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Brand Deep DivesJuly 7, 2022

The Story of Bird: The E-Mobility Brand That Flew Too Close to the Sun

July 7, 2022
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Ashley Lightfoot
Content Marketing Manager

For many who live in cities, the rise of micromobility has been hard to ignore. Tangled masses of electric scooters — sometimes toppled like a row of dominos — have become part of many cities’ daily sights. They’ve also become a core part of how many urbanites get around — providing a quick, affordable, and eco-friendly alternative to cars or public transport.

Just as automobiles were controversial when they first started jostling for space amongst the pedestrians and horses of early 20th-century city streets, so micromobility is also highly divisive. While they’re derided by some who see them as a nuisance and an eyesore, they’re supported by those who enjoy their convenience and ease of use, as well as advocates of infrastructure solutions that move away from our current over-reliance on cars. But, whether you support them or oppose them, it cannot be denied that they sit at the center of a revolution in urban mobility.

The host of new brands providing consumers with a range of alternative transport options could well be the new Ford or Volkswagen of the next century. Indeed, this is exactly how Florida-based micromobility brand Bird sees itself — but the success of this revolution could depend on whether these brands can grow in a sustainable, responsible way and win over their harshest critics.

In this brand deep dive, we’re going to take a closer look at Bird — a leading micromobility brand with e-scooters and bikes available in over 350 communities across the globe — to understand how they’ve grown to become one of the biggest brands in the industry, what brand management challenges they face in taking their vehicles mainstream, and what you can learn from their journey.

Flying the Nest

Micromobility is an industry that’s still in its infancy. Just 10 years ago, the category was focused mainly on dockless bicycles, but the growing affordability of GPS trackers and batteries, alongside the proliferation of smartphones that can easily facilitate the process of finding, unlocking, and paying for a ride has made it possible — and profitable — to provide electrically powered vehicles.

2017 saw the founding of Bird — alongside well-known rival Lime — which rushed to fill this new opening in the market. Bird’s founder Travis VanderZanden already had experience disrupting the transport category, following his time as COO of Lyft and VP of international growth at Uber.

The first city that found itself with a flock of Bird scooters was Santa Monica, California — where the company began operating unannounced and without first seeking permission from city officials. Since there were no laws that explicitly regulated the distribution, parking, and use of these new vehicles, Bird was free to expand its services in the city at its own pace.

E-scooters were soon scattered haphazardly across Santa Monica and Venice Beach in what is now a familiar scene. VanderZanden finally sent a message to the city’s mayor over LinkedIn, notifying him of the company’s intentions and promising that more scooters were on their way:

"We have $3M in venture funding to focus on the traffic and parking problems in Santa Monica and Venice…I'd love to work together."

Given their unannounced arrival, the mayor’s response was understandably a little colder. "If your company is the one deploying electric scooters in the public right of way," he replied, "my understanding is there are serious legal issues with doing so."

Bird’s arrival in San Diego was nothing short of chaos, but it created the perfect storm to build a brand around a product that now felt radical and revolutionary. In May of 2018, the company achieved unicorn status less than a year after its founding, becoming the fastest ever company to do so.

Still a mere hatchling, Bird’s first 14 months saw e-scooters deployed in more than 120 cities across the globe — from Los Angeles to Paris, Tel Aviv, and Mexico City. Everywhere the brand went, it chose the same tactic to expand:

“Identify cities without laws proscribing e-scooters, launch a fleet of them, watch as people start scooting all over town, and then wait as city officials scramble to respond to the newfangled transport option.”

But just as important as expansion was making sure that the scooters themselves were efficient and profitable. The company’s first scooters were bought from the Chinese e-commerce site Alibaba and designed by consumer electronics company Xiaomi.

But deploying, charging, and replacing the scooters could be a costly task. Even if a scooter wasn’t purposefully vandalized, its lifespan could be limited to less than a year.

On top of this, a team of freelance Bird “chargers” are depended upon to round up scattered e-scooters from the day’s many trips, recharge them all, and redistribute them in “nests” — where the next morning’s commuters can easily find them. All of this eats into a micromobility brand’s profit, but designing a scooter around the demands of their service could help cut costs.

The brand’s first own-designed scooter — the much more durable, Bird Zero — was created to solve this issue. In 2019, they optimized further, with the Bird One, which could survive for around two years — long enough to pay for itself. According to VanderZanden, every ride “taken on a Bird Zero or a Bird One makes money.”

Ruffling Feathers

Being a revolutionary brand that upends the status quo inevitably means there will be conflicts along the way. This is definitely true for Bird.

In just over a year, the company had been handed nearly “half a million dollars in fines and court fees”, had hundreds of its scooters seized by city officials, received a slew of cease-and-desist letters from various government departments, and had become entangled in “at least three lawsuits”.

The rebellious, gung-ho attitude was not just constrained to the brand’s expansion strategy — internally Bird did things a little differently, too, and while this often resulted in a positive experience for its employees, some well-documented reports paint a less positive picture of its management. Ex-employees have told of “erratic decision-making, careless leadership, and puzzling, ever-changing metrics of success” that created a culture of doubt over the brand’s business model and the “dream they’d sold investors.”

Complaints about workplace practices and culture were not always taken gracefully, with Bird’s COO reacting angrily during a feedback session when the issue of low pay was raised by frustrated staff. In a widely known episode, the same COO “got so drunk” at a summit in Amsterdam that he “decided it would be amusing to fire employees at random over Slack”.

Indeed, the company had a poor reputation when it came to hiring and firing, to say the least. Employee turnover was high and many felt that they were laid off “in ways that felt careless and dehumanizing”. It’s somewhat ironic that a brand that put so much energy into increasing the longevity of its scooters couldn’t do the same with its personnel.

This all culminated in a mass firing over zoom as the COVID-19 pandemic clipped the company’s wings and stifled its growth.

Is Bird a Dodo or a Phoenix?

The easing of pandemic-related restrictions brought life back to many cities across the world and the micromobility sector is expected to make a strong recovery. Changes in behavior during the pandemic and newly gained attitudes to hygiene mean that many consumers are trying electric scooters for the first time, often as an alternative to busy trains or buses that now present an increased risk of infection.

On top of this, cities across the world are expected to do more to limit private car travel and promote more ecologically sustainable options — and micromobility has certainly already earned its place as part of a viable solution to urban transport.

Despite this, Bird’s post-pandemic story has not been free of turbulence. The company went public in November 2021 through a SPAC merger but, since then, its stock value has suffered a “fairly consistent downward trajectory”. With an initial implied value of $2.3 billion, the company’s shares have “since fallen more than 90%, leaving the company worth about $200 million.”

In an effort to pull out of this freefall and gain some altitude once again, Bird cut even more of its workforce in June 2022, with around “a quarter of its staff” losing their jobs. This move comes as part of a renewed strategy that focuses on profitability. And while the brand currently looks more like the doomed Dodo than a Phoenix, with gas prices rising there may still be a chance for Bird to soar once again.

But what can you learn from its story?

3 Lessons You Can Learn From Bird

1. Be Part Of Something Bigger

A major role of your brand is to create emotional connections between your product and your consumers, and this is often done by associating said product with something much bigger. An outdoor clothing brand can embody the wonder of exploring the countryside, a makeup brand can represent empowerment and confidence, and somehow an energy drink brand such as Red Bull can even become synonymous with extreme sports.

So, it’s no surprise that many micromobility brands are eager to align themselves with movements relating to fighting climate change and carbon emissions. Bird is no exception.

Indeed, right from its inception, Bird has sought to use the weight of its eco-friendly cause to excuse its aggressive strategy of expansion. Offloading e-scooters on unsuspecting cities and then allowing chaos to ensue while city officials scramble to work out how such activities should be regulated, has all been done — they claim — in the name of revolutionizing travel, taking cars off the road, and reducing emissions.

It’s a tactic that has, arguably, made micromobility more controversial than it needs to be, but for Bird, it has allowed the brand to paint itself as a standard-bearer of change.

While we don’t recommend greenwashing your brand, if you can’t back up how your product or service actually makes a positive impact, finding a way to align your brand with something far greater could be the key to unlocking those emotional connections that drive growth and foster loyalty.

2. Controversy Can Be A Good Thing

While Bird’s internal woes regarding toxic workplace practices are something that a brand should never strive for, the controversy surrounding its aggressive growth has arguably worked in its favor.

If your brand offers an alternative to established norms, then controversy can sometimes be a great way of drumming up attention, forcing a conversation about the status quo, and encouraging consumers to pick a side — preferably your side!

This is something that anti-establishment beer brand BrewDog used to pull off with aplomb. Their rallying cry was that beer had become boring and corporate and they were there to shake up the industry. In courting controversy wherever they could, they were able to draw attention to their exciting, new take on a category that had started to stagnate.

Bird’s tactic of unannounced expansion may have ended up costing them a great deal of money in fines, but it has often put them front and center of a rowdy discussion about the future of cities and our over-reliance on cars. In essence, they have used controversy to help build their brand into something bigger (as discussed in the first point).

3. Futureproof Your Brand

The stagnating growth of 2022 has taught many brands some serious lessons — not least, that the good times are not guaranteed to last and you should be ready to survive in a leaner market with fewer opportunities for growth.

Bird, like many startups from the last decade or so, gained lift-off because eager investors were happy to pump investment into them, and growth — while not always guaranteed — could be hacked by prioritizing acquisition over retention. It’s a tactic that works for a time, but eventually, these businesses must shift gear and refocus their attention on profitability. This is something that Bird has now done, but only after severe turbulence and a plummeting share value.

Indeed, the tide has changed. Consumers are tightening their belts and the new markets created by the rise of the internet and mobile have reached maturity. The combined weight of both these forces means that holding on to your most valuable customers is more important than ever.

In order to futureproof your brand, you need to build strong emotional relationships with consumers now. With brand monitoring software, you can gain the insights required to build those relationships and strengthen those bonds.

By understanding who your target audience is and how your brand fits into their lives, you can make sure you optimize your messaging to stay relevant and, vitally, stay on consumers’ shopping lists.

Final Thoughts

Bird’s story has echoes of many of the last decade’s biggest disruptors — from Uber to Netflix to the slew of cryptocurrency brands that hit the mainstream from 2020 onwards.

Like all of these, they offered something new and exciting, something revolutionary that challenged age-old ideas of how things were supposed to work — and they used this excitement to fuel precipitous growth.

But like all of these brands, Bird pursued a model that ignored balance and prioritized growth above all else. In believing their own hype, Bird flew, perhaps, just a little too close to the sun. Though it’s increasingly apparent that micromobility will have a lasting place in the future of urban transport — at the moment, the same can’t be said for Bird.

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