You may have heard that the Chinese character for “crisis”, interestingly, combines the words for “danger” and “opportunity.” While linguists have debunked that etymology, something about it clearly rings true. What is certain is that the English word “crisis” derives from Greek for “to distinguish” or “to decide.” While no business looks forward a crisis, a dangerous time also presents an opportunity for leaders to distinguish themselves and to decide the future of their company.

Crisis communication is best when it fits organically with a company’s brand. We can see this in the case of one of the most beleaguered companies today, Uber, and its main competitor, Lyft.

Uber got to be the industry leader because an appealing value proposition: that technology can disrupt industries that regulation and centralization had made stagnant. Uber promises a refined and convenient experience at a competitive price, and customers celebrated the company’s willingness to bypass or overturn the established rules of taxi service.

Lyft, on the other hand, with its signature fuzzy pink mustaches, launched itself as the friendly, goofy face of ridesharing, playing down the competitive and disruptive aspects of their business.

Faced with an onslaught of bad press, Uber didn’t abandon their image as a sleek, polished, take-no-prisoners disruptor. Instead, they highlighted their professionalism by hiring former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to review company culture and by promoting media impresario Ariana Huffington’s presence on the board.

Uber managed to diffuse much of its negative publicity onto its CEO, Travis Kalanick, who had established a “bad boy” image that aligned with the company’s reputation as a daring disruptor. Even when Kalanick’s announced his temporary departure from the company, he phrased it in terms that reinforced Uber’s core message of technological innovation: “If we are going to work on Uber 2.0, I also need to work on Travis 2.0 to become the leader that this company needs.”

Lyft is taking advantage of Uber’s troubles to reinforce their own brand. Lyft may be less self-consciously cool, but they’re more attuned to the spirit of the times; or, as company president John Zimmer put it recently, “We’re woke. Our community is woke, and the US population is woke.”

When drivers began to complain about Uber and Lyft lowering their rates, Lyft promoted the fact that Lyft passengers were allowed to add tips—a way of personalizing the transaction not offered by Uber. And when Uber was criticized for offering rides without surge pricing during a taxi strike to protest Trump’s travel ban, Lyft donated $1 million to the ACLU. Even though Uber later made an even larger donation, Lyft’s rapid response came across as authentic and compassionate, in keeping with their brand identity, and it won the company a lot of fans, including many customers who defected from Uber.

Time will tell which model will come out ahead, but regardless, we can expect both Uber and Lyft to turn crises into opportunities, to grow and evolve their brand while highlighting their relative competitive advantages. As a strategic communications and marketing agency, ARTÉMIA can help you build your brand and turn a crisis into opportunity. Contact us today to learn more!

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