For all intents and purposes, and despite some hairy legal troubles, Uber is the pinnacle of startup success stories. The four-year-old business is growing at a rapid clip—expanding overseas and even recently, into Africa and China. The luxury car service smartphone app is reportedly getting another $150 million in funding, including backing from Google, and is valued at $3.5 billion.
But while a lot of the attention is focused on the startup's fight with taxi companies, and the "disruption" of transportation as we know it, what I find the most interesting about this rising business is its smart and creative public relations strategy.
Uber is positioning itself as more than just a taxi alternative, and it's good at finding a way to use what's going on in the cultural zeitgeist to further that goal. For instance, in San Francisco, where the startup is based, BART metro workers recently went on strike over salaries, benefits, and safety concerns. So last week Uber took the opportunity to expand to new levels—sea levels. It partnered with boat rental company Boatbound to offer commuters an alternative to taking the train to work: boating to work. Would offering car rides have also done the trick? Of course. But the quaint image of San Franciscans boating over the bay to the office made for a great story.
The company's blog post about the Boat to Work program all but admits to it being a publicity stunt: "This probably won’t be the fastest way for you to get to the office Monday morning, but if you want to feel the wind in your hair and and enjoy free coffee and breakfast, all aboard!"
And remember in mid-July when that crazy heat wave hit the East Coast? Uber was on top of that, too, announcing it would offer on-demand ice cream trucks that Friday, in 33 cities around the world. Naturally, the ice creams could be charged directly to your Uber account. Oh, and they made a video, too.
I don't know if the transportation company made money selling ice cream cones that day, but the free publicity was priceless; dozens of media outlets ran the ice cream truck story.
In a way, even the legal fight with taxi services is good exposure for the upstart. While taxi services wage lawsuits to hold their ground, the friendly San Francisco startup gets to play the role of redefining transportation and fighting the man. After all, any press is good press, right?