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Grab CMO Cheryl Goh on tight budgets: ‘I used to write my own press releases’

A lack of budget has never gotten in the way of Grab getting its voice heard, said Cheryl Goh (pictured), group VP of marketing and founding CMO of the ride-hailing app.

Back in the “dark and early days”,  before Grab became the SoftBank-funded “Super App”, the founding team had to “be really guerilla” in their actions. That meant rolling their sleeves up and getting publicity out in whatever way possible. Goh (pictured right) recounted the days when the core teams ran marathons clad in a Grab t-shirt just to get noticed and stood outside event venues holding a sign that read “Do you want a ride?” to get the attention of concertgoers.

Opening up on her experiences during a fireside chat at A+M‘s Digital Marketing Asia conference in Malaysia, with PROTON’s director, group corporate communications, Vijayaratnam Tharumartnam (pictured left), Goh recounted that with no almost no media contacts and zero budget, she would often walk up to lobbies of media companies with ice cream in hand, waiting for journalists and editors just to familiarise them with the then new ride-hailing company.

“I think even without a budget, you can always do your own PR. I actually wrote my own press releases for a long time and because I didn’t have any media contacts,” she said.

Now clocking its seventh year, the ride-hailing company boasts a total of 7,000 employees across six markets in Southeast Asia. But PR remains a core component to getting its name out. One area Goh and the team have been busy publicising is advocating for the welfare of driver-partners as well as allowing disabled individuals to drive on the roads. In several Asian countries, said Goh, an individual with disability is not legally allowed to drive.

When in Malaysia, the Ministry of Transport gathered ride-hailing players together to discuss the possibility of allowing these drivers on the roads, Grab particularly was passionate about bringing such employees on board.

“Nobody else really cared about these drivers except us, and we decided to garner media attention around it. We highlighted that these drivers can drive if we just modify the vehicles slightly,” she said. The Grab team also worked tirelessly to make changes to its app to support its deaf driver-partners. And with enough publicity around it, the platform current has approximately 500 of such drivers.

Out of the many things she does at Grab, Goh added that this was one project she felt very proud of. Currently, the Grab team has already started a lobbying process in Indonesia, where similar to Vietnam, it is illegal for OKUs to drive commercial vehicles.

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Here’s more from her fireside chat.

Q: How do you grow with no budget? 

Goh: Well, there are some things that you can always do for free such as speaking and PR. I think companies can do their own PR. I used to write my own press releases for a long time. Because I didn’t have any media contacts, I would walk up to the lobbies of buildings with ice cream in hand. In the early days, we did everything. We ran marathons wearing our company shirts. PR is crucial when you need to grow without a budget.

You have to sit down and understand what is your brand ethos and understand how the newsroom works and who the right people are to reach out to. PR was our bread and butter in our early days and we could actually see the numbers move with the help of PR. We usually publicised our news in bursts, meaning you have to think of some sort of announcement and do all of the announcements at once and see if it gets picked up.

We were also able to grow without money due to the sympathy of other bigger organisations. Our launch was paid for by Maxis as the company was interested in our mission and Maxis also wanted to sell more handphones. Thanks to Maxis, we had a free launch. We also worked with event and concert organisers who wanted to get people home so they would give us a free carpark lot and we stood outside holding signs asking if concertgoers wanted rides and charge them a fare rate and not haggle them.

We also went on speaking tours so a lot of us spent a lot of time at universities for conferences, or shopping centers or  anywhere they would have us speak.

Q: Why do you think Grab has become so successful now?

Goh: A few things that has helped us really successful is having a very strong brand purpose and in the early days. Our mission is very simple – to make taxis great again. It resonated with a lot of people and garnered lots of good talent and media love because it was something they truly connected with.

Secondly we wanted to become a regional company and we felt that operating in the Malaysia market only was too small. By 2014, we were already operating in six SEA countries.

And the third thing is, while we scaled regionally, we had a hyperlocal approach towards the business. Meaning that the marketing is focused on the needs of a specific market, and solving the needs of a specific problem. If you are a marketer for a regional company there are two things that are important – to have a local team to understand local nuance and local culture, and a regional team needs to drive efficiency and quite commonly, performance marketing and CRM. Regional teams should drive skills as well as cost efficiency.

Q: Brand identity is critical from a differentiation perspective, it is also one of the hardest thing to work out. What has been your strategy for keeping Grab’s brand identity and why do you think it works?

How do you describe a cowboy?  You will probably think of a checkered shirt, carrying a gun, boots etc. Everybody can describe a cowboy because a cowboy is fairly distinctive. That is one thing that is needed to be successful. It needs to be distinctive and for us, that was in our colour. Consistency is also important for us, which is in continuing to use the same assets over and over.

The cowboy is my favourite expression to explain a representation of a brand and you can always describe them. Cowboys are very distinctive and you will know how they will sound like and what they will potentially say to you. To me, that is how you will build your brand.

Initially when we started out we were known as MyTeksi. But when we switched it to an English spelling, a German company with a similar name tried to sue us. So we searched for any domain with (blank)taxi.com and after the long list we came up with, we chose grabtaxi.com. Then we were known as MyTeksi ins Malaysia and GrabTaxi everywhere else. And any branding textbook will tell you this is a very bad choice but we had no money to rebrand in Malaysia. So we just had to scale everywhere else and that why we remained MyTeksi in Malaysia and GrabTaxi everywhere else

But we rebranded from GrabTaxi to Grab in 2016 and we decided to focus on the fact that we are a service and people experience our brand through using it. So we focused very much on the way we look. And I think we are distinctive in the way that we look, such as the colours and the lines that we use, even our logo and the pictures of locals which are more more natural and resonates with everyday people.

Q: As a market leader in turning a traditional business into a digital force in the region, does Grab still believe in traditional marketing such as radio, TV and newspaper?

The answer is yes, especially when you are trying to build awareness and you have to measure the cost of impression. In some places, TV is the cheapest cost of impression. So definitely a yes for us, we have a wide media mix and it also depends on what you are trying to do.

For example, if you are trying to get a download, it is very much linked to performance marketing and digital marketing. But, if you are trying to drive awareness, then you have to measure the cost of impression such as what channel works best.

Q: What is your advice to aspiring marketers here, who one day aspire to seat in the chair of a CMO?

You need to not feel like the smartest person in the room. Honestly, the benefit for me when I started doing marketing was that I was already aware that I knew nothing about marketing. So you have to question a lot of the norms and when I started, it was a good time to be a marketer.

For example, I remember people telling me not to use billboards for direct response so I put giant billboards and also because our service expands by area. I will use ads that say “use this promo code over this period” since I didn’t know any better. Eventually, it did very well. Today if you look at Indonesia especially, a lot of billboards are direct response.

So I guess one way is to understand that you are not the smartest person in the room, and have the humility to question, and also the curiosity to ask.

Second is to have mentors. I had a lot of friends who were senior marketers when I started, and I asked them a lot of questions while also benefiting from knowing well-known mentors as well. When I was doing the rebrand for Grab, I managed to get Paul Crandell who was the head of sports at Red Bull then. He built the Red Bull brand to what we all know today and he also did the marketing for GoPro, bringing the same ethos into that brand. I was lucky to have mentors. And also a lot of the things I know today is because I read marketing and branding books.

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