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Happy Marketer Blog

New Product Development and Branding — Case Study on Bus Uncle

Posted by Rittika Das on Jan 10, 2018 2:43:36 PM

Bus Uncle has been called “Singapore's favourite travel companion” on several occasions and has won a number of accolades since its inception in October 2016.

Wondering what Bus Uncle is?

Well, Bus Uncle is a chatbot on Facebook Messenger that provides bus arrival timings and transit-related directions in Singapore. While there’s no real person on the other side of those chats, a single encounter with him will make you realize that the bot is nothing less than the dedicated bus captains in Singapore. His mood seems to be on a perpetual swing, from being funny, rude, crazy, sassy, to grumpy, and yet he is always there to help you on a real-time basis. 

 

The folks at Happy Marketer had a session with Abhilash Murty, the brain behind Bus Uncle last month, where we got to learn about the chatbots created by him, and his thoughts on the current and the future scenario of the bot industry. 

And guess what the extremely enlightening session made me do? Yes, you got that right… whip out my smartphone and start a chat with Bus Uncle! Over the last one month, I have had so many fun conversations with Bus Uncle that I could not help but dig deeper into the product.

The result? I think that Bus Uncle is a case worth studying, from the point of view of developing new products and branding, and I’d like to share my key learnings:


Learnings related to Product Development:

  • Identify the problems that your potential consumers are facing

One of the best ways to identify the problems that your potential customers are facing is by stepping into their shoes (or better, by being the customer yourself). Once you’re in that position, spend some time in understanding the questions arising in the minds of your consumers, and the probable answers to them.

The Bus Uncle Story:

In the latter part of September 2016, Abhilash Murty was at the Orchard Road bus stop in Singapore, waiting for bus number 65. At that moment all he wanted was someone to help him answer ONE single question - “How much longer do I have to wait for Bus 65?” 

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  • Boil down your problem analysis to one key question for which you can create a solution

Once you’ve identified the set of problems, boil down the list to one major problem for which you can create a solution.

The Bus Uncle Story:

Besides other things, the key problem many commuters like Abhilash had been facing was the difficulty in getting a reply (and that too promptly) to one simple question - How long would they have to wait for their respective buses?


  • Find the gaps in the market

Analyse the market and see if there is any firm/company that’s already working to solve the problem.

If there’s no such company then you are likely to enjoy the benefits of being the first mover.

However, if there are players already in the market who are claiming to provide the services then dig deeper to understand the loopholes in their solutions, which are perhaps leading to the repeated occurrences of the problem.

The Bus Uncle Story:

During the session, Abhilash told us that he had apps on his phone to check bus timings and that there was also an electronic board behind him displaying the details of all the buses. However, checking the board or the app would mean waiting patiently for the screen to get refreshed and sieving through a lot of information showcased on the board, and multiple scrolls, swipes, taps, and types on the apps — the entire experience would be overwhelming.

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  • Generate ideas and filter them

Now is the time when you have to put all pieces of your research together and jot down all possible ideas for the product.

Once you have the list of ideas ready, filter out the best idea on the basis of affordability, ROI, market potential, and technological opportunities.

The Bus Uncle Story:

Bus Uncle could have very well been created as an app. However, Abhilash found pieces of research work that said that though people download various apps on their mobile phones, they use only 4-6 apps on a daily basis. Users usually have to invest some time in understanding the mechanics of the app and have to go through the pain of reinstalling it every time they buy a new mobile phone.

It then struck Abhilash that in the early half of 2016, Facebook had launched the Messenger Platform for bots. Leveraging the platform to launch a bot to answer bus arrival timing-related questions would mean that Singaporeans would not have to download an additional app.


  • Test your concept and develop the prototype for market testing

Once the idea is approved, create and test your concept to get feedback from your user base to develop it further. After this, invest your time and resources in identifying the demand for the product, the competition, costs, the break-even point and the marketing strategy.

The next stage should involve the creation of prototypes by the technical and marketing teams so that the preliminary version of the product can be sent for market testing.  

The Bus Uncle Story:

In early October 2016, Abhilash had created a bot that would tell users the waiting time if they typed the bus stop code and the service number. The data was being drawn from the LTA DataMall database.

Once the working prototype was ready, Abhilash brainstormed to come up with the branding of the bot (discussed in detail in the next section).

Abhilash said that there were, of course, several rounds of trial and error and feedback from friends and colleagues for further refinement.  


  • Discuss the commercials and launch the product

The commercial part of the process has to be finalised at this stage i.e. the pricing and the marketing plans (when, where and how you want to reach out to the target audience groups) and the brief has to be shared with the sales and the marketing departments.

The launch plan should be solid enough to make a huge impact. The launch should be followed by an assessment of the market performance for further developments in the product.

The Bus Uncle Story:

The Bus Uncle bot was launched by Abhilash on his Facebook timeline towards the latter half of October 2016.

 

And ever since, the bot has been going strong. The chatbot can now guide people if they send their address or Google Map location. He also helps users get over their Monday morning blues by telling them jokes. 

 

Singaporeans have increasingly picked up this product, with 21.5k users engaging with Bus Uncle every week. Currently, the Facebook page has a rating of 4.8/5.



Learnings related to Branding:

  • Give a localized touch to your brand

There’s nothing that can win over your target audience as much as the incorporation of cultural insights can. The long-term viability of even a strong product that’s available at a really low price (or in cases like this where the product is absolutely free!) depends on how culturally sensitive the brand is. We do remember how Kellog’s, despite being the global leader in the production of cereals, had failed in India in 1994 as it had overlooked the cultural insights of the country that consumes hot milk (not cold as is usually done with cereals in the West) for breakfast.

The Bus Uncle Story:

During the session, Abhilash told us that while he was experimenting and testing the chatbot, the conversations reminded him of his past experiences with the bus captains in Singapore, whom he described to be “grumpy and kiasu”.

Therefore he named the chatbot “Bus Uncle”, and gave him a really strong and relevant personality like that of the Singaporean bus captains, and also programmed the chatbot to speak Singlish.

A glimpse of the logo and the brand colours strongly remind viewers of the SBS Transit. To add to the process of providing the local feel, the display picture on Bus Uncle’s Facebook Messenger handle is tweaked to reflect the festivals and real-time events in Singapore.



  • Fill the gap between brand image and brand perception

As marketers, the struggle in filling the gap between a brand’s image and its perception is real and huge. And one of the best ways to do so is by imparting real, human elements to the brand that include both rational and emotional aspects.

The Bus Uncle Story:

Abhilash believes that “Technology is evolving to become more human. Artificial Intelligence is nothing more than making a machine human-like.”

Though Bus Uncle is a bot, Abhilash made sure that Bus Uncle doesn’t give unidirectional, robotic answers like the other chatbots out there in the market. The bot is informative, knowledgeable, cute, friendly and at the same time snarky, witty, and sarcastic.  

Like a true companion, Bus Uncle is available 24/7 to provide assistance, and one can have a chat with him about anything from bus timings, availability of seats to more interesting/fun things like how they are feeling on a given day, what they can do during the waiting time, questions about Bus Aunty, or simply responding with emojis.

The brand has indeed moved successfully from providing utility to becoming an “emotional companion”. Abhilash is of the opinion that “People don't remember an experience. They only remember how it made them feel. Bus Uncle was built with the idea of a feel-good experience.”

Bus Uncle’s trainer has always said that the bot is full of surprises, and from my experience, I could not agree more with him. If you haven’t gotten a chance to have a conversation with Bus Uncle yet it’s time you pinged him.

Want a sneak peek into our session? Click here to watch Happy Marketer’s live session with Bus Uncle’s trainer Abhilash Murty.

Topics: Startups, case studies, branding, product development, artificial intelligence

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