happen, did.

Brands too have to contend with this quirk of humanity and the folklore and misconceptions it can create.

If I hadn’t lost my mind at Adam via email, which prompted Simon to call me, and us to ultimately realise I was laying blame with the wrong company, I would be telling everyone who would listen (and even those who wouldn’t) about my horrendous 13 CABS experience.

It would become true by my telling and retelling, and 13 CABS would suffer as a result.

It’s likely, however, that most consumers would have fallen into that trap. I guess that is one of the perils of being a market leader and trying to mount an industry pushback against a challenger. Every message you send out will be compared to the new kid on the block (Uber) and the reality on the ground, and everything the industry as a whole does, can be seen as a direct reflection of your own, separate, brand.

It’s a challenge I’m sure Adam and Simon will continue to battle with, and one without an easy solution.

Beyond the image and branding challenges instances like this generate for the taxi and ride-sharing industries, the second issue this highlighted is the continuing and often underestimated risks that come with this job for me and many other women.

Evening events come with the territory. So, how does one best get home?

I am frequently lambasted by people in the industry when they realise I intend to walk back to the closest station and get the train home instead of the seemingly more practical and efficient taxi/ Uber.

The general vibe that is forced back upon me varies from “Lol are you poor?” to “Eww, why would you get the train?”, with a little “Stop being a weirdo and just jump in this cab”, thrown into the mix.

Here’s the reality though: after years and years of late-night suburb hopping as a woman in Sydney, I feel safer on the train.

I’m so sick of (but simultaneously grateful for) texts from people in the industry which pop up on my phone less than 120 seconds after I shut the door of a car and prepare for a stranger to drive me home: “Let me know when you get home safe”.

One Friday night I smoke bombed on Commercial Radio Australia’s Julie Warner, and then yes, my phone once again, ran out of battery.

I didn’t charge it until well into the Saturday afternoon, and then found a string of increasingly concerned texts, culminating in “Seriously, are you alive?”

Laugh as we do about it now, the reality is we all know in the back of our minds that there is the possibility something had happened.

It’s horrendous to recount how many times I have been at risk on my way back from adland events, and indeed, occasionally at the events themselves.

So I get the train when and where I can.

Not only does it give my busy brain time to decompress (“Why did you have to look like such a d*ckhead trying to scoff that spring roll into your mouth while talking to ‘insert executive’s name here’?”, “Did you have to go back to the cheese board SO many times?”, “When that person said ‘Oh, I LOVE Mumbrella’, were they being sassy and sarcastic?”, “Should I have spoken to more people?”, “What stories did I miss tonight?”, “How much is this company going to hate me when I write about that stuff-up on stage?”) while digesting TOFOP or blasting Sam Smith (don’t judge my high-culture tastes!) – but I feel safer and, thus far, have made it home without incident.

Long may that continue.


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