What Ola must do to overtake Uber in London
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What Ola must do to overtake Uber in London

Ola has launched an audacious bid to unseat Uber as London’s ride-hailing app of choice. To succeed, it must learn from Uber’s mistakes and build a brand that stands out from the competition.

Earlier this month, Indian ride-sharing business Ola launched in London. The city’s ride-hailing market is, of course, dominated by Uber. The US giant has faced competition before – from the likes of Bolt, Gett and Wheely – but Ola is more bullish than most about its chances of replacing Uber at the top of the charts. Simon Smith, head of international at Ola, told press it hopes to pass Uber “within a year”.

To support its ambitions, Ola has significant investment behind it – including from Softbank, a major Uber investor – and its arrival coincides nicely with uncertainty around Uber’s long-term status in the city. The market leader is currently embroiled in an appeal against Transport for London’s recent decision to deny it a licence to operate in the city (though it continues to do so at present).

Circumstances might be favourable, but can Ola really topple Uber? “These are app-based businesses with the apps serving up very similar functionality to each other,” says CIM marketing director Gemma Butler, “so it’s Ola’s brand that will have to give it an edge.” In this respect, Ola’s launch campaign might have to go down as a missed opportunity. “It focused on reasons to avoid Uber, which is not true brand differentiation,” says CIM’s Ally Lee-Boone. “On the back of those adverts, you might want to avoid Uber, but you won’t necessarily turn to Ola among all of the competitors.”

As part of its launch, Ola also made a big play of its app’s ‘Guardian’ panic button and has invested in video content, published on YouTube, to show off its many security features. “This puts the onus on users, who now have the responsibility of pushing the button if or when Ola’s driver safety checks have failed,” says Butler. In the face of stories about Uber’s safety issues, consumers for whom safety is a priority are as likely to turn to London’s trusty network of black cabs as they are a disruptive upstart that seems to offer something only marginally different to Uber.

“What Ola actually needs to do is show everyone that safety is built into its brand,” suggests Butler. “There’s a big opportunity in this space because, for all that Uber is a giant American brand, it hasn’t really established a presence beyond its app. It made its name as a disruptor, but no one really knows what it stands for. If Ola can humanise itself a little more, it will start to stand out from all of the other ride-sharing apps on people’s phones.”

There is work to do, then. Once it has a brand, Ola will need to bring it to everyone’s attention. Butler believes it should make the most of the presence it has already built in cities such as Birmingham, Cardiff and Liverpool since gaining its UK licence in August 2018. “It has existing British customers out there,” says Butler. “They could really help to give Ola a human face and start to build trust among Londoners.”

Rather than just highlighting its rival’s failings, Ola must learn from them. If it can match the incumbent on scale, convenience and price, then beat it on brand, that target of overtaking Uber within a year could quickly start to look achievable.

With 25,000 London drivers already on its books and ambitions to double that number quickly (Uber has 45,000), it has made a good start on scale. The nature of apps means matching Uber on convenience shouldn’t be difficult. Ola charges a lower commission than Uber, so it will certainly be competitive on price. It’s just the last part – building a brand that shows Ola to be safe, reliable and much less likely to fall foul of the regulators – that needs further attention.


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