Lyft Gains on Uber by Appealing to Progressive Political Ideals

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An Amp sits on the dashboard of a Lyft driver's car on Jan. 31, 2017 in San Francisco. (Kelly Sullivan/Getty Images for Lyft)

Maybe you’ve heard people say it: “I don’t use Uber, I take Lyft.”

For many, a boycott of Uber is a way to protest the company for a variety of reasons, including sexual harassment scandals, and the behavior of its former CEO. While Uber still dominates the ride-hailing business, Lyft has been making up ground, in part by appealing to progressives.

At the start of 2017, Uber controlled some 83 percent of the U.S. ride-hailing market. This is according to TXN Solutions, a research firm that gathers data on ride-hailing companies. But Uber's overwhelming dominance of the market began to change one night at JFK airport.

Last January, protesters rallied against President Trump’s plan to ban travel to the U.S. from a number of Muslin-majority countries. In solidarity, taxi drivers stopped service to JFK. Uber did not, and people accused the company of breaking the taxi strike. Users began deleting their Uber accounts and posting about it on social media with the hashtag “DeleteUber.”

Jonathan Wolf is CEO of research firm TXN Solutions. “Uber’s problems started literally almost overnight,” Wolf said.

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Wolf said Uber’s slide continued all year, fueled by things like sexual harassment scandals at the company and a video of founder and former CEO Travis Kalanick berating a driver.

“Uber’s missteps really started consumers thinking about what company they wanted to be associated with,” Wolf said.

As Uber slipped, Lyft gained. Messages posted on social media explicitly documented how people were dumping Uber for Lyft. “Goodbye Uber, Hello Lyft” became a thing on Twitter. Celebrities like Susan Sarandon fueled the fire.

According to TXN, Lyft’s U.S. market share grew from about 17 percent to around 26 percent during 2017. (Lyft has a slightly higher estimate of its current market share, putting it at at 33 percent). Wolf said Lyft made especially large gains in liberal cities like San Francisco and places with universities like Austin and Ann Arbor.

Part of Lyft’s growth comes from its expansion into a bunch of new markets over the last year. But University of San Francisco marketing professor Bhavya Mohan said Lyft is also attracting users because its brand appeals to liberals more than Uber’s.

“This is one of those cases where you have identical services practically, but such different brands," Mohan said.

Uber started as a more elite, luxury service, and Mohan said the brand still conveys that with its sleek black logo and German name. Lyft has always cast itself as the friendlier, less aggressive alternative. It used to encourage passengers to sit in the front seat and fist bump drivers. Mohan said even the Lyft logo -- with its curved lines, friendly font and pink color -- seems to say, “Hey, we’re the nice guys.”

While Uber was committing a series of political PR mistakes last year, Lyft made moves that appealed to progressives. It pledged to donate $1 million to the ACLU, and it developed an ad campaign about making the “right choices.” Actor Jeff Bridges stars in one of the ads. It’s Oregon Trail-themed.

While riding on a wagon, Bridges tells his driver, “You can choose to ride with the right people, doing things for the right reasons, you’ll always end up in the right place, or you can choose poorly.” Bridges ends the scene with the tagline for the new advertising campaign: “It matters how you get there.”

Melissa Waters, Lyft’s vice president of marketing, said, “‘It matters how you get there’ is the tagline we were using in a lot of our work this year to signify that we are a company that cares a lot about our values and cares a lot about doing things the right way.” Waters said Lyft wanted to make consumers “feel great” about choosing Lyft.

Veena Dubal is a professor of law at UC Hastings who does research on gig workers. Dubal said that publicly choosing Lyft over Uber has become a way for people to signal that they stand for progressive values. She, for one, does not buy Lyft’s “right choice” marketing.

“I think that Lyft and Uber are substantially the same,” Dubal said. She critiques both Lyft and Uber for the relationship they have to their drivers, who she says are getting a raw deal at either company. Both Uber and Lyft flood the road with cars, which keeps the price of a ride and driver earnings low. Plus, as contractors, the drivers do not have job protections or benefits. The companies have both been sued for classifying their drivers as contractors instead of employees.

“You have this company that is capitalizing off of exploitation, but it’s shielding itself with this liberal image of being for civil rights,” Dubal said of Lyft. She added that “labor rights are civil rights and that’s sort of what’s getting lost in the way that people understand and use Lyft.”

Dubal said Lyft’s good-guy branding makes it easier for progressives to overlook potential labor issues when they want a ride. Liberals, she said, “are not really willing to take the big step which is to actually use a regulated taxi, where there is some semblance of wage security, regulation and limited labor rights.”

This is ironic, Dubal pointed out, because it was taxi drivers who sparked the whole #DeleteUber movement by going on strike at JFK Airport. Lyft, like Uber, continued to run rides to the airport.

She said the Lyft-Uber story is indicative of a larger trend: that progressive movements based around things like race, gender equality and immigration have become separated from issues of class and labor.