Despite a deluge of negative press over the past few years, Uber’s status as the dominant force in the ever-controversial ride-sharing industry looked difficult to shake. But shaken it has been: this year, Malaysia-founded, Singapore-based Grab displaces the US brand at the top of the regional category ranking in the Asia’s Top 1000 Brands list.
In the overall ranking incorporating all categories, Uber tanked from 18 to 66, while Grab climbed from 58 to 43. Other notable moves are that of China’s Didi Chuxing, which climbed from 595 to 300, and Indonesia’s Go-Jek, up to 481 from 555.
Grab’s success as a brand in Asia is down to a combination of equity built up over the years as a local challenger pitted against a Silicon Valley unicorn, and that unicorn’s eventual retreat from Southeast Asia last March. Having sold to Didi Chuxing in China in 2016, Uber eventually sold its business in eight Southeast Asian markets to Grab, retaining a stake of almost 30% in the Singapore company.
The deal has seen Grab, which is valued at around $11 billion, cement control in the region with the exception of Indonesia. There, it faces a serious challenge from Go-Jek, but in brand terms, at the moment at least, it seems to be winning. Indonesians this year ranked it the top ride-sharing brand above its home-grown rival, which came second. It is also number one in Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines.
Like most transport services, taxi-booking and ride-hailing services are easily commoditised. Stories and well-crafted branding do count for a lot. But the fact that Brazil’s Easy Taxi rose in the ranking despite not having been present in the region since 2016, and that Japan ranks Uber top despite it barely operating in the country, suggests many customers still give little thought as to which service they are using, if they use one at all.
Faced with this reality, Grab has emphasised the importance of building brand loyalty since rebranding from GrabTaxi in 2016. Its premise remains safe and reliable transportation for all—a positioning that lacks distinction and which it is finding hard to live up to.
Grab’s brand strength seems to owe more to its ubiquity across a large swathe of Asia-Pacific than attention to superior customer service. Its deal with Uber, which resulted in a $10 million fine by Singapore’s consumer watchdog, was criticised for stifling competition. Angry consumers claimed the company’s prices shot up in the absence of Uber’s rivalry, which Grab denied.
Concerns around safety remain too, tarnishing the image of the ride-sharing industry as a whole. Sexual harassment and dangerous driving remain risks that companies do not seem to be taking seriously enough, even though tackling these issues convincingly could give an obvious advantage in terms of brand perception.
The challenger mantle now falls on Go-Jek, which last May announced plans to expand into four new markets—Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines. The brand, which has been valued at around $10 billion, is another compelling story of innovation from a developing market that many will be rooting for. With its wide variety of services, people are also likely to welcome another dependable source of competition to the brand at the top.