Why Singaporean super app Grab is focused on ‘acts, not ads’

Spanning everything from ride hailing, to food delivery and payments, Singapore-based app Grab has pivoted at speed to respond to the challenges of Covid-19 across southeast Asia.

Singapore-based super app Grab has a mantra “it isn’t just an ad, it is also an act”.

Established with the express purpose of elevating the lives of people across southeast Asia, Grab has grown to span everything from food and grocery delivery to ride hailing, payments, hotel bookings, tickets and insurance since launching back in 2012.

That mission has defined Grab’s approach to the Covid-19 pandemic, explained group vice-president of marketing, Cheryl Goh, speaking on day four of the Festival of Marketing.

At the onset of the crisis in southeast Asia, the team rolled out the ‘Grab Protect’ campaign as part of a global partnership with Unilever, providing sanitation products in the back of all its transportation vehicles across 300 countries.

“It is a marketing campaign to help people have more confidence to travel again once movement control eases, but also at the same time it is an act,” explained Goh.

In addition, the Grab marketers responded to the pandemic by rolling out the ‘Small business booster’ campaign to stimulate demand on the platform for the local restaurants struggling the most. The marketing department then worked with the product teams to highlight the app’s tipping function to support drivers. Tipping rose by 70% in some markets as a result.

Anticipating the shift to consumers staying at home and ordering food online, Grab switched 150,000 drivers from ride hailing to delivery, driving an uptick in sales across the food business. As food merchants were being forced to quickly move online, Goh’s team developed a series of webinars to educate them on how to use the app.

We hire for humility. We cannot believe that we are better and smarter than everyone else.

Cheryl Goh, Grab

Goh explained that, due to Covid-19, all companies are now “in the healthcare business”, which means they need to be proactive and introduce new processes that are transparent for consumers and make them feel as safe as possible.

The company has, for example, introduced selfie verification to prove its drivers are wearing masks and is monitoring the order flow to ensure Grab is aware who has been in contact with the food to enable full contact tracing. Customers are also given the option of contactless delivery, whereby the delivery driver drops the food at their doorstep and sends a picture to the consumer, who can then pick it up.

“During this time, it’s important to build trust with consumers, drivers and merchants and we do that through public and private partnerships with lots of government agencies,” Goh added.

“When we onboard merchants we do everything to provide the right amount of space so we can recruit at scale, but with social distancing. We work with certain governments to provide free medical tests for our drivers. We work on providing services to help our healthcare workers. That’s one good way to build trust.”

Resilient leadership

Goh started her career at the company in 2012 as a single person marketing team based in Kuala Lumpur staging guerrilla PR stunts, such as running marathons in Grab T-shirts and taking ice creams to the lobbies of media companies. She now leads a team of 500 marketers across southeast Asia.

The insights gained over the past eight years have helped Goh pivot during the crisis and inspired her to cut marketing spend in order to channel money and resources back to Grab’s drivers and merchants. The business itself has needed to pivot some of it services, such as ramping up investment in its daily essentials grocery service.

The pandemic also interrupted Grab’s plans to celebrate the Hari Raya Lebaran festival in May, forcing Goh’s team to change strategy at lightning pace.

“We had campaigns that were meant to be lots of people singing, fireworks, dancing and we couldn’t do it for many reasons. That wasn’t the mood anymore and that production wouldn’t have even been possible,” she explained.

“We went into contactless production. We would be on a video call with the artist telling them how to appear in the ad and they used their family members as extras.”

Whatever changes needed to be made, Goh was clear that they had to relate to the long-term strategy and not just act as “reactive” tactics for the short-term.

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Resilience and adaptability are key skills the Grab CMO looks for when recruiting new marketers. She explained that the pace at which the business has evolved makes it feel like she is interviewing for her job “every six months”. The sheer pace of change means the company hires for adaptability and the ability to “stretch” as the business moves forward.

“We try to hire people who have been able to show some level of resilience in their role. I believe that you have to stay in an organisation for a certain amount of time to be able to drive impact and if your stints are all very short I question whether you’re able to drive impact at a large scale,” said Goh.

Of course, there are hard skills relevant to each role that she is looking for, combined with relevant experience and a track record of success, but the soft skills are equally important. Grab, she explained, hires for the ‘four Hs’ – heart, hunger, honour and humility.

“We hire for heart. We want people who really believe in our purpose. We hire for hunger. We want people who are hungry and want to make a difference. We hire for honour, which is that you will stay true to your word and always do the right thing,” Goh said.

“Lastly, we hire for humility. We cannot believe that we are better and smarter than everyone else. That’s when we stop learning and stop receiving feedback from each other.”

Cheryl Goh was speaking at the Festival of Marketing, which is taking place online between 5 – 9 October. All sessions, including Goh’s, are available to watch on-demand for those with a digital pass. To buy a pass visit www.festivalofmarketing.com/buy-your-pass.