Ride-sharing service Lyft’s short-form celebrity-driven series is a textbook case of a successful branded film venture. Called Undercover Lyft, it began as a one-off, an idea shaped by the brand’s content team led by senior creative producer Max Morse, along with creative directors Brian Button, Ricardo Viramontes, and Jesse McMillin.
The idea was to create branded content that would define Lyft’s identity, set it apart from its leading competitor, generate interest in the service, and have some fun.
Undercover Lyft exceeded all expectations, garnering millions of impressions with storytelling that hits the right tone for the brand and celebrities doing the heavy lifting in social media promotion.
Morse, a big sports fan, tapped into his previous jobs producing visual storytelling for sports media and other outlets to inform the film’s concept. He also took a page from a reoccurring skit on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon in which athletes such as Mets pitcher Matt Harvey interview unsuspecting New Yorkers on the streets of the city.
Published in September 2015, the first film featured Chicago Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant in driver mode with passengers, who thought their rides were being recorded as part of a training program.
Bryant, though on his way to becoming Rookie of the Year, was not known by the general public at that point.
“The concept meshed perfectly with the Lyft experience,” says Morse. “You bring two people together and see what happens. It’s all about fostering human interaction. It’s what we try to do.”
Social media – and Chicago – loved it. “It had all the right elements: surprise and delight, a little bit of a prank to it,” Morse notes. “I knew that if we had some good, funny moments, social and sports media would latch on to it.”
However, it wasn’t easy getting the first film off the ground. There was a lot of begging on Morse’s part to convince the powers that be at Lyft to go along with the concept. But armed with earned media placements on major sports websites such as espn.com, si.com, yahoosports.com, and cbssports.com, as well as 2 million combined organic views on YouTube and Facebook for the Bryant film, the team was able to sell the concept as a series. Lyft has done 11 so far, and there may be more coming.
Following the pilot’s initial success, booking talent was also easier.
The series has featured Shaquille O’Neal, New England Patriots’ Rob Gronkowski, New York Giants’ Odell Beckam Jr., and Demi Lovato, among others. NFL Hall of Famer Jerry Rice, wearing dark sunglasses and a beanie – minus the Super Bowl ring – drove passengers in San Francisco.
Morse attributes the success of the series to a number of factors:
- Distribution. “An obvious answer is extra distribution,” he explains. The episode featuring Shaquille O’Neal, who has 15 million Twitter followers, drew the highest number of media impressions. “Distribution can be a big challenge. But with everyone pushing out, it’s an easy, organic way to push out views.”
- Good content. It helps to have celebrities tell the story, but the story itself is key. “It’s still going to boil down to a good story because that’s why people share,” notes Morse.
- Authenticity. Morse and team focused on letting the athletes and celebrities be themselves. “So Demi Lovato is sweet, Odell Beckham Jr., cool. Shaq is a total goofball – we gave him costumes, and he played different characters with different accents. He was able to show that silly side of himself. That authenticity really shines through.”
- Preparation is essential. While the shorts weren’t scripted, Morse and his team prepared hundreds of jokes and did run-throughs of “tons of worst-case scenarios. We were playing with fire a little bit – for example, if someone didn’t like an athlete. In the end, it was all about making the talent comfortable,” he says. “Knowing we had made preparations and had written jokes and lines that would make them look good, and not let them look stupid, put them at ease. They knew we had their back.”
- Work with a great team. “Alex Richanbach directed the films. He’s a young comedic director and a funny writer who has his finger on the pulse of the culture. He knows sports and what’s funny in the sports world. Richenbach’s input really helped elevate the series,” explains Morse.
“This series is one of the best executions we’ve had in terms of really showing the service and creating a sharable film that lets you innately understand what Lyft does,” he adds.