Big city solution: Scooter brands fight negative perceptions

Brands including Spin and Jump are being backed by investors with deep pockets.

Photo credit: Getty images
Photo credit: Getty images

Dockless electric scooters are springing up across the U.S. as a quick, affordable, and green way to get around big cities. As they face a rash of negative headlines describing them as a nuisance or a safety hazard, the startups behind the shareable scooters are investing in communications programs to position themselves as responsible players in the "micro-mobility" movement.

The pace of growth in this increasingly crowded, sharp-elbowed sector is nothing short of rapid with massive sums of VC money backing new players. Bird, which launched in April 2017 and is in more than 100 cities, has sped to unicorn status faster than any other start-up, according to Pitchbook. In June, it secured a $2 billion valuation after another round of funding.   

Last month, Ford Motor purchased scooter-sharing upstart Spin, which is in 14 cities and on college campuses. Financial terms were not disclosed, but reports estimate the deal at about $100 million.

Ride-sharing giants Uber and Lyft are also in the game. Lyft's pink-wheeled scooter-sharing service is in six cities. In April, Uber acquired bike- and scooter-sharing platform Jump. Uber also has a minority stake in Lime, which has also surpassed $1 billion in funding and operates in more than 150 cities. The San Francisco office of Praytell is among the firms working on the launch of Jump.

Consumer adoption is also accelerating at an impressive clip. According to a recent survey, scooters have registered a 3.6% adoption rate in the U.S., despite having only entered cities just over a year ago. One of the key ways brands have been pushing the category, especially to Millennials, is as a solution to helping create a greener planet.

However, some media coverage has described the scooters as a pollutant and safety hazard. The electric scooters are dockless, meaning they don’t have to be returned to a physical structure after use, and customers use an app to rent them. Apparently fed up with the devices being left haphazardly all over sidewalks and bike paths, residents in Oakland, Los Angeles, and Portland, among other cities, have been pitching them into city lakes and rivers.

"Urban waterways are under siege by a new invasive species: e-scooters," reads a headline in Fast Company.

Rachel Shepheard, VP at LaunchSquad, notes that the coverage is undermining a solution to big city transit woes. (Shepheard’s clients include Uber Freight, but the agency only works on that side of its business).

"Transit infrastructure is underfunded, public transit is unreliable, and cities are getting more and more crowded. These companies recognized an opportunity and a need," says Shepheard. "But It is hard to even see the forest for the trees right now because of the news headlines. They have been overwhelmingly negative and based on unfortunate news cycles."

Experts place some blame on the decision by some operators to take a page out of the playbooks of Uber and Airbnb, which is to disregard municipal policymakers. For instance, Bird dropped its electric scooters in Santa Monica and San Francisco unannounced with instructions on how to use them. Neither city had by-laws about rental sharing of scooters. "We are not selling hot dogs and tacos," justified Bird founder and CEO Travis VanderZanden, a former executive at Uber and Lyft to Inc. "We felt we were in a gray area."

"For a while in San Francisco, the scooters were absolutely everywhere," says Dan O'Mahony, SVP at InkHouse. "That fast, pervasive effect made for a ton of positive visibility. Reporters and consumers saw them and, for better or worse, were talking about them."

"But when your product is impossible to ignore, it also leaves you open to negative coverage and maybe some unanticipated issues like scooters at the bottom of the ocean," adds O'Mahony. "The scooter company that will come out on top will be the one that focuses the lion’s share of their communications efforts on public policy and safety rather than pushing for more general awareness, which can sour quickly."

Municipalities from Santa Monica to Reno have sent cease-and-desist letters to operators while they set up pilots and process for motorized scooter sharing. In the case of Santa Monica, it ended up giving permits to Bird, Lime, Lyft, and Jump. San Francisco only approved smaller brands, Scoot and Skip, with permits.

Focus on safety and responsible use
Lime has focused its communications on rider education and advocacy with its recent Respect the Ride campaign. It includes a rider pledge to, for instance, wear a helmet; abide by traffic laws and speed limits; and park properly out of the way of pedestrian walkways, service ramps, and mass transit stops.

More than 75,000 people signed the pledge in the first five days after its launch, says Jack Song, Lime’s head of comms, who was previously a VP at Imprenta Communications Group. The campaign was supported by PSAs, community events, a brand ambassador program, press outreach, and social media content.

With another initiative called Lime Green, the start-up is purchasing carbon offsets for the electricity it uses to charge its bikes and scooters. To offer comms support to consumers, regulators and media, Lime has also hired on-the-ground comms consultants and agencies in the markets they are in.

"We want to help build a community of operators and set industry standards across the board," Song says. "From sustainability to safety, we’ve developed campaigns and initiatives that can grow with the company and the industry."

Candace Locklear, cofounder and partner at Mighty PR, which has been working with Lime for the past 16 months, says the task for comms in intense in the sector.

"There are so many different constituencies that you’re messaging to, but you really can’t put a messaging strategy in place that lasts very long for any one of them. The issues and consumer behaviors change so fast," Locklear says. "It is very challenging to keep up, but an exciting one. These companies are very young, so it is really is up to the comms function to keep up on the messaging and adapt."

Ford-owned Spin has also focused on proper use, announcing a commitment to safety. The pledge includes an anonymous tip line, a partnership offering discounts on helmets, and a new app feature that allows users to rate how a scooter was parked when they unlocked it. If a user receives too many bad reviews, he or she will be suspended from using the app.

Meanwhile, Bird appears to be focused on brand building. It recently unveiled a website redesign and  animated short film that imagines a world free from traffic and pollution. The company has also ramped up its comms department, following the appointment of Outcast alum Rebecca Hahn as SVP of communications in May. Comms hires include public affairs manager Michelle Neumayr, also from Outcast; community relations manager Morgan Roth; and senior manager of government relationships Lys Mendez.

Bird could not be reached for comment at press time.

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