When the techie car service Uber announced it was sending a fleet of on-demand ice cream trucks to serve the urban-dwelling masses in New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, Washington, D.C., Seattle, and Toronto, we at Fast Company got very hungry.
But a gimmick that started off sounding fun and delicious left a bad taste in our mouths—and presumably the mouths of plenty of potential Uber users whose first impression of the car service might have involved a broken promise to deliver frosty treats. Call it a lesson in the pitfalls of modern marketing or just... how not to do an ice cream social.
It's late Friday morning, and a cheerful new ice cream button appears in the Uber app, alongside icons for its regular black cars and SUVs. Can we get one that plays the classic ice cream truck jingle?
We holler for one of the six Uber ice cream wagons in town around midday. That Mister Softee truck parked patiently a block away from our building for the last three months? Never been. (We’re not distracted by shiny objects at all.) A request button pops up that lets us pinpoint our delivery location and authorize Uber to charge $12 to our social media editor's credit card (thanks, Anjali!) for a five-pack of ice creams. It's 86 degrees with 63% humidity, as if anyone needed that as an excuse.
The Uber app informs us no ice cream trucks are currently out on the road. What the...
Nice try, Uber. We know you're out there—we see people on Twitter munching away happily, with the pics to prove it.
— Steph Bagley (@StephBags) July 13, 2012
So ice cream trucks are definitely out on the road. Just not on our road.
Wait, progress? A few more futile requests later, a new message pops up. At least now it's telling us all the trucks are actually out making deliveries, but it's been two hours and we still don't have any ice cream:
People are getting increasingly antsy from the lack of a queue or system that lets us track our place in line. We all keep tapping our screens in search of an answer other than "Sorry."
On the road, things start getting awkward when walk-ups try to order ice cream from parked trucks and are told the goods are only for Uber customers. Which sort of defies the purpose of a truck full of ice cream, but then again, the point of these trucks isn't to feed everyone—it's to get as many people as possible talking about Uber. I think it's, um, working?
The happily fed few apparently have an awesome time (among them: The Verge, the Wall Street Journal, Yahoo News' D.C. bureau, foursquare, the U.S. Capitol, and Techstars).
And everyone who didn't get their ice cream? They unleashed an #uberfail hashtag parfait with vitriol sprinkles.
— Nick Carbone (@nickcarbone) July 13, 2012
This one packs a particularly sour sting, as it conflated Uber's ice cream skills with its car service wrangling abilities.
A couple of hours after trying and failing to flag down a truck, our social media editor hatches a novel and environmentally-friendly plan:
@MatthewKnell Perhaps I'll just go outside and buy ice cream the normal way, that is probably more environmentally friendly anyway.— Anjali Mullany (@anjalimullany) July 13, 2012
End of story? Not quite. On Sunday morning I receive an email from Uber New York's community manager apologizing for Friday's truck shortage and gifting me $15 in Uber credit, good for the rest of the month to try out one of Uber's regular cars. Nice bait-and-switch—who says no to free money? Even if it's for a service I wouldn't normally use and for an amount that will get me only halfway to work.
Uber has yet to respond to our press request about when we will get our ice cream truck (we're pretty flexible on flavors and toppings, by the way). But the lesson here is pretty clear: Uber should remember that at its core, it is a car service, not a chaotic ice cream free-for-all. When you peddle something as universally appealing as ice cream, it's a given that you won't possibly be able to satisfy everyone, even if you had dozens of trucks at the ready. Yes, Uber ended up spreading the word about its core business, but it was at the expense of the ill will it generated from a marketing ploy that made people feel like children on the wrong end of a cruel prank. On-demand cabs? Great idea. On-demand ice cream trucks and mariachi fiestas? Do not mess with the creamy desires of the Twitter-connected.
[Image: Flickr user Johnath]