Lyft, the US ride-sharing company, was forced to think differently when COVID hit. Lyft’s VP of Creative, Karin Onsager-Birch, spoke to WARC’s Anna Hamill about creativity, innovation, building a brand playbook and why localization is the key to relevancy.

How would you define Lyft’s approach or philosophy when it comes to creativity?

Creativity sits in every part of the company. Everyone is creative – creative isn’t what you do, but it’s how you do it… The company has grown tremendously and become quite a beloved brand doing non-traditional marketing such as consumer activations which are very grassroots and very guerrilla.

On the brand side, it’s an incredible operation when it comes to the growth and the performance side. Our business is such a marketplace business: you need drivers and riders. If you don’t have enough drivers, people have to wait too long for a ride. And if you don’t have enough riders, drivers don’t make enough money.

We’re going very big on social activations, guerilla marketing, culture and entertainment partnerships…that’s more on the brand side. And then very strong performance marketing to keep that marketplace balance going all the time.

How does your creativity differentiate the brand within your category? There’s a lot of ride-hailing businesses out there.

In the United States, it’s very much David and Goliath. We’re the David, and we really have to operate as a challenger brand.

What’s great for me, as a creative leader, is that it’s such an incredibly values-led brand. Our founders, John Zimmer and Logan Green, have very strong values around sustainability and green and very strong values around hospitality. The company really started with their values around creating a future where cities built around people, not cars.

One of the biggest things that created brand love was the day Trump took office and created the travel ban for Muslims. The company immediately donated $1 million to the American Civil Liberties Union.

Source: Mashable

We do a lot of brand action which is very much about putting skin in the game and putting our money where our mouth is. Consumers, especially young consumers, really resonate with a brand that they can share values with and one that’s not ‘woke washing’.

I think we see a lot of brands that are very ‘values-led’ get kind of preachy and serious, and make you feel ‘cancelled’ if you don’t believe in their values. But Lyft has always done it with a smile and a wink… That’s why Lyft has done so well, I think.

We’re going into difficult economic times. Are you preparing your brand for the eventuality that people may be spending less money on Lyft?

We have two products that we’re launching this summer. One that we used to have before COVID is relaunching, which is shared rides. It’s more affordable to ride together if you’re going in the same direction. The other one is called Wait And Save. We’re always optimizing to make the car show up faster, so we’re actually now launching a product called Wait And Save. We’ve just launched in a few markets. If you’re willing to wait a little bit longer, it gets cheaper. The chances are good that those two products are going to become popular this year.

That sounds almost like a resilience play as disposable income is likely to reduce.

For sure. Because one of the things that happened during COVID was that [previously Lyft had] been a little bit more of a ‘nice to have’. People would do it out of convenience because they could afford it. But during COVID, we discovered a whole new audience that came in, which was essential workers. They were the only ones who were going out and they were not comfortable. They wanted to have a little bit more privacy in their transportation for safety reasons. All of a sudden we found that we had this whole new audience to serve, and we also did a lot to make rights more affordable or free for nurses, doctors, and other essential workers.

Was COVID a monumental pivot and learning experience for your brand?

We had been growing really, really well. And then from one day to another, nobody’s going out. It was tough. We instituted all kinds of safety measures. But what we found was that the people who still had to get places were doing really important work during COVID. So we had all kinds of products at the time to either sponsor or give free rides to make it more affordable. A whole new population [of riders] was discovered. We were there for them then, so they became loyal.

How has the way that you communicate in terms of tone, style, and channels changed as your brand strategy has evolved?

This is something I’ve gotten very involved with. I’ve been [at Lyft] for 15 months, and when I was looking at the brand from the outside, right around the beginning of COVID, one of the things that I observed was that the brand had been such a fun, funky, playful brand in the early days. People who loved Lyft really really loved Lyft.

Then Lyft kind of got a little bit more serious and lost their vibe a little bit… I think it was when they went public, it felt like they had to be a little bit more grown up. During COVID, it obviously didn’t feel appropriate to be approaching people with a joke all the time. But I also feel like that is the DNA of the company: it’s a friendly, fun, playful way of delivering a really great transportation service.

So what we spent the last year doing, when business was tougher, was really going inward. We develop all these codified brand principles around the values and then, based on that, we redesigned the tone, look and feel of the brand. We’ve developed our own bespoke illustration and photography style, and then created playbooks for all channels to show how that works. That’s what we spent most of last year doing.

How are you showing up consistently across the customer journey? What were some of the big lessons you learned about how to play in those different touch points?

Lyft was a brand that grew in such a grassroots way and had really fantastic people with very specific different specialties. For example, the culture and entertainment team, the social team, the policy team, the journalism team… The brands showed up in a slightly different way in all those different places.

We have to move at the speed of culture – that’s so fast. Our business changes from day to day. For example on New Year’s Eve it’s a big night, and when COVID hits it’s a quiet night. We’re not a brand who can develop a campaign for four months and then run it, because by then it might be irrelevant. So we’re really optimized for moving at the speed of culture and to do things really, really fast.

That was one of the things I love – having been 25 years on the agency side, going into the brand side – is we can break down all the barriers so we can move fast… But in order to be able to move fast, you can’t have everything centralized with one person approving everything. By creating these codified principles that are very clear with a very defined way they show up in the different channels, everyone can just go and move at the speed of culture.

What do you see as the biggest trends or consumer behavior changes coming down the pipeline that your brand will need to understand and adapt to?

It’s consumer behavior changes for us. It’s such a market balance that in order to be the ride you want tomorrow, we have to understand how you feel tomorrow. And that means being very, very on top of what’s going on in society and culture and local cities. So Lyft becomes a very localized brand. That is particularly seen in our bike systems.

One of the areas we differentiate is by being a leader in micro-mobility. Even if you don’t necessarily use rideshare, you could still have all your transportation through the Lyft app as we run bike systems. We run the bike systems in 12 US cities and, outside of China, we run the most bikes anywhere in the world.

We just created a campaign in the United States called ‘Yes, You Are A Bike Person’ which shows all the different use cases that the bike could be useful for you. We are always testing things, so we might do a very localized campaign in New York, and a very localized campaign in Chicago. For this campaign we took the overall idea and created bespoke context from the city and married it with the concepts. The concepts you see in New York are different from the ones you see in Chicago, and those are different to the ones you’ll see in Mexico City eventually.

What has your biggest lesson been from COVID in terms of how much it’s changed the business environment, and also our working environment?

I think the biggest thing is in regard to talent: going from work needing to be happening in offices when everybody was available together to a completely flexible, decentralized model. On one hand, it’s so fantastic, because we can work with talent anywhere and it’s created this opportunity to recruit talent that in the past, we couldn’t, so it’s opened up our recruiting in this fantastic way and leveled up the talent we can work with.

It’s also about being able to have work that also really suits your life, because of flexible models. At the same time, I think it’s high time that we in advertising really realize what burnout a career in advertising can bring. If a company is about humanity, if a company is about respect, safety, and showing up to be delightful for our customers, then we should start inside. Creating that environment for our team is really important. I feel like, as a creative leader, I have learned so much from that because obviously I came up in a time where it was just expected that I was working 80 hours a week [in an agency].