For the companies that believe that touting their values can be a path to profits, these are heady days. Customers have not only come to expect that companies stand for something, in addition to selling whatever they’re selling, but many Americans are more attuned to expressing beliefs through how they spend. And one company posed to reap benefits from that zeitgeist is ride app company Lyft.
“We’re woke. Our community is woke, and the U.S. population is woke,” Lyft President John Zimmer tells TIME, sitting in his five-year-old company’s San Francisco headquarters. “There’s an awakening … Our vote matters, our choice matters, the seat we take matters.”
Many of the millions who have used ride apps live in urban markets where residents were left feeling like their votes didn’t matter in the last election and have turned to their wallets to feel a sense of agency. So when Lyft’s massive rival Uber started becoming the subject of a relentless stream of bad headlines in late January, some users started questioning Uber’s values as a company — and looking around for an alternative.
“We’re not the nice guys,” Zimmer says. “We’re a better boyfriend.”
Lyft did its best to demonstrate that behavior during the final weekend in January. President Trump had just issued his first controversial immigration order, which temporarily banned refugees and limited travel from seven Muslim-majority countries, and taxi drivers were striking in protest at New York City’s JFK airport on a Saturday, along with crowds of angry locals. That evening, Uber sent out a tweet noting that the company was still offering rides to the airport and there would no surge pricing, hikes that typically take effect in times of low supply and high demand.
Though Uber later explained that the move was meant to let riders know they still had a way to catch their flights and to show respect for the taxi drivers — by making sure the company was not profiting off the strike, much like the company limits surge prices during disasters — Internet critics were fast to interpret the move as heartless strike-breaking behavior. A #DeleteUber hashtag started trending Saturday night into Sunday morning, as people shared screen shots of flushing the app off their phones on social media.
By some counts, more than 200,000 users left Uber as January gave way to February, an exodus that Lyft employees started noticing in the form of an influx — one boosted by the fact that Zimmer and Lyft CEO Logan Green decided to make a $1 million donation to the American Civil Liberties Union that same weekend.
Some of the company’s employees cautioned against the donation, suggesting that taking a political stance might alienate some users. “There was risk,” says Zimmer, whose wife is in the U.S. on a green card from Spain, “and that was part of the reason we wanted to take action. It should be more okay to stick your neck out.” The executives scheduled an email on Saturday night that would announce the donation on Sunday morning, as Uber CEO Travis Kalanick said that he would maintain a position on Trump’s business advisory council despite the “unjust” order.