Uber using self-improving AI-based recommendations compounding its ability to predict & empower marketing communications
In this Research NXT Interview, Sanjay Gupta, Marketing Director, India SA & APAC Rides Brand Marketing, Uber, talks about his journey as a marketing leader across consumer-facing brands, the intersection of the physical and the digital world, and how marketers should leverage AI to ensure its ability to self-correct predictions over time.
Key takeaways from this Research NXT interview:
- How Uber is leveraging technology to personalize every rider’s experience at such a large scale.
- How Uber has continuously updated its app to prioritize user safety makes it more accessible and easier to use.
- Sanjay’s observations on the state of marketing in the current scenario, and how it would evolve in a post-COVID world
Here are some extracts from the insightful conversation we had with Sanjay.
Research NXT: You have led marketing in B2B and B2C segment in India and are now are leading marketing for Uber in APAC. Let us start this discussion with your journey as a marketer and your observations on how the marketing technology landscape changed?
Sanjay: First of all, thank you for having me on your AI-led personalization series. About my career, if I were to use the Uber lingo, I would say I have had a 5-star trip. I have been incredibly lucky to be able to do what I love. Over the years, following my passion has led me to opportunities that have worked out well.
I started my career with Marico, a well run, innovative consumer goods company in India. Marico gave me a very strong foundation on both the functional aspect of marketing and the core principles of general management. I have had the privilege of working on strong brands like Parachute and Saffola as well. Post that, I went into the eCom sector and moved to Urban Ladder, which revolutionized the way we bought furniture in a very customer-centric manner. It was my first startup experience, and the energy level and passion were infectious. It was also my first exposure to data-driven marketing, where we focused a lot more on insights and how information was synthesized. As you come into the data-driven world, you start looking at personalization, personal storytelling, and how technology enables us to share it with the world.
So I think that was my first experience with data and it was very enriching.
I then moved to Uber, which has been my most exciting and fulfilling role so far. Like most others at Uber, I am very passionate about our mission, and truly believe that we can reimagine how the world moves for the better. Every day, I get to work on complex problems with the brightest minds, which is very energizing.
So, it is not only skills, but a majority of it has to do with just being there at the right place at the right time.
Uber is a Phygital business, as we play at the intersection of the physical and the digital world. And in this world, experience trumps advertising.
Research NXT: In your earlier interviews, you had mentioned you want the ride in Uber to be an experience for every rider. With such a large global rider base, are you able to provide that experience consistently? How are you leveraging technology to personalize every rider’s experience on Uber?
Sanjay: Uber is a Phygital business, as we play at the intersection of the physical and the digital world. And in this world, experience trumps advertising. Your own personal experience on the platform has a far greater impact on your perception about the brand and your propensity to use it in the future. So right from the start, we have strived to deliver a magical experience for both our riders and drivers as we see ourselves as an intersection of the two.
To bring to life the concept in terms of how it impacts and how technology plays a role, let me take safety as an example. Safety has been the number one priority for us right from the start. At the very core, we believe that technology should enable safer travel. To this effect, we have continuously updated our app to prioritize safety and make the safety features more accessible and easier to use. I would like to mention in particular four different features, two of which are more contextual to the COVID world, and two are our evergreen features:
Mask Verification: We had our existing feature of drivers having to take a selfie and upload in the system to ensure an information match before starting any trip. Now we have modified the feature to ask the drivers to take a selfie with a mask on before initiating any trips. Uber’s new technology will verify if the driver is wearing a mask on all trips.
Go Online Checklists: Before a driver can go online, they will be asked to confirm, via a new Go Online Checklist, that they’ve taken certain safety measures and are wearing a face mask. A similar checklist has been built for riders where, before every trip, they must confirm that they’ve taken precautions such as wearing a face mask and washing or sanitizing their hands. By doing this over multiple trips, we try and keep the platform safe in the current COVID context.
Apart from these COVID related features, there are two more features that I like a lot:
GPS-tracked rides from start to finish: This feature, though not very technologically sophisticated, makes the rider feel safe. Through this feature, riders can see their route clearly marked, and view the real-time dynamic location of their car, on the app throughout their journey. So they know exactly whether they are on course, making safety come alive on every trip.
Share your trip feature: This feature allows a user to share their trip with a loved one, and they will know where you are at all times in real-time.
So, those are just some of the ways we leverage technology to ensure a better, safer, and in-the-moment customer experience for our riders in a very personalized manner, and this has been very critical at Uber.
As a marketer, I define AI as something which can be used more efficiently to make predictions about future outcomes based on past behavior in a way where we are self-correcting or improving all the time, so that we can compound the advantage.
Research NXT: I see that Uber is testing out the driverless car and many other things from an AI standpoint and an innovation standpoint. What is the progress on that front? I think our audience would be keen to know what’s going on next at Uber?
Sanjay: Uber has been at the forefront in the use of AI with driverless cars. However, it’s safe to say that both as individuals and as professionals, we are in uncharted waters now with the COVID crisis. What we knew about customers and some of the things that we took for granted have changed dramatically. And as custodians of the brand experience of the business, we need to adapt and relearn quickly. As a marketing community for the next three or four months, we need to understand the new normal to win our customer’s minds and hearts. I have three things that we should introduce. They are:
Start with the consumer, and seek to understand what’s changing – What we knew about our consumers’ behavior, their lifestyle and their priorities have changed. The insights and knowledge we gained in the past will need to be reexamined. For us, as marketers, we need to identify our new early adopters and understand from them the new category codes, the new use cases, and new benefits. And reimagine our product portfolios to cater to the evolving new normal.
Win on the new category driver, i.e., Hygiene Safety. Our consumers have added a new attribute to all categories, its call hygiene safety. For any business with physical interaction with the consumer, hygiene has assumed a new meaning and moved up in the attribute hierarchy. What’s interesting about this new paradigm is that in the absence of clear hygiene markers, consumers are evaluating hygiene based on their own safety standards. The lockdown has made us cognizant that our actions, both responsible and irresponsible, have a material impact on others. This has, in most cases, made us more responsible and thankfully so. As brands, it is imperative for us to assume greater responsibility, to ensure that our standards are high, and we deliver on them consistently. However, the key is to distill what’s really important and not get lost in the myriad of signals that we are receiving.
And the last and most important is to “Lead with actions and not ads.” There will be a premium on #ActsNotAds. It’s time for marketing to be more meaningful. They say leaders are judged in times of crisis, and our consumers will judge us based on what we did and not what we said. It is the time to be meaningful in your actions and thoughtful in your communication.
What we knew about customers, and some of the things that we took for granted, have changed dramatically after the onset of COVID. And as custodians of the brand experience of the business, we need to adapt and relearn quickly. As a marketing community for the next three or four months, we need to understand the new normal for us to win our customer’s minds and hearts.
Research NXT: What’s your observation of marketing in the current scenario, and how would it evolve in a post-COVID world?
Sanjay: I think a couple of things that won’t change, like:
– Companies and brands that are customer-centric will still do it. And I think companies that promise what they deliver and deliver what they promise will do well.
– However, what will change is that we will have more opportunities for leveraging tech and insights to create meaningful personal experiences. We have changed markers, in the category, or at the very least the priorities of what’s important to our customers have changed. So if originally, ‘a’ and ‘b’ were more important in a category, today, there’s an attribute ‘c’ that is more important and allows players to win, share or do better. Whoever is more customer-centric and can leverage data and insights in a better manner, has the chance to win that particular category.
– Thirdly, we will need to be very thoughtful in how we communicate. It’s not time to rush for business by leading with discounts and trying to drive usage. People are having a difficult time, and we, as brands, need to be very thoughtful, very empathetic towards what our customers need. Instead of getting the maximum out of customers as brands, we should try and give our customers the maximum. I think of this as a time to invest in that relationship and enable each other to just move forward from this crisis.