If you were in Chennai over the last weekend, you know that it may have been slightly wet. You know, the completely normal torrential downpour that left half the city flooded? Not only did the floods cause power outages and lead to food and water scarcity, they trapped people in the city and were responsible for over 70 deaths. In the midst of all this chaos, commuters were staring desolately at their phones, watching their battery slowly die and noting the water level creeping up their jeans, hoping for a cab that was never to come. Both Ola and Uber, the most popular mobile app cab providers in Chennai, zoned out during these rains. Basically, they discontinued their fleet in the midst of increasing demand, leaving a fair amount of people stranded. And they heard about it. From jokes to serious criticism, Chennaites took to social media and called out both cab providers for abandoning their customers in their time of need, so to speak. Some of these posts took on the tone of wishful thinking, like these:
But, Ola ended up responding to this quite ingeniously. Now, the timeline of the response is a tad quick, so we feel uncomfortable speculating whether the response was directly to the tweets pasted in above or generally to the situation in Chennai, but we do concede that it was very well timed.
So, what did Ola do? They started a ferry service. No, not a service you could book through the app, but a relief service in five areas of Chennai, which brought food and water to people while also offering transport. They got a bunch of boats from a Chennai boat club, gathered trained and professional boatspeople and fisherpeople, and stuck a lot of Ola stickers on boats before heading out.
A few people part of their marketing team and a few Chennai citizens posted about the boats on Twitter and Facebook.
The head of marketing and communications/ their business head (news sources can’t seem to agree with each other) for Chennai made an official statement confirming that Ola would be offering flood relief services. Before you could say Ola!, multiple news sources had picked up the story, hoaxes and all, and run with it. #OlaBoats became a top trending hashtag on Twitter and other social media platforms.
So why did we pick this to write about? Mostly because we were a few of the people stranded, cab-less, as slushy water swirled against our knees. Also because the Ola hoax was genuinely funny. But perhaps what we liked most was the way that Ola’s marketing and communications team capitalized on a situation that was certainly going to spell disaster for them, and turned it around on social media. Think about it. Their fleet was still not operational during the rains, yet they got a tonne of positive publicity.
Ola’s story could have gone south spectacularly. Both Ola and Uber have already been criticized for “peak pricing”, the dastardly thing that pushes your cab fare up to astronomical amounts. Like, “I could go to a DIFFERENT CITY for this” amounts. If Ola hadn’t started, and publicized, their rescue initiative, the story that we’d have seen would have been this one – “Ola Cabs Leave Commuters in Dirty Water After Peak Time Extortion Racket”. Yeah, not a great way to go. So, what did they do that made the difference?
They changed the story. Then, they made sure the right people heard about it. The same folks who had been complaining about Ola on Sunday night were busy retweeting #OlaBoats on Tuesday. They used the same platform that criticized them, Twitter and other social media sites, to change the story. Did Ola pioneer flood relief in Chennai? No. That was what local municipal workers, transportation workers, city workers, the police and in some cases, the army did. However, Ola helped out and made itself both relevant and socially conscious, especially at a time when it was likely to receive a lot of criticism for having discontinued its fleet. And, in doing so, Ola managed to, according to the Twitterati, “one up” Uber and gained a competitive edge… at least on social media for a short while.
Not a bad fallout, all in all, for Ola.