London’s £840m mini-cab market has fast become as difficult to navigate as its roads. More than 2200 private-hire companies now operate on the capital’s streets, according to the Private Carriage Office, the Transport for London arm that regulates the industry.
Most are more or less indistinguishable, with startlingly variable standards of service. But Canadian PJ Darling is determined to change this. Last year, he and business partner and high school friend Scott Pielsticker launched Blueback, which they hope will prove to be the ‘Starbucks of London’s private-hire industry’.
For them, this means becoming known for offering the same high standards across the company, rather than for plying caffeine-dependent customers with vats of frothy, overpriced drinks.
‘No matter which Starbucks you go into, in whatever part of the world, their tall skinny latte is exactly the same, every time. We want [customers] to know what [they’re] going to get every time too,’ says Darling.
The self-deprecating but resolute pair have wasted little time putting their philosophy into action. Blueback has one, up-front pricing policy and runs only one type of vehicle, the Fiat Multipla.
Each of these bears Chaos Design’s distinctive blue and silver livery (DW 11 September 2003) and offers newspapers and mobile phone chargers. All drivers wear uniforms, go through Blueback’s driver training programme and are licensed by the PCO.
Darling is clearly passionate about the brand. When we meet he is wearing items from the Blueback range of clothing – which includes everything from baseball caps to fleeces – as he races about the office, chivvying his staff.
In what is obviously a quiet moment, Darling explains that he and Pielsticker were prompted to start up the company by a series of uncomfortable experiences in London’s mini-cabs, one of which involved a spliff-smoking driver.
‘It was like something out of Fast Times at Ridgemont High,’ says Darling. ‘We opened the back of the van, and this billow of smoke came out.’
The pair were also perplexed and frustrated by the lack of consolidation in the city’s private-hire market. ‘Toronto has three million people and four major companies. London could easily have 12 to 20 of the same size,’ he asserts.
At the outset, the pair realised the importance of a strong visual identity, both for safety reasons – ‘It was key to have something identifiable,’ Darling explains – and from a commercial perspective.
‘We wanted to get away from the existing marketplace and put something completely new on the playing field,’ he explains. ‘Design hasn’t had an impact on the sector at all, [so] it was critical for us.
‘It differentiates us visually and it also helps to create a sense that we’re not old or stodgy.’ Darling thinks design ultimately ‘makes the difference between good companies and bad ones’.
‘Good design is associated with smart people. People tend to think that if [company heads] are smart about that, they’re probably smart about running the company,’ Darling explains.
To create the brand, he and Pielsticker enlisted the help of Chaos Design in November 2002. The group went on to create Blueback’s name and identity and apply the work to the vehicles’ livery, stationery, collateral and a website, wwww.blueback.com.
Darling sounds like the ideal client. He says he and Pielsticker gave the consultancy a free hand: ‘We wanted them to come up with something different, engaging and exciting. Design by committee; I don’t like that. You’ve got to let people run free and come back to the strategy later.
‘[Design] is all about igniting excitement,’ he adds. ‘It’s not about ticking boxes. To succeed, you have to go out there and put yourself on the line. We could have failed, but you’ve got to take risks or there are no rewards.’
Darling would know. Raised by an architect father – and with two sisters who are now industrial designers – his own career has taken him through marketing, advertising, digital media and brand consulting.
So far, his strategy – a one-two punch of consistent customer service and eye-catching design – would appear to be working. In four months, Blueback has gone from two to 15 in-house staff, and from 20 to 30 cars.
With plans to bring on ten additional cars every month from February, the company is forecast to have a fleet of 1000 vehicles within the next few years.
Darling has no intention of stopping there. ‘My personal goal would be to exceed that. I want Blueback to be the defining brand for customer service. I want us to be the biggest player in London.
‘And I’d love customers to think of us not as mini-cabs or chauffeurs, but as Blueback,’ he says.
It can only be a matter of time before we find ourselves sipping a Starbucks in the back of a Blueback.
PJ Darling’s CV
2003-present Co-founder and chief marketing officer, Blueback
2001-2002 Digital brand consultant, Landor Associates
2000-2001 European account director, Modem Media
1999-2000 Account supervisor, Tullo Marshall Warren
1996-1999 Account co-ordinator, FCB Direct
1995-1996 Event co-ordinator, Van-Smith Marketing
1990-1994 University of Western Ontario