by Bradley Elliott (@BradElliottSA) What are the biggest challenges CMOs will face in the future? How do you gear your marketing department for digital transformation? These are just some of the burning conversations brand custodians are having in marketing-led companies right now. Join me each month as I chat to the custodians of the world’s top brands about what matters most to them. First up, Uber Eats South Africa GM Ailyssa Pretorius and I chat about why data is critical to sustaining competitive brand advantage.

In March this year, SA’s food delivery industry got even more competitive. Bolt (formerly Taxify), announced that it was taking on Uber Eats and Mr D Food. Increased competition means competing brands will need to become really smart at understanding customers. With this in mind, I spoke to Pretorius about how Uber Eats is using data to make sense of its customers’ vital statistics.

Bradley Elliott: There is a lot of hype around big data and AI. What is your take on this?
Ailyssa Pretorius: Data and AI have had a seismic effect on everything we do today. At Uber, data science and machine learning are built into our DNA, whether that’s helping millions of people around the world push a button and have a ride turn up in a few minutes, or transforming the way people eat and restaurants do business.

In South Africa, we use data to scientifically perfect everything we do, whether that’s using traffic and weather patterns to predict when a delivery partner needs to arrive at a restaurant to collect food or working with restaurants to optimise food preparation time to ensure a user’s order arrives hot and fresh. We’re also increasingly using machine learning to personalise our app for users. For example, if two people stood next to each other in the same location, they would see a completely different selection of restaurants. Why? Because we use a bunch of inputs such as previous-order history, most-popular dishes in a particular area and trending restaurants to curate our menu for every individual user. Another great example is how we’re using data to help restaurants identify new business opportunities and receive real-time feedback from their customers. A great example of this is our restaurant manager portal which provides our partners with access to a huge amount of information about the performance of their business, their customer satisfaction and, interestingly, macro-data on the big food trends in their area.

BE: What does customer-centricity mean to Uber Eats SA? How can companies use data to be more customer-centric?

AP: Customer obsession is one of our core cultural values at Uber Eats and this means ensuring everything we do is focused on serving the needs of our customers. In a three-sided marketplace, the customer is not just eaters but restaurants and delivery partners as well. For me, this is mostly about good business practice: ultimately, if you don’t keep your customers happy, they will no longer be a customer. At a basic level, customer satisfaction has always been a core element of our service. In the Uber Rides app, our entire ecosystem is built on a two-way five-star feedback mechanic, while on Uber Eats users have multiple ways to [give] feedback, from giving a specific dish a thumbs-up to rating a delivery partner’s delivery.

We’re customer-obsessed at Uber Eats and that means building long-term relationships with all our customers. And to ensure we stay customer-focused for our end-users, we need to ensure restaurant partners are happy and providing the best service to those users. By taking the time to ensure our team has the right tools and development they need, we can build great service models for our restaurant partners and, in turn, great service to the customer base.

In order for companies to succeed by using data to be more customer-centric, companies need to first understand and then anticipate the needs of their customers which will be the key to making sure they are successful in their mission. It is vital for companies to invest time to better understand their customers and using data can help make them understand this, and they need to look beyond their company. Data can be useful here as they will be able to pull information about their customers and solve problems with them by looking at the data and trying to change anything that impacts the end-users.

[Using] this information, they can collaborate with the relevant stakeholders to offer the products/services their customers want. This is what gives data-savvy companies the edge — a proactive and insight-driven strategy. Ultimately, I believe anticipating customer needs is paramount as each market becomes increasingly competitive and customers become more discerning in their taste

BE: Uber Eats helps SMEs use data to extend their offerings (“dark kitchens”  is an example of this). What is your advice to SMEs that don’t have powerful products like UberEats to gather data and gain insight?
AP: As a technology company, data and insights are at the heart of everything we do. We’re helping restaurants navigate this change and discover new ways to grow their businesses. We build trust with partners by focusing on how we can add value to their business. For example, we’re working with thousands of restaurants around the world to help them identify “selection gaps” in their market, using data to launch delivery-only menus that answer latent demand in their local area for a particular cuisine. We like to call these data-driven concepts virtual restaurants (VRs). In essence, a VR only exists in the digital world; there is no storefront or front of house, and they can only be accessed via an app or a website. Importantly, VRs require minimal investment and, with data informing every decision from the name and menu to the location, success is almost assured.

With that in mind, it is clear that industries are changing fast and will only continue to do so in the future. Ultimately, the companies that leverage insight and data-driven business models — while anticipating changing customer needs — are those that will emerge on top. With technology rapidly growing and becoming more accessible to everyone, including businesses, SMEs should easily be able to leverage a platform like Uber Eats, which should bring in a significant amount data and insights on customers that they were unable to reach before.

Take our industry as an example. The choice of location and cuisine is, at best, an informed guess and, at worst, a stab in the dark. Then, of course, the restaurant has to stand out from the crowd to attract customers, which, in an ultra-competitive market like SA, isn’t simple. For existing businesses looking to expand, the risks remain equally high. A large capital investment is usually required to acquire new premises and, while selling burgers in one area may be popular, there’s no guarantee local residents from across town will be equally enthusiastic. Without data, it’s an endless amount of guesswork, which inevitably creates a high-risk model. The exponential rise of food-delivery apps like Uber Eats has started to provide entrepreneurs and restaurant owners with the data and insights they need to unlock the value of their business. While there’s nothing new about food-delivery apps helping restaurants reach more customers and creating incremental demand, the data restaurants now have at their fingertips is quickly becoming a game-changer.

However, in an age when technology is keeping people more connected than ever, it’s important for businesses, and particularly startups, to keep their customers in mind when they’re innovating. SMEs need to adapt their business models to a market where consumers are more engaged, driving more visits but at lower prices.

BE: Uber Eats is set up as a data-centric business. Most large corporates have siloed data sets and no single source of truth. What is your advice to CMOs to work around this and start gaining powerful insights through data?
: At Uber Eats, we believe the key to success lies in our ability to [use] our technology to continuously improve the experience of both eaters and restaurant partners on the app. Which is why we put emphasis on effective and accurate data collection that can provide our partners with valuable business insights and customers with food they want, when they want it. The Uber Eats team strives to build the best app experience possible for our customers. We use data and insights to analyse the demand for specific cuisine types, advise restaurant partners on revenue opportunities, and ensure we have the right number of couriers in the right place at the right time throughout the day. We also use insights to direct our expansion plans. We never enter a new market in a proverbial leap of faith and, in 2019, data will play even more of a key role.

So how can business leaders to get around this and start gaining powerful insights through data?

[First], for most companies, accessing data, let alone understanding how to extract value, has been a challenge few have managed to crack at scale. However, data should play a fundamental role in any business decision-making process, especially given the historically high cost and risk associated with launching and running a business. However, it is important for any business leader to use the data for the right reasons and, as businesses scale, it’s really important to keep that focus and to make sure you still spend time listening to customers, hearing what they’re actually telling you, not just looking at the data. If you lose sight of the customer, you can lose sight of what the next opportunities are.

For a business to be successful, they need to really innovate across all sides of the marketplace and tackle the biggest challenges their customers face, and all this can be done with powerful insights through data.

BE: Any final words or thoughts?
: We’re optimistic about the future and, thanks to our strong product and brand, as well as the momentum we’re seeing in cities across SA, we’re confident Uber Eats will continue to grow at a rapid pace and we look forward to expanding our business even further in 2019.

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Bradley ElliottThe founder of Continuon and Platinum Seed, Bradley Elliott (@BradElliottSA) has created a number of businesses in the digital and technology sectors. He believes that marketing needs to be reinvented so that it becomes more useful to humans and brands. He’s also a collector of fine whisky. Bradley contributes “Only Connect”, exclusively to In this column and twin podcast, he chats to custodians of the world’s top brands about what matters most to them.

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