How Lyft’s new slogan capitalizes on the ethical shortcomings of its biggest competitor and why leaders need to pay attention

Lyft’s new slogan “It matters how you get there” prompts a natural and provocative follow-up question, what matters how you get there? The answer, is the integrity of the individuals, companies, or organizations consumers choose to be involved with. “You always have a choice,” begins actor Jeff Bridges in the televised version of the ad, “choose to ride with the right people, doing things for the right reasons, you’ll always end up in the right place.”

The slogan is a thinly veiled yet tactful jab at Lyft’s larger and ethically dubious competitor, Uber. 2017 was the year Uber fell from grace as the vaunted $70 billion ridesharing pioneer to the poster child for everything-wrong-with-Silicon-Valley-companies. Allegations of sexism and harassment (see former employee Susan Fowler’s astounding blog post), intellectual property theft (see Google’s lawsuit against Uber), and evasion of the authorities (see the Department of Justice’s investigation into its use of “Greyball” software) all make the list of Uber’s missteps for the calendar year, culminating in co-founder and CEO Travis Kalanick’s forced ouster in June under pressure from board members. Lyft, all the while, watched and waited silently in the wings. Until now that is.   

(Travis Kalanick, photo Source: Scottamyx.com)

Themes of right and wrong, good versus evil are as captivating as they are ingrained in the human experience because they force us to contemplate our identity, and ask which side am I on? Which side is (insert company/public figure/organization) on? Which side should I choose? Lyft’s emphasis on choice and choosing “right” not only speaks to the human preoccupation with where we fall on the spectrum between good and evil, it also elevates Lyft as the ethical superior to Uber, spelling dollar signs for Lyft and more defensive maneuvering for Uber.

Behaving ethically is not good for business only in terms of image, which is easily shattered when actions incongruent with stated values become public knowledge. Ethical integrity is and will continue to be a critical part of business’ ability to attract and retain top talent and customers, which are essential to survival. “They no longer look at it as just a paycheck,” CEO of Pepsi Indra Nooyi said recently in an interview with Fortune, of the sea change she’s observed in the needs and desires of today’s workforce. “We have to weave purpose into the core business model of the company.” The purpose Indra Nooyi speaks of is fundamentally linked to the fulfillment that comes with compliance with ethical standards. Clearly stated ethical standards give people the opportunity to live as they know they should, and fulfill the expectations set before them creating a sense of competence that is essential to happiness and productivity. As for consumers, the ability afforded by social media to say and do something about one’s concerns means people will continue to call out businesses and their leaders for ethical breaches, both real and perceived.   

What are ethics anyway, and why should leaders, businesses, and organizations care about them? Ethics are standards of behavior that inform how a society, or any group of people with common interests, should behave. Ethics are concerned with the actions people take, and the rightness or wrongness of those actions. Morals, which are related to but conceptually distinct from ethics, inform why a person chooses one action over another or believes one action to be better than another; morals are a person’s internal belief system of what is good and bad. It is possible however, for a person to perform an action that is against his or her internal belief system; morals are not obvious in the way a person’s actions are. Ethics are public; morals are private.

Companies and leaders would be wise to take a page from Lyft’s playbook on the following:

  • Capitalize on opportunities to share what you and your business are doing right. People instinctively want to identify with being “good” and “right” and will choose the product, service, or company that’s actions align with this desired self-concept.
  • When it comes to the competition, play the long game. To paraphrase Sun Tzu, the ancient Chinese military strategist, prudence is essential to victory over one’s enemy. After five years of being compared as the plucky number two to Uber’s domineering number one spot in the ridesharing sector, Lyft knew how and when to capitalize on their competitor’s missteps, without interference or immature gloating on their part.

If there is one thing to learn from Lyft’s clever and disciplined response to its competitor’s self-inflicted wounds, it is that genuinely maintaining the ethical high ground provides opportunity for lasting and substantial competitive advantage.

Well played, Lyft.      

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