South Africa’s minibus taxi industry moves around 15m commuters each day, representing an enormous opportunity for marketers – but few are taking advantage. This is because they lack a fundamental understanding of the taxi environment and its users.

The most basic misconception is that everyone using a taxi is doing so because they have no alternative. Wrong. Often, the taxi commute is a choice based on a number of factors, from the accessibility of taxis compared to other modes of public transport, to simply disliking driving in traffic – or even, as in my case, because it provides a moment of escape. As a young strategist, the taxi is my insights hub and a place where I can catch a quick nap or try to squeeze in the last chapter of the book I’m currently reading.

The big take-out: Brands that alleviate the tedium for taxi commuters have an opportunity to make a meaningful and lasting impact.

Taxi commuters are usually a diverse bunch. But, despite our differences, we’re joined by the familiarity of the space that the taxi experience offers, and we quickly become a little unit. We’re united by the small things, like the quick smile we share when we’re packed together in the “four four masihlalisane” set-up. We’re in tune with each other’s routines; for example, we know who leaves home at around the same time every day, and we notice when one of our fellow passengers is on leave. We also stick together when the taxi driver is being unreasonable (something which happens often).

We’ve also learnt how to read (and accommodate) each other’s tolerance levels – an absolute must, if you think about how quickly you can become claustrophobic when you’re sharing the same air as 14 other people during a 45-minute drive (most commuters seem allergic to fresh air). Yes, taxis aren’t always a comfortable space – and if the driver is grumpy it can affect your day negatively. But the commute itself isn’t entirely miserable; far from it. For starters, you get to engage in great conversations with some interesting people. For me, the taxi ride is an opportunity to get closer to consumers and to learn what they really want from brands.

This is something that marketers could – and should – be doing, too. The thing is, intended or not, brands are already in commuters’ space, whether it’s because of a billboard ad passengers see during the commute or an informal stall in the taxi rank.

By recognising that interaction between brands and commuters happens all the time, marketers can start taking control of that interaction. It starts with formalising existing brand trade and maintaining consistency.  There are many other ways brands could use taxis as a highly effective channel. Sticker brand messaging (either inside or on the taxi’s exterior) would help to drive conversation, for example; as would branded pillars inside taxi ranks. What about increasing brand billboard signage around the taxi rank, or hosting branded pop-up stores in the area?

The thing to remember while doing this is that you’re speaking to consumers who are not in the comfortable space marketers usually find them. This actually works to marketers’ advantage, because it provides some unique opportunities. If you alleviate the tedium and physical discomfort of being stuck in a queue or squashed in a taxi, you’ll strike a chord and be remembered for a long time to come. For example, a sample from a coffee brand would brighten my day while I’m waiting in line; a representative from a bank giving financial advice would leave me feeling empowered (and would be appreciated for saving me the time and effort of having to travel to a branch).

Most South Africans are feeling under pressure, due to the economic and political turbulence we’re facing. This tension is even more prevalent in the commuter space; and brands that successfully alleviate this tension – even if only temporarily – have an opportunity to penetrate the market in a lasting and effective way.

* Phumo is a strategist at M&C Saatchi Abel.

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