Driving Change in Cities Across the Country
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Holmes Report
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Driving Change in Cities Across the Country

How do you convince tens of thousands of drivers throughout the country to give up their own cars forever? In 2004, Zipcar, the company that rents cars by the hour, turned to RFBinder Partners for breakthrough programming and publicity to promote car sharing as more cost-effective, convenient and environmentally friendly.

Paul Holmes

How do you convince tens of thousands of drivers throughout the country to give up their own cars forever? In 2004, Zipcar, the company that rents cars by the hour, turned to RFBinder Partners for breakthrough programming and publicity to promote car sharing as a more cost-effective, convenient and environmentally friendly alternative to car ownership.

In less than six months, Zipcar was featured in Newsweek, USA Today, ABC News, CNN, Wall Street Journal and literally hundreds of other prominent media outlets. Top brands sought partnerships with the company to help promote the car-sharing concept. Most importantly, Zipcar achieved record customer growth, with more than 1,500 drivers now joining as members every single month, translating into a 100 percent growth in revenues in 2004.

Zipcar had earned plaudits from urban drivers, city leaders and local media when its cars hit the road in 2000. But since then Zipcar’s customer growth and media coverage had stalled. Its chief competitor, Flexcar, achieved significant attention and the pole position as the burgeoning industry’s leader.

Hoping to earn back the spotlight by 2005 – the year Zipcar targeted for aggressive expansion into new markets – Zipcar came to RF|Binder Partners for an extremely aggressive and creative media outreach and community relations plan that would achieve three main goals: renew interest in Zipcar as a company and car-sharing as a service; re-establish Zipcar as the premier car-sharing offering; and position Zipcar as the car-sharing company most likely to expand successfully and win the race to be the country’s first truly national car-sharing service.

In developing a program to shine the spotlight on Zipcar, RF|Binder faced several formidable challenges, including:

The success of the campaign would be judged primarily on whether or not Zipcar realized a significant increase in customer trial and adoption. To motivate the urban drivers that were already aware of Zipcar but not inclined to use it, RF|Binder needed to develop programming and media relations strategies that could generate awareness and visibility almost immediately.

Zipcar and car sharing were both introduced in the U.S. more than four years ago. Drivers’ original excitement and curiosity of the brand and the service had long since passed. RF|Binder had to develop strategies that would reinvigorate interest. As a regional company serving East Coast cities, Zipcar faced ongoing challenges in enticing media to profile it in stories with a national distribution.

RF|Binder Partners placed a strong emphasis on research in order to best address and understand trends in the car sharing and car rental industries. RF|Binder performed a comprehensive media audit to investigate both Zipcar and its competitors’ positioning tactics during previous marketing projects, and initiated daily media monitoring to ascertain an ongoing overview and analysis of Zipcar’s competition. These research programs presented us with a better understanding of how the media, industry analysts and urban drivers perceive Zipcar, and also shaped our plans for correcting misperceptions and devising fresh stories to pitch to the media.

As Zipcar’s public relations counsel, RF|Binder stayed current on all minute internal programming and partnership efforts—from university affiliations to real estate management partnerships—to ensure every unique development with Zipcar Corporate was voiced to the appropriate media outlet. Our daily internal updates made our regular publicity brainstorming sessions targeted and informed. And, as part of our effort to truly research and understand our client, RF|Binder became Zipcar members ourselves and learned firsthand the convenience and luxury of enjoying “wheels when you want them.”

RF|Binder’s initial communications audit indicated that even three years after the introduction of car-sharing in the U.S., Zipcar and its competitors were all still attempting to position the concept as novel and unique. Media, industry analysts and even urban drivers in general no longer viewed car sharing as new and exciting, and any attempts to position it as such would fail.

The firm’s review of recent car-sharing stories also showed that Flexcar was positioned as the country’s car-sharing leader, but only because they themselves claimed to be so; there seemed to be no evidence offered to substantiate the claim.

Given this, RF|Binder centered its campaign for Zipcar around the following strategies: promote only new, surprising and unexpected ways car sharing is beginning to be utilized (i.e. universities making it available to students to improve campus life, property managers offering Zipcars as an amenity to entice tenants, etc.), create exciting programs to re-energize urban residents’ awareness of and interest in car-sharing, promote new Zipcar in-car technologies to improve the car-sharing experience and differentiate Zipcar from Flexcar and other competitors; leverage company financials and metrics to repudiate others claims of superiority and establish Zipcar as the most successful car-sharing company.

RF|Binder’s campaign for Zipcar featured several components to promote Zipcar’s growth and the benefits of car-sharing, including: Zipcar’s previous media relations efforts focused on smaller publications serving their existing local markets. RF|Binder implemented intensive outreach to re-introduce the company to broader national media and generate more significant coverage. (In fact, the account team set and reached a goal of at least ten national media calls every single day for six months.)

Given national media’s hesitancy to cover regional companies, story ideas were never pitched, only informal, informational interviews with Zipcar leaders. It was hoped that once reporters learned more about how Zipcar was taking car sharing to a new level, their interest would be piqued and that barrier eliminated. RF|Binder convinced Zipcar to take a step unprecedented in the car-sharing industry.

The private company issued a press release announcing 2004 company earnings and expected revenue growth for 2005. As the first to ever provide media with these numbers, Zipcar validated its assertions of success, disproved claims from industry analysts that car sharing could never be implemented profitably and created an irresistible news hook for reporters to write and/or learn more about Zipcar and car-sharing. RF|Binder also convinced Zipcar to more proactively debunk Flexcar’s claims of superiority.

A series of fact sheets was created and forwarded to key media. These included clear statistics that unequivocally showed that Zipcar had pulled ahead as the biggest and most successful car-sharing company in the country. RF|Binder is agency of record for Krispy Kreme in New England. Leveraging that relationship, RF|Binder brought Zipcar and Krispy Kreme together to create unusual and unique promotional events. For example, at the opening of the very first Krispy Kreme store in Washington, DC, RF|Binder arranged to fill a Zipcar MINI Cooper with doughnuts and place it in front of the store.

The public was invited to guess how many doughnuts could fit into a MINI Cooper, with the winner taking home a year’s supply of doughnuts and a free Zipcar membership. In Boston, RF|Binder arranged for Krispy Kreme to announce a promise to use Zipcars as an environmentally friendly component of its new downtown doughnut delivery service. Both programs received significant print and broadcast coverage. RF|Binder helped Zipcar become the only car-sharing company to provide proactive stories and programs around seasonal events. Examples included providing reporters with statistics demonstrating the increase in car-sharing usage for holiday shopping and discounts for Boston and New York drivers during the Democratic and Republican National Conventions.

In 2004, Zipcar built the largest active membership base of any U.S. car-sharing service, with more than 30,000 drivers using its vehicles. Since July, Zipcar has operated profitably in all of its markets. Zipcar’s operating revenues grew by 100 percent in 2004 to approximately $7 million. Projected revenues for 2005 are expected to more than double, exceeding $15 million. The company has announced firm plans to expand to three additional markets in 2005 and 25 markets within the next five years.

Media coverage in 2004 generated hundreds of millions of impressions in both broadcast and print. Highlights include feature stories and photos in Newsweek, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Dow Jones News Service, CNN, Boston Globe, USA Today, ABC News, Associated Press, Forbes, Business 2.0, Washington Post, Washington Times, Newsday, New York Daily News, FOX News, Chicago Tribune, Philadelphia Inquirer, Sacramento Bee, San Francisco Chronicle and hundreds of newspapers and online news sources throughout the country.

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