Once-Radical RelayRides Adapts to a World That Digs Sharing
When Shelby Clark launched RelayRides five years ago, the sharing economy barely existed. Lyft and UberX were still two years away, and Airbnb was a 15-person startup being run out of Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia’s apartment. Clark’s idea—that people would willingly give their car keys to complete strangers—was still a pretty bonkers notion. So most of the company’s branding focused on this innovative new concept. The name and original logo, a steering wheel composed of self-reinforcing arrows, underscored the idea that regular people could rent cars to and from one another, rather than grabbing a white Impala from some polo-shirt-wearing counter jockey.
Its once-radical business model has become so widespread as to become almost beside the point.
Now, of course, the sharing economy is a bona fide business trend, powering some of the hottest startups in the tech industry. But RelayRides, one of its founding companies, isn’t among them. The company has grown—the number of rental days will more than triple this year, to about a million—but, as CEO Andre Haddad puts it, “we always felt we were not hitting our full potential. We didn’t break through to the elite group of consumer brands that has been able to sculpt a small share of people’s brains.” So today, RelayRides will announce a massive rebranding effort—a new logo, a new website, new apps, and a new name. It’s not only a sign of the company’s ambitions, but also a symbol of how its once-radical business model has become so widespread as to become almost beside the point.
Haddad says he decided to rename the company earlier this year, when he noticed “cognitive dissonance” between the company’s name and its product. RelayRides was initially conceived as a crowdsourced alternative to Zipcar—customers rented cars for an hour or two, then passed them back to the owner or onto the next renter. But in 2012, the company changed its focus to long-term rentals, which made the name a more awkward fit. In the meantime, Uber and Lyft were popularizing the concept of ridesharing, which only made RelayRides’ name more confusing. “Four or five years ago, there was no ridesharing, and now when people think RelayRides, that’s what they think of,” says Andrew Mok, VP of marketing. “It’s not only clunky, it’s the wrong name. It describes what we don’t do.”
There were other challenges as well. RelayRides’ growth depends on its ability to expand internationally, and it was hard to imagine foreign tongues mastering the clunky and resolutely English name. And RelayRides’ logo, which it revamped a couple years ago, would be a better fit for a kumbaya-ish encounter session than a new-economy juggernaut. Internally, some staffers referred to its depiction of three people linked together by a winding stretch of road as “The Human Centipede.”
So as of today, RelayRides is no more. Its new name is Turo, a name that is meant to evoke speed and adventure—think “Turbo” and “Gran Turismo.” It’s a word that fits snugly into the corporate Esperanto spoken by global tech companies. It’s sleek and fun, as is the company’s new logo, a simple clean outline of an arrow, connoting the road ahead.
A Difficult Trade-Off
Companies don’t change their names very frequently. In doing so, they’re sloughing off much of the brand recognition and affinity they’ve spent years to build. Generally speaking, if a firm is changing its name, it’s usually because it has taken on some unseemly association that it is desperate to rid itself of. (Altria, anyone?) Netflix announced its intentions to de-emphasize its DVD-by-mail arm by changing its name to Quikster, and repurposing the original name—and its branding—for its streaming service.
RelayRides, on the other hand, wasn’t trying to run away from anything. To the contrary, it had built a solid-if-relatively-modest business, and some enthusiastic customers. Haddad calls the decision to risk all that in exchange for larger potential growth “fun and scary at once.” And once he made the call, the company had to move fast. The longer it waited, and the bigger the company got before it made the switch, the harder it would be.
Its new catchphrase positions the company as a super-fun rental-car company, not an economy-toppling breakthrough model of person-to-person commerce.
For the past six months, the RelayRides team has reached out to customers, investors, and to founder Clark himself. It hired a design studio (the aptly named DesignStudio) and even a naming studio—Lexicon, the same firm that coined Blackberry and the Swiffer. It identified its key attributes, drew up competitive matrices to identify their unique selling proposition, came up with a “brand purpose”, and found a set of typefaces—including a counterintuitive all-caps serif font—to help set it apart.
But what’s most striking is what the new brand doesn’t say. RelayRides foregrounded process, the innovative new model for sharing privately-owned cars. Turo, on the other hand, emphasizes the driving experience. Its marketing underscores the diversity of its fleet, the idea that your rental car needn’t just be a functional commodity but can be a source of pleasure and personalization. A new blog will let renters share their experiences; DesignStudio’s Peter McClelland has contributed a piece about renting his Tesla-obsessed father a Model S for his birthday. Its new catchphrase—“Rent the car; own the adventure”—positions the company as a super-fun rental-car company, not an economy-toppling breakthrough model of person-to-person commerce.
“If you think about the old logo and the old name, the primary focus is sharing,” McClelland says. “But that’s not the primary reason why people enjoy using us. They like the stories, the travel, the ability to rent a specific car.”
Sharing Is Assumed
It’s a sign of just how comfortable we’ve become with the idea of person-to-person commerce. When I wrote about the sharing economy a couple of years ago, a Lyft driver told me she’d never rent out her car on RelayRides. “What I’d wonder is, what are they doing with my car?” she said. Lots of people had similar concerns about renting a room on Airbnb or hopping into a stranger’s Uber. This was the biggest question facing the nascent sharing economy, whether these companies could make us just as comfortable inhabiting the homes and cars of random individuals as we are renting rooms from Marriott or cars from Avis.
You still hear the occasional horror story, but by and large, the terms of the debate have evolved. We now worry about Airbnb’s effect on real-estate markets, or whether Uber has undue influence over local governments. Those are higher-order problems, questions that established businesses face, not issues for startups still trying to convince its customers to trust one another. With this rebranding, Turo is providing us with further proof that the sharing-economy model has become part of the fabric of our lives. It’s not even worth talking about it.
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