The PR brilliance behind Rapido’s Captain

Notice anything unusual about these three clusters of news headlines?

While the headlines call the drivers from ride-hailing platforms like Uber, Ola, and Rapido as ‘drivers’, for Rapido alone, there is an adequate number of headlines (and news reports) that use the word ‘Captain’!

Why should the media use the word ‘Captain’ for Rapido, while they use ‘driver’ for Uber and Ola?

One basic logic could be the kind of vehicles involved – Uber and Ola primarily operate cars though they have added autorickshaws and bikes to the mix recently. The person who drives the car (or auto) is always called a ‘driver‘ – this is just a standard term.

Would a ‘driver’ be suitable for someone who drives a bike (taxi)? You drive a car and you ride a bike. So, shouldn’t a Rapido driver be called a Rider, perhaps?

But the media does, often, use ‘Driver’ for Rapido too.

The odd one out is the word ‘Captain’ used only for Rapido – that too, quite often!

When and why did the media start using ‘Captain’ to denote a Rapido bike taxi driver?

I reckon the answer to that lies in a clever communications move by Rapido back in 2017.

In January 2017, Rapido announced, through a blog post (which is not available online anymore, but there’s an archived version), that they are renaming their Rider Partners as Captains!

The company also explained the reason behind this change: that the average Rapido rider partner/driver is not necessarily a full-time employee but is someone who plugs into the Rapido system from time to time to make some extra money in their free time (though it’s not as simple as installing the app and becoming a Captain. They still have to undergo an induction training program of 30 hours before being onboarded with the Rapido Platform).

And because they are not employed by the company as ‘drivers’, Rapido wanted to change the perception of these people – not to be thought of ‘drivers’, but with a different word that shifts the perception away from what people think of when think of a driver. So, Captain!

It’s pertinent to add that the Middle Eastern ride-hailing app Careem has called its car drivers ‘Captains’ since inception! And it is even more interesting that a Pakistani Court barred Careem (in Pakistan) from using that term to refer to its drivers after an airline pilot alleged that it had caused him humiliation and disgrace!!

It was an odd word to associate with a bike taxi driver, to be sure. But, beyond the blog post, and some ensuing media push around the name change, Rapido made another crucial change that truly normalized the word.

They changed the driver-side app – from Rapido Rider to Rapido Captain!

When you search for Rapido in the app stores, you will see both the user-side app (that you install to hail a ride) and the driver-side app (that you install to drive/ride for Rapido). You may also notice driver-side apps for Uber and Ola, simply called Uber Driver and Ola Driver.

And, the ‘Captain’ is mentioned everywhere in the user-side app too. Your interaction with the Rapido rider partner/driver is always with a ‘Captain’ inside the app.

What is particularly interesting here, from a corporate communications point of view, is that Rapido utilized a mild conundrum—a bike rider being called a driver along the lines of car-based ride-hailing services; and using the word ‘rider’ evoking confusion between the rider/driver and the passenger/rider—to its advantage and renamed the driver partner with a completely unrelated word that was only associated with a ship or plane or the army!

What’s even more interesting is how useful that PR move has been, for the company (which is relentlessly mired in a lot of issues from a regulatory point of view).

Most users of Rapido use Captain as if that’s the default word to denote a driver/rider partner. That media has also co-opted to use ‘Captain’, a word only associated with one brand, Rapido, says so much about the success of this otherwise seemingly minor PR move.

Why is this significant for the brand? Allow me to give an example to set the context.

Think of the many words and phrases used in the airline industry to denote the people who serve the guests inside the plane: air hostess, cabin crew, steward, attendant, etc. Now, imagine an airline brand deciding to call its hosts as ‘Atithipati’ (to use the Sanskrit word, with the reason that they want to start going ‘back to the roots’, like how Rapido used the reason of wanting to shift the perception of a ‘driver’).

It then uses the word in ads that call for people to join the airline as atithipatis (and not hosts or air hostesses). It makes announcements inside the plane that atithipatis would take care of you and should you require anything, you may press the button above your seat to talk to an atithipati. The word is mentioned above the name in the badge worn by each employee. This is an imaginary scenario, but you get the drift, I guess.

Over time, people (flyers) would start using atithipati too, and would immediately associate this particular airline brand when they hear this word since no other airline is using it anyway.

Gradually, the media would follow suit (because all its interactions with the brand and the brand’s spokespersons use only this word) and start using this word too in news reports. They may perhaps add in bracket what atithipati is meant to denote in the early days but may drop that eventually.

Bottomline: over a period of time, people would be tuned to think of a particular airline when they hear or see ‘atithipati’. But when they hear or see ‘air hostess’ or ‘crew’, they could be thinking of any of the hundreds of airline brands!

That’s the impact of Rapido Captain – or, that’s what Rapido has pulled off, here. You hear ‘Captain’ now, it could be a plane/army/ship captain, or you may think of Rapido.

This kind of impact of name change may not work in a sector where people do not refer to the specific kind of employee/partner often. For instance, if a company decides to rename ‘interns’ and calls them (just making up a bizarre word for the heck of it) ‘learnployees’. But even if they use that word in employment ads, asking people to apply for the role of a ‘learnployee’, there is no end-user level usage of that word. It’s just the brand saying it in many ways. In the case of Rapido, no doubt that it was the company that seeded this new word first, but this is a word that people (users) notice visibly too, and are co-opted to use over time.

The point is that this name should be a high touchpoint word for users/customers. For example, Third Wave Coffee outlets deciding to call their baristas as ‘wakeuppers’ (again, just making it up to make a point) wouldn’t really matter to the users since they have no specific reason or context to even use ‘baristas’ that often in normal conversation.

There is a downside to this unique move by Rapido too, though. Just as the use of ‘Rapido Captain’ gets your attention for being unique in news headlines, when things go wrong, that phrase calls for attention too!

Here’s the good, bad, and the ugly of Rapido Captains.

If the same headlines had used the generic ‘driver’ instead of ‘Captain’, there is at least a possibility that people may associate the general category of cab drivers as errant. But because Captain is such a Rapido-specific term now, readers may isolate the brand with regard to the errant behavior. But, as I said, this works in all directions – good and bad.

Now, just imagine if, tomorrow, Uber decides to call its drivers… Pilots! 🙂