Waze doesn’t stop in traffic. Waze doesn’t stop innovating. Waze doesn’t stop—period. The navigation app isn’t just about a simple GPS; it’s also about the fun, collaborative ideas that drive it. Julie Mossler, Head of Global Communications & Creative Strategy at Waze, explains how this Israeli startup became the apple of Google’s eye—and how it’s been transforming the relationship between local brands and consumers.
Interbrand: It’s a fact: Waze is helping drivers everyday. What is the secret that allows the brand to do this so effectively?
Waze: I think our brand has grown and become beloved so quickly because traffic is a universal problem. It doesn’t matter where you come from, what your story is, or if you’re a man or a woman—everyone who drives is affected by traffic and it poses challenges every day. We want to help solve this problem. We pay attention to detail so that we can build a product based on what drivers really want and need. The rest—the growth, the love—comes naturally as a result.
IB: And how does Waze, once a startup in Israel and now part of Google, grow without losing its essence?
Waze: I think that the heart of our company is the community. We only have 150 employees, but we have 200,000 map editors (volunteers who manually modify the map, based on problems that drivers report). In Israel we started out asking for help to build our maps, since we don’t use any pre-existing data. The company grew but, to become global, we began counting on people from every region, not just locally. This is our history and all these people are part of our community and part of Waze—and that’s something we’re proud of. Google doesn’t want to change that. To preserve our culture, we know we have to grow slowly.
IB: How does Waze find the right people to bring the brand to life? And how do you convey the company’s essence to them?
Waze: In Israel, we were an open project for map and information editing, formed by creative and digital people. With time, we began to expand, one city at a time. If you download Waze and go to the moon, we’ll be there. Because all you have to do to help us build the map is turn on your phone, wherever you are. Waze doesn’t force communities to do anything; we only support them with tutorials, YouTube videos, meetings, etc.
IB: How many editors are there?
Waze: 200,000. We also have hundreds of Champs—the “senior-senior” level of people who’ve worked on the map for several years or made millions of edits.
IB: Since Waze is a collaborative app, how do you deal with areas that drivers don’t travel through often? For example, in Brazil, favelas usually end up unmapped.
Waze: That is an important social question and a problem for us, as a company. It is very hard to say, “This area is too dangerous to drive through,” because we don’t want to make judgments that would prevent us from providing service to those who need us. In these cases, we count on the communities and our local managers to access these regions, signal activity or incidents on the roads there, and make the best decisions concerning that area. Since we can’t keep as close to any specific map as the manager can, we must trust their judgement. Though we will always do everything possible to ensure that our drivers are not routed into danger, we err on the side of providing the service in as many places as possible.
IB: And how are reports on unexpected traffic incidents made?
Waze: We wouldn’t be able to keep up with traffic conditions around the whole world without our volunteers. They’re very hardworking. In the U.S., when we have tornadoes and natural disasters, they drive around their area reporting the state of the roads on the map. Traditional companies probably would have to forward their alerts to moderators. All that bureaucracy would make the process too slow. Here, volunteers have the freedom to edit and evolve with every contribution they make, since the more you edit, the bigger the area you can edit will become.
IB: We heard that Waze developed a project with Rio de Janeiro’s traffic department. How was that?
Waze: It was incredible. With Pope Francis’s visit in 2013 and the Olympic Games in 2016, Rio’s government predicted many traffic problems. So, they contacted us to find a solution. We had never received such a proposal, so we had to analyze the app’s features to see how we could help. In the end, Waze became the only real-time map able to help the government monitor traffic. It was such a future-forward and creative solution that we created a platform called Connective Citizens, launched in New York, which allows all traffic departments around the world to use our data—and it all started out in Brazil.
IB: We’re also curious about the data. Waze probably stores tons of data about these local brands. How do you obtain and make the fullest use of this information?
Waze: We’ve just launched a new version of the app last week, Places. When the driver gets to their destination, the app asks for a photo or information about the place. We did this because most drivers don’t proactively edit the map, but many might be willing to snap a photo, which can be a great help for other users. It’s all about making it easier to be a Wazer. We also like to bring game features to the app to direct drivers to areas where we don’t have much information, which helps feed our database. We also show specific ads that are relevant to the day and moment. We’re working with local brands and getting innovative with marketing to engage people like never before.
IB: So, is Waze helping these brands establish a more informal conversation with the day-to-day consumer?
Waze: What we do is bring context to consuming. Rather than pushing ads at you, it’s as if somebody were in the car with you sharing helpful information that happens to be offered by a specific brand. For instance, in the U.S., we had a partnership with a new TV show, and people who had never used our product downloaded it just so that they could listen to the show’s character on the app. When a partner’s voice aligns with and amplifies your own message and tone of voice—which is the case in this partnership—you can be exactly the brand you want to be, and that’s very valuable.
IB: Waze shows the location of a few brands’ shops on its map. But they’re always bigger brands, chains. Do you think Waze could also work with smaller, neighborhood brands? If so, how?
Waze: We still haven’t figured out how to work with neighborhood brands. We have little room on the map for ads without the space becoming too cluttered, so we have to aim for brands that drivers will love, but that will also generate revenue. Moreover, going after that kind of brand would require a much bigger team. We’d love to interact more with neighborhood brands but, at the moment, our business is mostly focused on regional or national partners.
IB: Congestion is a global issue affecting metro areas in Brazil and other cities around the world. The severity of the problem in São Paulo, for example, leads people to thinking that they should use their cars less. How does Waze deal with that?
Waze: We’re all for being environmentally friendly, but we don’t think the car is ever going to disappear. Even if buses get really efficient, they’re still going to make multiple stops and they may not go door-to-door to your destination. And, depending on where you live, using a bike as a means of transportation may not be feasible, especially if the climate isn’t favorable. So, I don’t see this issue as a threat. In fact, you don’t even have to be in a car to use Waze. Even if you’re riding a bike or taking public transportation, you can use the app to get information on roadblocks, for example.
IB: A few years ago, everyone had a GPS. Today, everybody’s got Waze. How do you explain the mass migration from GPS to app?
Waze: It’s got a lot to do with cost. Waze is free and you can use it anywhere in the world. Meanwhile, all our competitors charge at least 25 dollars for a map and, for every country you want to navigate or language you want to use, you’ll have to buy a new one. The world is changing constantly and people are getting more and more involved with the way it changes. So, a GPS that updates every 5 months is just not compatible with today’s society and the pace at which things are moving.
IB: Does Waze sell its data?
Waze: No, because we promised we wouldn’t do that! The advertising revenue is important so that we don’t have to sell our data. We don’t think it’s really fair to put a price on our service, because the people who need it are probably not the ones who can afford to pay for it, and also because it’s a map built by the community. And it’s especially unfair when the whole point of the app is to make the city a better place.