More than a ride-sharing company: how Grab became a market leader in Southeast Asia

Grab holds the majority market share in SEA, as compared to Uber and Indonesia’s Go-Jek.

Brands that remember their purpose and use their mission as a guiding light when making tough decisions will ultimately win, says Grab's marketing lead.

That is the most important lesson that the Southeast Asian ride-sharing unicorn has learnt in its five-year journey and something it wants to share with brands, its group vice president of marketing, Cheryl Goh tells The Drum.

A report by media intelligence company Meltwater called ‘The Sharing Economy: Exploring the Future of Transport in Southeast Asia’, found that Grab holds the majority market share in SEA, as compared to Uber and Indonesia’s Go-Jek, with 2.4 million drivers and 81 million consumer download of its mobile application.

While the report’s findings are inconclusive on who is winning the ridesharing war in SEA outright, Goh says this can be attributed to Grab’s focus on fundamentals and being data-driven.

“We treat our drivers well, always remembering our early days when we had no money, they were our walking, talking billboards. It’s not just their livelihoods, but their lives we want to help improve,” says Goh. “Safety is why we started, and we are constantly moving the needle on road safety. We are the only ride-hailing company with compulsory safety driving test for motorbike drivers, it’s why our passenger trust us.”

“We also put a lot of focus on customer experience by devoting a lot of early marketing dollars to help fit cars with charging cables and handphone docks. We also use data to help us understand what our consumers and drivers want, and create products that they want to use,” she adds.

The domination by Grab in SEA, helped by raising around US$2 billion (S$2.7 billion) from its Chinese peer Didi Chuxing and Japan's SoftBank Group Corp, has had a significant impact on its rivals.

Uber formed a joint venture with Singapore taxi giant ComfortDelGro in 2017, selling the latter a 51% stake in Lion City Rentals, an Uber subsidiary in Singapore that leases cars to its drivers. Go-Jek meanwhile, has consistently maintained its stance that it has no plans for further expansion of its services and is focused on expanding at home in Indonesia, where its service is available in 25 cities, while it is mindful of how strong Grab is.

Rumors grow by the day that Uber is preparing to sell its entire SEA business to Grab, a move similar to what it did in China, where it sold its business to Didi and pulled out of the country. Goh points to Grab’s early decision to partner with local taxi companies and innovate its business around what best suits the needs of the market, as further proof that Grab is always staying ahead of the curve.

“Grab pioneered and got approvals for taxis to use dynamic fares. Our five local taxi partners, HDT, Premier, Prime, SMRT, and Trans-cab have been on our innovative JustGrab service for over 10 months, and taxi drivers have earned more and enjoyed the choice of having dynamic fixed fares or using meters,” explains Goh, adding that Grab is also now a trusted brand for a range of localised transport modes, from taxis, cars, motorbikes to even tricycles - all on-demand.

For example, Grab has introduced GrabShare and GrabShuttle to move people in larger groups, and the concept of social carpooling service GrabHitch to Singapore and Indonesia.

The next real breakthrough for Grab will be when it can integrate its services with public transportation, says Goh.

“To get this right, we also need to solve the problem of payments, offering a unified payments method. When customers feel the convenience of paying just once for a single journey with one mobile wallet and being able to use this in any country in Southeast Asia, they will switch to multi-modal,” she explains.

To solve the problem of payments, Grab has introduced a mobile wallet called GrabPay, while introducing a food delivery service that is available only in certain cities in Indonesia and Thailand. That is strikingly different from Uber and Go-Jek, which have comprehensive food delivery services.

This is intentional, because aside from making payments convenient for its customers, Goh explains that Grab also wants to bring financial inclusion to everyone in SEA, which is a "big meaningful problem" to solve. Cashless payments are still relatively new and can be complex in a fragmented region, where different countries are at different stages of development.

According to Goh, the majority of people in Southeast Asia remain unbanked and are still dependent on cash to travel and pay for things, while only one in four (27%) have a bank account and only one in 10 (9%) are credit card users.

“In Singapore, we are supporting the government’s smart nation drive towards a cashless society. We are focusing first on helping more than 20,000 local, cash-based merchants such as hawker stalls go cashless, as they will see the most immediate benefits from working with GrabPay,” says Goh. “Through mobile payments, we are providing merchants with an attractive proposition normally available only to big businesses, with access to light infrastructure and the lowest cost in Singapore. They also gain marketing exposure to a large customer base and access to the benefits of GrabRewards.”

GrabRewards, which Goh says started as a marketing-led initiative to help retain and reward consumers, has matured into its own programme. It allows Grab to reward its customers by giving loyal passengers who use Grab in their everyday lives, from travelling to and from work to buying lunch at a food stall in Singapore, deals. To incentivise usage users can earn double the points they get from cash payments when they pay for their rides with GrabPay, and five times more points if they pay for their meals and coffees at GrabPay merchant stores.

Brands involved in the scheme include Singapore Airlines, Cathay Cineplex, Spotify, Deliveroo, McDonald’s and Starbucks.

“Beyond rewarding our users, GrabRewards also allows us to help small and medium-sized enterprises and micro-entrepreneurs gain access to our large database of users, so it’s a win-win-win situation for everyone. There are now more than 220 partners in our catalogue across Southeast Asia, and this number is growing, as more businesses see GrabRewards as a real revenue driver for them,” she adds.

Some of the campaigns that Grab has launched for GrabRewards members includes collaborating with Disney on ‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’ to offer immersive experiences for passengers. It re-skinned Grab app to be Star Wars-themed and updated the GrabRewards catalogue with exclusive ‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’ premiums.

Meanwhile, its partnership with Singapore Airlines allows customers who are both the members of the airline’s KrisFlyer and Grab’s GrabRewards programmes, the flexibility to convert their GrabRewards points into KrisFlyer miles.

“We want to be more than ‘just another ride-hailing app’ in people’s minds. Creating new, innovative campaigns that our users get excited about is important to us,” Goh says. “Beyond safe, affordable and convenient transportation, we want to build a brand that cares for our consumers and brings them closer to things that matter.”

“People forget that Grab as a brand is only two years old since our rebranding from GrabTaxi - so while we are Southeast Asia’s leading ride-hailing company, we are still a relatively young brand. One of the greatest successes of the rebrand is developing a very strong visual identity - if you live in any of the major Southeast Asian markets - you can easily recognise our billboards, or car wraps, or bikers’ jackets, so maintaining the brand visibility is important,” she adds.

While GrabRewards and GrabPay helps the company stand apart by providing the best customer experiences, Goh says Grab’s founding principles of safety, accessibility, improving lives of drivers, improving cities and communities will continue to lead its direction forward. After all, she says, at its core the purpose of Grab is to drive SEA forward.

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