Lyft’s new premium play isn’t about the Benjamins. It’s about the brand

By Carmel DeAmicis , written on May 8, 2014

From The News Desk

Today has produced a news extravaganza in the ridesharing sector. First there was the planned Uber driver protest at the company’s headquarters, which was quickly deflated by Uber employees’ peace offering of bagels and coffee. Then, Lyft launched its new premium service in beta, confirming earlier reports that the company would be rolling out “Lyft Plus” for passengers who want to pay double the cost for a more luxurious ride.

The Lyft news garnered no less than 20 headlines in outlets ranging from Fast Company to Forbes. If ever the world cared about ridesharing startups, that time is now.

In case you missed all 20 stories, the gist is that Lyft teamed up with West Coast Customs — the company behind the TV show Pimp My Ride and Nest’s new blue firetruck – to give Lyft a bit more class. West Coast developed a white Ford Explorer exclusively for the Lyft Plus experience, complete with quilted leather seats and white under-car LED lights. A tiny silver mustache sits on the grill of each Explorer, the only thing marking it as a Lyft vehicle. Said mustache is as discrete as the original pink fuzzy one is ostentatious. Finally, Lyft drivers invited to drive for Lyft Plus are purchasing these cars themselves, at a discounted rate negotiated by the company, so no, the company isn't rolling out its own fleet.

That new little mustache also holds the deeper secret to Lyft’s move into the premium market. As people have said, this is a chance for Lyft to make money on an audience they’re not yet tapping into. And, yes, some customers probably asked for this. Finally, yes, it’s Lyft’s chance to try rivaling Uber in yet another market segment.

But really, this move isn’t about the Benjamins. It’s all about the brand.

Until now, Lyft has been about personality, community, and weirdness. Its giant pink mustaches were the yang to Uber’s yin, and it sought dominance by carving out a niche of the market rejected by Uber's “baller” brand. It's the market of people who didn’t want baller, but wanted approachability and authenticity.

But now that Lyft is much more well known, and has raised its own boatload of cash, attracted the attention of cultural icons like Conan, launched 24 more cities in 24 hours, and generally become more mainstream. At this stage, the quirky, weird, pink Lyft brand may be more of a hindrance than a help. As Sarah Lacy has told me repeatedly, she would ride with Lyft over Uber, except she hates everything that makes Lyft different: The fist bumps, the fuzzy mustaches, and sitting in the front seats.

Lyft is moving past its period of fighting to build “awareness,” and squarely into a phase where scaling is its number one priority. With the focus shifted, Lyft needs to move more to a more moderate brand image and to build a product that would appeal to grandmothers and flashy corporate executives just as much as college students.

Even with the new premium Lyft Plus service, the company won't be shucking entirely the quirkiness for which it’s known. The pink mustaches will continue to dominate the original service. But in Lyft Plus we may be seeing the beginning of Lyft’s image maturation.

Perhaps one day the demure, little platinum mustaches will migrate moved to the original service as well, making those who aren’t fans of the pink and fuzzy feel a little more comfortable showing up in a Lyft. Testing it out on the upscale audience is a wise first step.