The good, the bad, the ugly

When roads in Chennai were flooded earlier this week, Ola ferrying people stranded to safety (for free) did it credit


A car is submerged amidst water-logged houses in a rain-hit area of Chennai on 17 November. Photo: AFP
A car is submerged amidst water-logged houses in a rain-hit area of Chennai on 17 November. Photo: AFP

Mumbai: Dignity in the face of disaster is not something all companies are known for. Some do it with aplomb, some totally lose it.

Road transport in Chennai came to a halt early this week after the city’s heaviest rains in a decade led to large-scale flooding. With many residents stranded and cars and two-wheelers no longer a transport option, India’s largest taxi aggregator Ola waded into the picture, this time with boats.

According to a PTI report, ANI technologies Pvt. Ltd, which operates Ola, on Tuesday deployed boats to help with rescue operations. Handled by two rowers, each Ola-branded boat can ferry five to nine people and comes with food, drinking water, and sufficient umbrellas for its travellers. And yes, the service is free.

“While we are addressing the increased demand for transportation in city, we are working closely with local stakeholders to help ferry those stranded in water-logged areas”, said Ravi Teja, business head of Ola in Tamil Nadu in a statement.

The ferry service will be available for the next three days and will be extended if water-logging continues. One doesn’t know if Ola’s boats are a case of altruism or damage control from non-availability of cabs, but two things are for sure: It has helped with the rescue operations, and helped the brand image as well.

As a marketing tactic, it was clearly smart. The Ola initiative was all over newspapers, television and social media, and the company managed it likely cheaper than spending on a TV or radio ad.

However, not all companies have been as smart in similar situations.

According to a July 2014 report in The Wall Street Journal, Uber, the world’s largest cab aggregator, faced criticism for surge pricing during Hurricane Sandy that hit the US in 2012. Now Uber follows New York’s price gouging statute, which caps prices during emergencies.

During a hostage crisis in Australia in 2014, the company tweeted, “We are all concerned with events in CBD. Fares have increased to encourage more drivers to come online & pick up passengers in the area,” through its official handle @Uber_Sydney.

After the terror attacks in Paris, the Telegraph reported on 15 November that as public transport shut down in the city, taxi drivers offered free rides to those desperate to get home—an act of responsibility and selflessness that their Indian peers haven’t always emulated.

In April, when Nepal was struck by an earthquake that nearly killed 2,000 people, eyewear e-tailer Lenskart (Valyoo Technologies Pvt. Ltd) sent its users a promotional message that read “Shake it off like this earthquake”. Fashion brand American Swan came up with a promo: “Whooaaa! This is an earth-shattering offer”. Both companies had to apologize after a massive social media uproar.

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