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Subway Standoff: Using Brand Voice to Stand Out, One Train Car Ad at a Time

Posted by: Darcy Newell on May 08, 2013

NYC Subway Map

If you’ve visited New York City recently, you may have enjoyed the latest batch of clever subway advertisements. You may have also noticed a competition heating up between food delivery providers Seamless and GrubHub. The brands use the same real estate, target the same audience (digitally savvy consumers that love brands that make their lives easier) and tout a seemingly indistinguishable value proposition.

It’s in the creative expression of their brand messaging and voice that they differentiate, showing who they are and what they do for customers. But who will win?

GrubHub AdGrubHub delights in the shock and awe, pairing busy scenes of cartoonish, debaucherous figures with casual, flippant headlines. GrubHub’s key message is functional, we’ll feed you the food you love. Often, though, the brand’s heavy-handed use of farce obscures that message.

One ad, for example, shows a scuba diver following a fish. The scuba diver says “sushi!”; the fish says, “S#!t,” an unusually transparent grawlix. Another shows a hotdog presenting flowers to a bun. The bun thinks, “Hope he brought condiments, too.” The headline pushes it over the edge: “You’ll want to do it again and again.” In these scenes, actual information about GrubHub is often buried in the chaos, suggesting the ads’ intent is to make consumers laugh first and share the message second.

SeamlessSeamless, on the other hand, takes a subtler approach with its wit, adopting a conversational, but polished voice, making it an equally hip choice. It’s in messaging that the brand truly shines.

Seamless connects communications to a human emotion or desire, which are often semi-subversive, such as the desire to be anti-social: “You joined a ‘meetup’ for people who loathe calling restaurants.” Playing on a digital trend, like checking in on Foursquare: “Your delivery guy’s 246th check-in ousted you as ‘Mayor’ of your own apartment.” The brand emphasizes that it understands and accepts customers, giving permission for them to stay just the way they are—and keep ordering takeout, of course.

Both try to establish common ground through the use of humor. Where GrubHub is making a joke, Seamless shows that they are in on it, keying into their customers’ sense of humor, but also their lives, frustrations and desires. In this sense, the brand lives up to its name: giving customers motivation and information then getting out of the way.

Darcy Newell is a Consultant in Verbal Identity for Interbrand New York.




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