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Nick Ang

Same product, different brands

In Singapore, as it probably is in other countries, we have more than one company fighting for ride-sharing dominance. We have Uber, which everybody knows by now, and then we have Grab - a brand that is less of a household name to most people living outside of Southeast Asia.

These two companies have essentially the same product. They both offer a service to connect you to drivers who can get you to where you want at an attractive price. So it’s surprising that these companies end up having different customer demographics…

How do I know? Well, if anecdotes count then I guess I do know. I’ve spoken to one too many Uber/Grab drivers who seemed eager to share their experiences, and at least 3 of them have independently confirmed, without my solicitation, a curious observation: Uber passengers are usually more “executive”, and those who take Grab are likely more “chapalang”, or more of a mixed bag.

Actually, this shouldn’t be as surprising as it sounds. If you just look around you’d notice the same pattern with coffee, electronics, and leather bags. Starbucks versus kopi, Apple versus Xiaomi, Chanel versus… Fossil? Ok maybe some categories don’t exactly have a cheaper but more or less same quality product.

But a coffee purist would vehemently object that Starbucks coffee is at all the same as the thick, roasted with margarine coffee that is served by aunties in the kopitiam! “When you pay for Starbucks, you’re paying for quality”, you’d hear them say. They’re not wrong. But so is the uncle who will tell you that when you buy a cup of kopi, you’re paying for the same thing just at a quarter of the price.

Connoisseurs don’t enjoy kopi for a similar reason to why uncles don’t enjoy specialty coffee - they have found the drink they feel most associated with. And people associate with non-living things through its perceived value, which I think is what the idea of a brand exists for.

For me, the key takeaway from thinking about the difference between Uber and Grab is that regardless of social status and intelligence, we still think in terms of brands. That air-fairy, intangible vessel we like to use to perceive the value of anything rarer than a commodity.

Brand. That’s what we should think about as product managers, business owners, or marketers. What is the perceived value of our product in the different eyes of people we think are our customers?

I think the “executive” person likes to take Uber more than Grab because it makes them look wealthier (it’s run by a western company) and more tech-savvy (it’s headquartered in Silicon Valley). Because of the sexiness associated with Uber, executives perhaps get a high on feeling likewise sexy by dialling a modern-day cab with that all-black app on their iPhones.

On the other side of the fence, everyone else who sees Grab as the “local” version of Grab, the David versus Goliath (though that’s not quite true anymore with their hundreds of millions of funding, but it was at the start), support the green stripes on their Android phones. And when they run attractive promotions once in a while, that’s a nice bonus.

Recognising that a brand is used to differentiate the same products is useful only if you act on it. What ideas have you got to claim certain values for your product, for your customer to feel happy/proud associating herself with it?

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