Upgrading a whole category – Addison Lee

Many brands today are locked in a dogfight for market share. But then you come across a brand which is adding much more value. A brand which is upgrading a whole category. Addison Lee is such a brand. It has single handedly upgraded the minicab market in London (for non-UK folk, minicabs are taxis, but normal cars, not the famous black London taxis). The company now has 2,400 premium minicabs operating 24/7/365.And in 2010 the company increased sales by 25% during a recession.

Screen shot 2011-05-10 at 18.56.33
The company was started by John Griffen in 1975. This guy left school at 16 with no qualifications. He suffered a serious illness just before his O'Levels (exams you took at 16), couldn't take them, and never went back to school.

I find the Addison Lee story fascinating and full of lessons.

1. Want a business idea? Look in front of you

John's story is a good example of how business ideas don't have to come from some amazing, brainstorming-fed breakthrough. Lots of ideas come from simply looking at your own life, and how to make it better. John took a job as a minicab driver to earn money for his family and quickly saw that the service was s**t. He met a guy with a struggling minicab business, and bought it off him.

2. Improving the basics can work wonders

Addison Lee is a great example of doing the basics better, rather than trying to be a revolution. I love the way John describes this.

Recently one of my competitors asked me, "What is the secret of your success?"

My answer was, "You." Because he's useless, and that's the honest truth. Everywhere you travel, minicabs are rubbish. You get glum, unkempt untidy drivers in banged up old vehicles.

Screen shot 2011-05-10 at 18.54.39 3. Superior service sausage

Addison Lee shows how a service brand can deliver a superior "sausage" = real, relevant functional benefits. Importantly, the sausage is in the form of a scaleable business model that uses technology, and is not reliant on people alone. And its about multiple points of distinctiveness, not one big killer benefit. Here are a few:

– 10 minutes average response time in central London: good old "physical availability" we've been posting on. By having a large fleet, you know you can get a car, so they stay top of mind

– A text message tells you when your car is on its way

– A further text message to tell you when your car is waiting outside (great for early morning pick-ups that don't wake up the rest of the family with a ring on the doorbell)

– Nice, new cars: none kept longer than 3 years

– iPhone app for ordering a car

– All drivers trained in customer service, and dressed smartly

4. Distinctiveness to build memory structure

Another really clever thing about Addison Lee is the way they use their cars as a brand asset to create "memory structure". Each car is a similar model, same shape, same black colour and with the same branding on the back. The cars are highly distinctive, and stick in the memory. The also look professional and smart.

A Lee 5. Mental availability when it matters

I've saved the best point till last. It is a bit of true marketing genius. Addison use this to create "mental availability" when it matters. In other words, to be recalled and relevant when people make a buying decision, in this case ordering a mini cab.

Next time you're in London near a pub or bar, look outside at those things on the wall where people stick their used cigarettes. These are more and more used now, as you can't smoke inside, so lots of people hang around outside smoking, often having a last cigarette before ordering a cab.

Well, chances are, the cigarette dump will be branded Addison Lee. What better place to advertise a minicab brand and the number to call to order one?!

In conclusion, business ideas are all around us if we look up. And some of the best ideas come from upgrading a category by delivering better on the basics with a distinctive brand, using clever marketing to be recalled and relevant when people buy.