NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Driven by a rising interest in a low-cost, low-hassle, easy-access and environmentally friendly transportation alternative, Zipcar, the upstart that began in Cambridge, Mass., in 1999, has seen its base of members, or "Zipsters," grow to about 250,000. It now operates in more than a dozen metropolitan areas and on more than 100 college and university campuses thoughout North America and London with a presence of 5,500 self-service vehicles.
But it doesn't plan to stop there. At a time when most marketers are struggling under the weight of economic decline and squeezed consumer spending, Zipcar's business model is one that stands to flourish under such pressures.
That is, if it continues to leverage the conditions creating its opportunity through savvy marketing. Victoria Godfrey, 47, who joined as chief marketing officer in October, is optimistic about Zipcar's road ahead in light of -- indeed, because of -- recessionary contraints. The former CMO of The Princeton Review and VP-global brands and events at Monster.com, whose career also includes stints at Fidelity Investments and Polaroid Corp., joined at an exciting time for the brand -- which has earned a cult-like following in the U.S. -- as it forays into the mainstream and preps a global splash.
Zipcar now offers some 30 makes and models of self-service vehicles, including Mini Cooper, Volvo S40, BMW 3- and 5-series, Ford Escape, Toyota Prius, Honda Element, Mazda 3, Toyota Tacoma and Honda Civic and Scion available by the day or hour.
The privately held company, which won't disclose its marketing budget, in the past year has been experimenting with some new campaigns, such as a viral-marketing program for which they partnered with Starbucks and a social experiment dubbed the "Low Car Diet," that asked consumers to try out a car-free lifestyle. In the end, 58% of people who participated said they would not go back to their cars, citing feeling healthier, and enjoying walking and biking more.
Ms. Godfrey recently talked with Ad Age about her new role, and what's, well, fueling Zipcar's growth.
Ad Age: You have served in a variety of marketing roles over the years. What was it about Zipcar that attracted you for your latest career challenge?
Ms. Godfrey: Zipcar is in an incredibly unique spot. What makes it such a strong brand is that our customers are our biggest ambassadors and voices for Zipcar. They are a fabulously passionate group we call "Zipsters." We have 250,000 members around the world that are members of our franchise, and they are very loyal to us because we are serving such an important need for them, to give them transportation on a car-sharing basis. They have passion, they have an attitude, and they are an incredibly important part of our brand growth plan.
Ad Age: How important, then, is word-of-mouth as part of your marketing strategy?
Ms. Godfrey: Very. We take member experience extremely seriously. Every person who gets into a Zipcar is having a brand interaction. We aspire to having a really excellent brand experience for everybody who is in our franchise.
Ad Age: What is the overall marketing mix for Zipcar, and do you expect to alter that as part of your growth plan?
Ms. Godfrey: We are very much a local brand marketer; in terms of what we do, we are really building relationships with local business, events, viral marketing. That's how we grew to where we are, by being feet-on-the-street and out in the neighborhood. We have added in things like online and other marketing vehicles, but as we grow, we will maintain what works, which is hyper-local marketing, and continue to rely on word-of-mouth.
Ad Age: What would you say is most spurring consumer demand for Zipcar?
Ms. Godfrey: On the one hand, it is purely economic; we offer such an incredibly better economic solution compared with owning a car. Then there is an environmental reason -- we are taking cars off the road by [offering sharing services]. And then there's the convenience factor; people don't have to deal with the hassles of having a car when there is a car-sharing opportunity in their neighborhood.
Ad Age: How is your marketing role at Zipcar -- which is more of an upstart than some of the other companies you've worked for -- different? Is it more or less challenging because it's a newer company?
Ms. Godfrey: As a marketer the core challenge is always the same -- to help drive revenue by increasing awareness of and demand for a company's product or service. The tools I have here are amazing. It begins with an extraordinarily talented senior management team supported by a passionate and driven staff. I've been impressed with the commitment of everyone. A close second, or maybe even a tie for first, is our member base. They really connect with and extend the brand every day through their personal interactions with friends, colleagues and online. It's been said that companies don't build brands as much as customers do, and that's absolutely true in this case. Last, it's timing. Zipcar is really in the right place at the right time, with a number of global trends setting the table: increasing urbanization, increasing use of transit, high cost of gas/auto expenses in recession, move to self-service, and an age quickly becoming focused on access vs. ownership.
Ad Age: How has the recession impacted Zipcar's marketing, or how might it going forward?
Ms. Godfrey: In today's challenging times, people are examining their expenses and looking to save money like never before. Zipcar members save hundreds of dollars a month, and the value that we provide is now more relevant and accessible than ever. We have a very strong marketing mix, and one of the key components is viral, word-of-mouth marketing by our passionate and committed members. As such, we haven't had to alter our marketing to acquire new members. We've always been extremely targeted with our marketing dollars, leveraging lower-cost but high-impact tactics such as viral marketing, public relations and social media. We're going to continue that approach in the year to come.
Ad Age: How much of Zipcar's business is leisure vs. corporate? Is one growing faster than the other?
Ms. Godfrey: Zipcar has three key audiences -- consumers, businesses and our university program. We're seeing strong growth in all three of these segments. The mix differs a bit depending on what market you're in, but in general the trends are all going in the right direction.
Ad Age: What is Zipcar's chief goal in the near-term?
Ms. Godfrey: Continued growth is the primary goal. As you probably know, car-sharing is a category that is relatively young and there is tremendous opportunity for further penetration for the cities that we are in, and there are incremental cities to go in. We are planning to pursue further penetration of our current footprint as well as incremental locations. We are in Canada, in Vancouver and Toronto, and we are in London. At this point, we don't necessarily have plans for specific cities abroad, but we do know that there is tremendous opportunity in a multitude of cities worldwide that are conducive to car-sharing.