How Cruise is marketing robotaxis as it expands beyond Silicon Valley

When it comes to self-driving cars, there are still plenty of concerns ranging from safety and technology to price and availability. But one robotaxi company wants potential riders to imagine what switching to self-driving cars might look like as it readies to drive around more cities’ streets.

As it gets ready to expand to Austin and Phoenix later this year, Cruise — the robotaxi and delivery division of GM — is rolling out new marketing to show people why they might hop in an autonomous vehicle rather than use existing options from human drivers.

Catering to women is, in part, guiding this strategy, said Amy Kepler, Cruise’s senior director of marketing. She noted the brand’s research found women were less likely than men to ride in an autonomous car, but data also suggested some feel safer in one than they do when riding with a stranger behind the wheel.

“This campaign was really an opportunity to highlight those unique moments and unique experiences for women and others who have historically been sort of underserved by existing transportation options,” Kepler said.

In a new campaign, “Cruise As You Are” — which was developed by Cruise’s in-house marketing team — the company created several videos. In one, a woman walks down the street as a driverless car rolls up. In another, a different woman walks alone at night before hopping in the back seat and falling asleep. A third shows a mom and daughter holding hands without touching the steering wheel.

It’s only been a decade since ride-sharing with strangers other than taxis began to get traction. (Uber’s mobile app launched publicly in 2011 and Lyft was founded in 2012.) However, getting people to ride with robots has a whole different set of challenges.

“We don’t move fast and break things,” said Kristine Boyden, Cruise’s chief communications officer. “I really believe in the trust race. And that is actually more important in some ways in the tech race, which will happen over time.”

Co-founded in 2013 by Dan Kan and Twitch co-founder Kyle Vogt, Cruise also is paying creators to advertise this campaign across TikTok and Instagram. The new campaign isn’t Cruise’s first marketing effort. Last summer, it made a short video about a personified car, named Poppy, which Cruise said safely delivered meal deliveries around San Francisco during the pandemic. (The YouTube caption for the video also invites people to follow the car on various social platforms.) The startup also has partnered with popular San Francisco institutions — including the SF MoMA and the San Francisco Giants — and is now wrapping some of its cars with colorful illustrations designed by the Spain-based Estudio Santa Rita.

Cruise isn’t the first autonomous car company to run early consumer campaigns. Back in 2017, Waymo — a self-driving car project owned by Google — addressed safety concerns beyond the cars themselves. That same year, Intel ran a self-driving car campaign starring LeBron James.

So far, the autonomous car category has been a low spender on the ad front. Cruise wouldn’t disclose specifics about its media budget, but according to Kantar, it spent nothing on advertising in 2021 and just $161 from January through June of 2022. However, Waymo, — which spent $353,000 last year — spent $129,000 during the first six months of 2022 compared with $90,000 during the same period in 2021. Tesla — famous for not doing a lot of paid advertising, spent just $14,500 in 2021 and just $820 during the first half of 2022.

Self-driving car companies have faced safety issues, including Cruise. Last month, the company recalled its fleet to update the software after a crash this summer injured a passenger. And a technical issue this summer caused a half dozen Cruise robotaxis in a San Francisco to block traffic for hours until they were manually removed.

Headlines aside, some doubt whether it’s time yet for consumer-level marketing. Mike Ramsey, vice president analyst for the CIO Research Group at Gartner, said robotaxi companies should focus on safety and other issues before they scale.

“There likely isn’t a great market for robocabs at the moment because the cost of operations is so high that it can’t possibly be more efficient than a normal cab or Uber,” Ramsey said. “Over time, there are potential benefits, but not until the technology has come down in cost significantly and the operations are more reliable.”

Others question whether the industry is focused on solving the right societal problems, developing the right business case or even serving the right market. Alain Kornhauser, an engineering professor and director of the transportation program at Princeton University, thinks companies should be more focused on helping people without mobility — such as poorer populations.

“I would like to understand how they think they can get customers,” Kornhauser said. “Because what it seems like me, sitting here in the Princeton bubble, is that while both Waymo and Cruise are out there providing rides without a driver, there doesn’t seem to be an overwhelming demand and people scurrying to use them.”

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