Why Car2Go hacked itself for San Diego Comic-Con

The car-sharing brand created its own version of Anonymous to help visitors to San Diego get around surge pricing - and win rare comic book editions.

SAN DIEGO: A fictional hacker group called Surge Order helped car-sharing company Car2Go’s members #BeatTheSurge – as in surge charges from Lyft and Uber – during San Diego Comic-Con last month.

Surge Order, based on real-life hacker group Anonymous, was conceived by Austin, Texas-based creative agency Bakery. The firm’s chief creative officer, Micky Ogando, said Car2Go approached Bakery in June to develop an experiential campaign for Comic-Con.

The company’s two main goals were brand awareness and member engagement, and Car2Go North American CMO Amber Quist said she wanted its value to be communicated, particularly its "mobility, convenience, and affordability." However, the event also presented a major challenge in breaking through the clutter of Comic-Con by doing something "worth talking about," she added.

"[Car2Go] didn’t have access to the San Diego Convention Center, which might have had some other deals with other car companies, so the brief asked us to pull people away from the main attraction of Comic-Con," said Ogando. 

Bakery went for the jugular of Car2Go’s biggest competitors, Uber and Lyft, by highlighting that they use surge pricing and Car2Go does not.

"Surge pricing is a big negative point for Uber and Lyft and can happen out of nowhere, with [passengers] suddenly having to pay 125% more than they normally would for a ride home," said Ogando. "Car2Go wants to communicate to folks that you can always count on them and they don’t have these surprises."

The team created Surge Order to "eradicate surge pricing by any means necessary." In a video, the clandestine group explained that it would monitor demand for rides during Comic-Con, hack into the Car2Go platform, and use its fleet to flood areas experiencing surge pricing with available Smart rides. The video encouraged viewers to download Car2Go’s app for more information.

"In order for us to sell on that message, we as an agency had to become Surge Order during this period," said Ogando. "We created these personas, masks, and costumes and prepared to wear them for a whole week. It got very real when we were filming creepy PSAs in a warehouse set we built, and when you spend a little time in there you start to feel the part."

Bakery set up a listening tool so that whenever Uber or Lyft enacted surge pricing, Car2Go could deploy ground teams, fully costumed, in those areas.

"We sent out dozens of Car2Go vehicles and gave members notices on their phones to let them know we disrupted that surge area," said Ogando.

The company said it helped members save more than $14,000 over the course of Comic-Con.

Quist added that she consolidated efforts into fewer events with larger presences after she joined the company in September. One that fit the bill was Comic-Con.

"When we approach an event like Comic-Con, both from a brand perspective, but also from a marketing perspective, we want to add value and provide more of an experience for our members than just advertising and promotions," said Quist.

Car2Go functions differently than Uber and Lyft, allowing members to locate and unlock cars using an app, drive to their destination, park, and leave the car for the next member to use. The company, a wholly owned subsidiary of Daimler North America, claims 1.9 million members and a fleet of 14,500 automobiles in 30 locations around the world. Uber, meanwhile, has a presence in more than 500 cities globally.

Rewarding customers with rare comics
Bakery also helped Car2Go acquire three rare comic books, Amazing Spider-Man #1, Daredevil #1, and Avengers #1 – valued between $5,000 and $15,000 each – and created three scavenger hunts around San Diego. The first person to solve the clues each day walked away with one of the rare editions. More than 400 people participated in the scavenger hunt over a three-day period.

"To get people to take a day, or involve themselves over a weekend to look for something, you’re asking a lot of someone in an age group where people have limited attention spans," Quist said.

Surge Order also mailed anonymous boxes to media outlets, including information about the fictional hacker group’s mission and the planned scavenger hunt. It followed up the day after delivery by emailing journalists more details and a video explaining Surge Order.

Fast Company site Co.Create and Comic Book Resources were among the outlets that picked up the story. The coverage reached an audience of more than 1 million, Quist said.

During Comic-Con, Surge Order "hacked" the Car2Go Twitter handle, @car2goSanDiego, to spread its message and engage Car2Go members with the hashtag #BeatTheSurge. Its digital promotions also included pre-recorded and live videos streamed on the page, as well as a Surge Order website. More than 20% of visits to the Surge Order site were direct traffic.

"Being an app-based business, a lot of our consumers and target demographic are digital natives and tech savvy," said Quist. "We had a lot of success in social channels with awareness efforts."

The campaign garnered nearly 1.7 million social media impressions, and Car2Go San Diego saw the highest number of trips of the year, added Quist. The Car2Go app also achieved a 21% increase in engagement in San Diego between July 21 and 24, and registrations were 54% higher than expected. The company did not disclose the campaign’s budget.

"We wanted to be authentic about how the hacker group interacted with people; we didn’t want mass media that would get in the way and give this away as a brand experience," explained Ogando.

However, because Surge Order had no branding attached to it, Ogando noted that some media outlets found the group’s messages "creepy."

"Some people hit us up on Surge Order’s Twitter page saying, ‘Unless you let me know who you are, I am not going to give you my information,’ and asked us if we are associated with Anonymous," he said.

Quist noted that Car2Go’s internal PR team had some concern about potential distrust from journalists before launching the campaign, wasn’t too worried about backlash.

"We took the angle that there are a lot of groups out there that hack for good," said Quist. "This was a group that was not intended for ill purpose, but to provide value and added experience to our members."

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