Brand director Daria Zolotukhina and creative director Maria Brish chat to LBB’s Laura Swinton about setting up Yandex Taxis’ in-house creative shop
As tech giants round the world rev their engines for the race towards a future of ride sharing and driverless cars, Russian is banking on home-grown multinational Yandex to take pole position with its transport division Yandex Taxi. And, with the recent launch of its full-service in-house creative shop Yandex Taxi is banking on creativity to drive the brand to take the lead.
On the international stage, Yandex sits alongside competitors like Google (though Yandex are always keen to point out that their search engine launched a year’s before Google), TenCent, Baidu and Amazon. Yandex is the biggest search engine in Russia and the country’s biggest tech companies. On the travel front, Yandex Taxi accounts for about 60% of taxi rides in Moscow and this October the app clocked its billionth cab ride – thanks in part to the fact that in February 2018, Uber merged with Yandex Taxi in Russia and surrounding countries Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia and Kazakhstan. As Yandex Taxi grows its offerings to include food delivery (think Uber and Uber Eats) and its driverless car project edges closer to fruition (there are currently live trials with members of the public in Moscow’s innovation area Skolkovo and the city of Innopolis, it has become imperative that the division’s creative communications are as agile and adaptive as the business itself.
The creative shop was a natural evolution. Over the past few years the design team had been consciously hiring interesting creative talents and implementing internal creative training. Plus the appetite for high volume dynamic video content meant that inhouse was the most cost-effective way to go.
Meet the Team
Yandex Taxi’s creative agency is headed up by brand director Daria Zolotukhina and creative director Maria Brish.
Maria initially joined Yandex as a graphic designer in 2015 – her background was in editorial, working for the likes of Conde Nast and Interview Magazine. Despite her lack of prior tech experience, Maria has thrived since joining Yandex. She reckons the narrative nature of editorial has, counter-intuitively, stood her in good stead. “I think that it’s the same thing: talking with people, telling them features, telling them some emotional stories. Storytelling here is very important so I think that’s why I feel comfortable with this field, this road.”
Daria joined Yandex in 2011 – prior to that she worked in the marketing team at Citibank and then in the luxury beauty division of L’Oreal as well as spending time at a small Russian music start-up. But as well as her tech and marketing credentials, Daria also has an exciting side interest that has plunged her into the world of experience and entertainment. As a massive fan of theatre, Daria launched and produced an immersive theatre production Black Russian, based on Pushkin’s unfinished novel Dubrovsky.
“That was a hobby and, actually, I was not even planning to do something big. I just wanted to help a small theatre group to produce and to market them. It was kind of a voluntary thing, but then accidentally it became one of the biggest productions and I think it was the biggest premier two years ago on the theatre scene in Moscow!” recalls Daria, who says that the Yandex team has also been experimenting with immersive experiences, like on-board VR for their cars.
With 32 members of the team, Yandex Taxi’s creative shop is the biggest creative team from the Yandex group. It’s an eclectic bunch, including creatives from agencies like BBDO and Friends as well as industrial designers, motion designers and even a couple of former stage designers from the world of theatre. It sits alongside Yandex Taxi’s marketing function of about 100 people.
The creative team has been instrumental in not only helping to develop communications around the driverless cars, also the product design and user experience, for example, helping to design the sensor boxes. Indeed the creative team is tasked with overseeing every part of the Yandex Taxi experience, and for Maria they’re reconceptualising the future of travel.
“Yandex Taxi is a big brand, there are millions of rides every day… millions of stories, people getting from point A to point B and they have a lot to share with us,” she says. “We’re changing the cities in Russia beyond and we make them more digital. Travelling through city becomes easier so every day we change this situation in big cities and transform everyday lives of people into something more effective, optimising life.”
Yandex Taxi ‘YanGoes’ into New Markets
Yandex Taxi’s footprint extends far beyond Russia and its neighbours – bringing with it fresh challenges for the creative shop. According to an interview with Yandex co-founder Arkady Volozh, the company’s international expansion strategy has been to avoid direct competition with the likes of Google and Baidu and, instead, to approach markets where its competitors are noticeably weak. From Yandex Taxi’s point of view, that led to them launching in Israel, Finland and Cote d’Ivoire. In these new markets they launched under a new brand – YanGo a name that breaks the platform out of the narrow ‘taxi app’ box and transforms it into a more holistic transport and navigation brand. Although YanGo has only been deployed in these three new markets, it’s a brand that is broader and more flexible, encapsulating everything else that the division is working on, from driverless cars to food delivery.
For the YanGo rebrand, Daria and Maria’s team had an eye on the future. “Actually the primary motivation was to get rid of the word ‘taxi’,” they explain. While Yandex Taxi will remain in Russia, where it has high brand recognition, the team realised that they could benefit from tweaking the brand architecture. “When we were thinking of the new markets we wanted to get rid of the word ‘taxi’ because it sounds old-school and it doesn’t allow us to build new verticals inside our app, for example, food delivery, car sharing, so we made this decision to get rid of this word. Also there are some legislation issues when you position yourself as taxi business then you are automatically obliged to follow the taxi legislation.”
This expansion has also gifted the creative team with some unexpectedly juicy challenges. With the launch of Yango in Cote d’Ivoire, the team realised that, with an adult literacy rate of 43.91%, they had to figure out how to work with drivers who may not be able to read.
“We had to develop special onboarding for them that didn’t include words but just graphic signs and it’s interesting because you have to translate everything and basically you have to invent a special language of signs, of visual signs to translate it,” says Daria. “It’s an interesting challenge that requires a different perspective.”
Drivers of Diversity and Inclusion
As the team grows further beyond Russia and its neighbours, diversity is a key concern for the creative team. It’s notable that the studio is headed up by two women. While tech generally, and Yandex specifically, are notoriously male-dominated, the creative agency at least is bucking the trend. In Russia, says Daria, a majority of the public still consider women’s primary role to be ‘wife and mother’ so she’s proud of the progress made in the creative studio.
Daria is also aware that diversity can’t be confined to gender issues. Internally they have been keen to recruit from across Russia’s ethnic groups and they are conscious that as Yandex Taxi and YanGo continues to expand they will need to push harder.
“The team creates communications around the territory of unconscious experiences and emotions [which] really requires lots of diversity and it’s not just gender diversity,” says Daria who explains that while the team is currently made up of Russian speakers, they have recruited across various Russian-speaking ethnic groups. “I think the more we become the global brand, we will strive to hire people of different language groups as well since it becomes more and more difficult for us to work.”
The question of diversity is not limited to the creative shop or dev teams – one big issue that the team is tussling with is the questions of diversity and inclusion when it comes to Yandex Taxi’s drivers. “When we talk about diversity we always consult with drivers because a big part of our business is the drivers… [for example] we meet with deaf drivers to see how we can adapt communications for them. That’s kind of inclusion and diversity that we try to pursue and that begins with the brand and creative studio,” explains Daria.
And the welfare of the drivers as the reality of driverless cars edges every closer is something the team is taking seriously from a social responsibility perspective. They’re keenly aware that the drivers they now rely on so heavily will eventually be replaced, so they want to help educate and train them. One of the key missions for this year’s marketing strategy is around encouraging passengers and customers to show drivers and food couriers due respect. “It’s something that actually none of the brands have done on the global scale,” notes Daria.
As the creative shop plunges into 2019, they’ve set themselves some ambitious goals. Not only are they racing to keep up with the new platforms growing in popularity among Russian consumers - Chinese apps Tik-Tok and Kwai show no sign of slowing down in the country, and neither does the popularity of Russian rap – they also want to be taken seriously on the global creative stage, to mentioned in the same breath as Google Zoo or Facebook Creative Shop.
“We really want to become more expert, we want to participate in festivals, we want to prove to ourselves that we can not only be business effective but that we can also be acknowledged as a creative studio alongside great creative minds around the world. These are ambitions and it keeps the team motivated and it helps to market our brand internationally.”