Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

More Zipcar-funded research has more good news for Zipcar

March 1, 2012 - 11:07 AM
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(Photo: flickr/crchmidt)

In more research commissioned by global car-sharing giant Zipcar, KRC Research has measured the 36 biggest American cities in the categories of sustainability, innovation, vibrancy, efficiency and livability and came up with what it's calling the Future Metropolis Index. D.C., for what it's worth, performed well in the rankings.

• Efficiency: #1 (due to highest proportion of commuters using public transit)
• Most livable/optimistic: #24
• Vibrant/creative: #3
• Innovative: #4
• Sustainable: #7
• Overall index: #3

Two Zipcar PR people happily brought the new research to my attention this week. But what to make of such ratings? BostInno has already rightly questioned how these categories were assessed. What pushes Zipcar, founded in 2000 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to fund such research? This report is hardly the first to come out of Zipcar corridors. I asked Jessica Margolis-Pineo, a recent public relations hire at Zipcar, about the motivations and implications of its research.

"While we like to think that our [Zipcar's] presence in eight of the top 10 overall cities (in our Future Metro Index) may have had some impact on their scores, we were also curious to see how other cities ranked and where their room for growth lies," Margolis-Pineo wrote. "We used an independent research firm to conduct these studies (including the Future Metropolis Index and our annual Millennial study) as part of our marketing efforts for the Zipcar brand."

Zipcar, she told me, aspires to a "thought leadership role when it comes to issues around urban living and transportation trends."

This sort of research is hardly new. Many companies seek to bolster their products with paid research, and Zipcar's product is two-fold — first and most directly, it's car-sharing and the Zipcar model, which the company supports with multiple studies about its benefits and the miles reduced. But the second Zipcar product is progressive sustainability, which it wants you to associate with its service. The general manager of Zipcar D.C. voiced that sentiment to me when discussing her new local competitors. Hertz On Demand launched in February and Daimler's Car2Go network will formally launch in D.C. in late March.

"These additional companies raise more awareness for car-sharing," Ellice Perez told me in February. "We've built our brand on the back of our mission ... We always see our main competitor as car ownership."

Scott Griffith, Zipcar CEO and chairman, evoked similar altruism in his prepared statement about the new research: "We created the Zipcar Future Metropolis Index to recognize today's leaders who are preparing for tomorrow's challenges."

KRC Research, the global market research firm responsible for Zipcar's Future Metropolis Index and purportedly spanning 60 countries, describes itself this way: "We are the ones PR and advertising agencies turn to when they need research to shape campaigns and create materials." Hardly an encouraging note for those looking for objectivity. Can you imagine a Zipcar-funded study that would ever have bad news for the car-sharing company? Zipcar has sought KRC's services in the past, such as in December 2011 when a KRC study showed that 55% of Millennials want to drive less. KRC prides itself on itself on "generating media attention" for its clients and cites several examples of how it's created buzz. One big area they focus on is the very one Margolis-Pineo mentioned — thought leadership, which for KRC means "research that positions clients as experts on specific issues or topics, designed to have a long shelf-life and to provide maximum value to stakeholders."

To their credit, KRC often is transparent about their methods and questioning (the December Millennials study involved more than 1,000 surveyed individuals, for instance). And luckily in the case of Zipcar, the goals of sustainable, innovative transportation are positive ones to tout. But people take this company research seriously. San Francisco and Boston media have covered the rankings, and Zipcar gave San Francisco's mayor an award in person and included the mayor's quotes in its press release. Zipcar deserves credit for expanding a good conversation, but consumers should never lose sight of the bigger marketing impetus for its actions, the goal more PR than scientific method.

I don't mean to discredit the data itself so much as highlight how it's repeatedly gathered and used for specific purposes. Only naivete would suggest otherwise.

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