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Grab-and-Go(h): Marketing exec redefines public transpo here and in Asia

ROAD traffic in Manila is undoubtedly one of the most challenging to negotiate this side of Asia.

But Cheryl Goh, vice president of marketing for Grab, spills the beans on how the innovative company is in it for the long haul in providing solutions to curb the Metro’s traffic, while providing livelihood opportunities for Filipinos.

Preparing for a marketing campaign

Beyond fighting traffic and creating jobs for Pinoys, Goh narrates her journey from Grab’s humble beginnings in 2012, to making it one of the most successful and recognized brands in the Philippines and the rest of Asia.

Goh shared that being in Grab since the beginning was a challenging, yet fulfilling, endeavor. Starting from scratch and growing with it in a fast pace (compared to the weekday morning traffic of southbound Edsa) has given her tremendous personal growth. Her daily challenge as a marketing executive is to always be relevant and up-to-date with changing consumer trends, and fulfilling Grab’s immense growth targets.

Goh on a holiday dive in Cebu. Jun V. Lao

“Grab grows at such a rapid rate that it feels like I have a new job every six months. When I started out, we were mainly a company focused on improving the taxi service in Malaysia. Today we are Southeast Asia’s largest mobile and Internet-based company, operating in 41 cities in seven countries.”

She explained that most Asian marketers place an imaginary ceiling over their heads, thinking they have limited capacities to do more or greater things. Grab to her is a living example of reaching out and breaking through the ceiling. It has become more than a little tech giant from Southeast Asia and have edged out global players in the transportation industry.

Not many people thought they could do it, but Grab did.

With the Regional Marketing team at a teammate’s wedding

Goh enjoys the challenge of being one of the few Southeast Asian companies to hold ground against a global rival. Grab has taught her the value of grit, passion and resilience. Staying ahead in such a competitive environment requires dedication and a strong belief that her team is doing work that is making a big difference in the region.

By giving everyone a common purpose at Grab, it inspires individuals to improve lives in their area of operations. It may seem contrived, but the company is building a culture where people care about the impact they are making in this side of the planet; where they can see that the work they do influences and shapes cities. Goh shares that Grab employees play a part in culture building, and she knows all the leaders in the organization lead by example to inspire their teams.

For greater good

Grab started four years ago as a team of just 16 people. They operated out of a tiny storeroom with tiny windows in Petaling Jaya, sat on broken chairs that other people discarded. Even though they did not have much, Goh shared she was surrounded by really smart and passionate people. Furthermore, a lot of them like her left comfortable jobs, because they truly believed they were doing something for the greater good.

In the early days, multitasking was the norm, as they were a very lean team. They were all involved in company events, customer service, signing up drivers and in the quality-assurance testing of the app, regardless of function or rank.

Goh shared a captivating story about a blind man who showed up at their office after they released an update to the Grab app. The blind man wanted to meet the engineers, because VoiceOver, the iOS screen reader for the visually impaired, stopped working in the said app after the update.

“Without realizing it, our most recent update broke the VoiceOver function,” Goh related. The blind man thanked Grab immensely, since the app allowed him and other visually impaired persons to move around. Because of Grab’s service, he no longer felt “trapped” and had a job in a call center. Needless to say, that moment was their “fastest app fix ever”.

As vehicle ownership continues to grow and mass-transit systems are still being developed, solving traffic congestion in the Philippines will require a long-term commitment, one that Grab is bent to do in Manila. The Philippine capital has the dubious distinction of having the worst traffic on Earth, according to a global evaluation study by navigation app Waze. Traffic jams cost the Philippines an estimated P2.4 billion a day. This is the problem that Grab wants to help solve.

Goh narrated that to solve the congestion problem in the Metro, they recently launched GrabShare in February, which takes a stab at passenger pooling. If two passengers are going the same way, they can choose GrabShare to share a ride in the same car. The fare is about 30 percent less than a private-hire car ride, and they only match two passengers at the most together, to ensure that a rider at most only makes two other stops before getting to his or her destination. She revealed the initial take-up of the service in the last month has been very encouraging.

“It costs lower for passengers, while drivers also earn more when they pick up two passengers in the same ride. We believe it will take more cars off the roads,” Goh explained.

Working with government

Beyond helping the private sector, Grab also closely works with the Philippine government to solve traffic nationwide. Manila and Cebu City were the first areas where Grab piloted OpenTraffic in April 2016.

Also, Grab worked with the World Bank to provide OpenTraffic, an easy-to-use traffic data platform, for free to governments. The company contributes its aggregated, anonymous driver GPS data to the platform, derived from the 35 cities in Southeast Asia it operates in.

“We were honored to work with the Philippine government’s Department of Transportation [DoTr] and the Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board. In the words of the DoTr, using OpenTraffic is ‘like moving from manual calculators to Excel’,” Goh said.

Today Grab is working with government partners in Manila to run impact studies on a new expressway designed to give quicker access to the Ninoy Aquino International Airport. Last September authorities gave commuters toll-free access for a month to a section of the expressway. OpenTraffic research uses Grab data to measure the impact of this toll-free policy on traffic jams and travel times.

In Cebu the World Bank has been using OpenTraffic to adjust traffic signal-timings to ease congestion. It is also working to combine OpenTraffic data with traffic-accident reports in Manila, so emergency response units can be dispatched to accident scenes quicker.

Looking into the future, Grab wants to contribute to a robust transportation system here in the Philippines, where an ongoing major effort is understanding the improvements that Filipinos want and need from public transport and trying to address them.

Moving around can be challenging for commuters. Beyond congestion, shared safety is also a key issue. With Grab, passengers can share their rides in real-time with friends and family, with the “Share-My-Ride” feature.

Grab also focused on improving the reputation of drivers, who spend hours on the roads. They go through rigorous screening processes, which are ISO-certified (Grab is the only entity that has this certification in the ride-hailing industry), and they act quickly on feedback and poor driver ratings.

Regarding complaints, most Filipinos share that taxi drivers sometimes overcharge. This is the area that Grab won the hearts of riders, because the fares are transparent.

“Grab displays the exact fare up-front and it is fixed, because we know our customers want to know the exact fare they will be paying before they book a ride,” Goh explained.

Heartbeat of Grab

Grab also does not forget about the drivers, who, Goh says, are the heartbeat of the service: “Our drivers in the Philippines had an average of 40-percent increase in daily incomes after using the Grab app. We will keep finding ways to improve their livelihood. Grab offers driver-sustainability programs to help them increase their pay, and also reduce their operational costs. For example, there are partnerships to help them save on fuel and mobile plans, which are major components of their daily costs.”

Goh shared that succeeding in Asia as a start-up is not as simple as it seems. She shared that if one is not from the continent, it is easy to think that doing business in one country would apply to the others, as well. There are easily 30 languages and dialects spoken in the six countries Grab operates in. The challenge for her is to understand the consumers in each city, figure out their habits and preferences, and execute campaigns that will be relatable to them.

Grab’s Philippine team understands what locals want and develop campaigns that the company can personally relate to. Goh narrates a story in Baguio City, which is famous for its horseback riding at the Wright Park. What Grab did was to have a fun GrabHorse campaign to celebrate the Panagbenga Festival.

Or even deliver champorado during the rainy season, as there is nothing like a warm bowl of chocolate rice porridge moms make for their kids when the weather was cold. It as a little nostalgic reminder for Filipinos, and that is how Grab is winning the hearts of every “Juan”.

“The biggest challenge is striking the right balance between localizing, yet still maintaining consistency of the brand. My local teams sometimes push me back by suggesting we do something that contradicts brand values, yet is locally cool and hip. There needs to be some nonnegotiables. I remind them that a controversial video will attract many page views, but it is not what Grab would do as a brand. There are occasions when we need to know when to stand firm and when to give in,” Grab’s marketing VP said.

Making big leaps

Before getting into Grab, Goh has had many successful stints in business development. She stayed and fell in love with the Philippines while working in Makati for Friendster, then moving to Nissan Malaysia under Tan Chong Motors. The founder of Grab and the son of the owner of Tan Chong, Anthony, asked Goh to join him with his new start-up. She believed in Grab’s vision, enough to make that big leap.

“Grab was then a very small start-up with big dreams, and Anthony saw marketing as one of the key functions to drive massive growth. As you grow into leadership roles, I believe most specialized skills sets can be picked up. The differentiator is understanding the business, and converting its objectives and consumer insights into campaigns. It was a leap of faith for Anthony and I; and I have to say it worked out well,” Goh narrated.

She shared that the adjustments from all her previous roles and companies were quite easy. What helped her was her humility to ask for help and guidance, hiring people well, as well as reading a lot of business books, articles and blogs.

“Both business-development and marketing roles are also somewhat similar in approach. You first need to understand the wants of the partner or customer. Then you provide a compelling reason for them to want to work with you or use your service. You then need to follow up with a great experience. That, in turn, leads to referrals or positive word of mouth,” Goh said.

Beyond her key marketing role at Grab, Goh makes time for holidays, as she believes it is important for her mental well-being. Diving in Philippine waters is one of her great escapes from the hustle and bustle of work. She considers it very surreal, as it helps her unwind and reminds her how beautiful life is. The marketing executive also shared that one of the hobbies she has really invested time in is perfecting underwater photography.

“Observing all these different species in an entirely different world and capturing them as photos lets me relive my favorite holidays. One destination that comes to mind is Anilao in Batangas. It is one of my favorite dive sites for macrodiving. There is joy in finding small marine creatures and critters when you least expect it,” Goh enthused.

Now, that is one picture-perfect environment she discovered, devoid of any form of congestion, and where time spent is in open spaces, not in a gridlock on land.

Image credits: Jimbo Albano, Jun V. Lao

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