Uber in Hot Water: 3 Branding Experts Weigh In on How the Company Should Buoy the Brand

Ride-sharing app needs to revamp its internal culture

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick needs to examine the company's culture according to branding experts. Getty Images
Headshot of Kristina Monllos

If you look at the recent media coverage of Uber one thing is clear: The brand is in crisis.

Just this past weekend a new report emerged that while in Seoul in 2014 the leadership team at Uber, including CEO Travis Kalanick, took a trip to an “escort/karaoke bar.” The previous weekend the ride-sharing app’s president, former Target CMO Jeff Jones, stepped down after less than a year in the position because he felt the brand’s “beliefs and approach to leadership” ran counter to his own. His departure came after Uber launched an investigation into workplace harassment following a blog post from former engineer Susan Fowler, Kalanick’s berating of a driver caught on video, as well as the ding its brand reputation took for its approach to the Trump administration’s Muslim ban.

How can they fix this? Adweek got in touch with a few branding experts to see what the ride-sharing app’s next move should be.

Uber, more than almost any other brand right now, needs to recalibrate its internal culture and how the public perceives that culture,” explained Geoff Cook, founding partner, Base Design, an international strategic branding firm. “A brand can no longer rely solely on outward facing, tightly controlled marketing messages, nor can they control what the public might find out about internal issues.”

Cook continued: “The company needs to make a big statement about being better partners to both their internal staffers and their drivers. By building trust with those people, they can begin to regain the trust of users, who have been fleeing in droves with each subsequent scandal.”

Mimi Chakravorti, executive director of strategy at Landor Associates, agreed. “Their brand has taken a hit because it is not behaving with similar values that their users want them to have and that their users expect of them,” said Chakravorti. “Their users want to support ethical companies; they want to support companies that support their employees, they want to support companies that really work to have an equal opportunity and an equal playing field within their work force and obviously protect women’s rights.”

Chakravorti suggested that Uber’s leadership should “start to focus on their culture and really change [it]” in order to revamp consumers’ perception of the brand.

“Kalanick, in the spirit of, as he said, ‘growing up’ could show sensitivity to the needs of the people who literally drive his business and invite the driver, or a group of drivers, to discuss the issues they are facing,” added Cook. “He could hold a summit for female engineers and really listen to the reality of their experiences and work to provide real solutions. The company needs to clearly lay out its values, and show, not just tell, the world they’re sticking to them.”

But even with the myriad cultural issues the company is facing, some brand experts believe Uber will maintain its popularity until its competition catches up. Martin Heaton, strategy director, and Natalie Prout, associate strategy director at brand transformation agency Phenomenon noted that, “As the ‘brand you hate, but product you love,’ Uber is the ‘brilliant jerk’ in company form. So how are they still so popular with such a toxic reputation? Simple: Irresistible convenience. People may not like Uber, but they love what Uber enables them to do. And as the shorthand for classy, convenient transport in the digital age (‘Lets Uber there!’), Uber has the category in a headlock … until it doesn’t, because someone will figure out how to do it better.”

Much of the controversy that Uber is facing has Kalanick’s name attached to it, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he should tender his resignation, according to Chakravorti. “I do think that the change needs to start from the top. The letter that he wrote [a few weeks ago] about seriously looking at his leadership and getting training and help to become the leader that he should be will be very important for him. Now he’s stated a few things and the only way that people will really start to trust him again is if his behaviors and actions match the words that he’s said. And that’s true for the company as well.”

Added Chakravorti: “Previously we were in an era of branding where CEOs weren’t as linked to their brands as they are today. I feel as though what’s happened here are that the missteps of a CEO or even the affiliation of the CEO are having an effect on the Uber brand. That’s the world we live in: The leadership is now being held to the same brand standards personally and professionally. He should also realize you’ve never off camera, you’re always in the public eye.”

“Gens Y, Z and beyond place huge importance on aligning their values with those of their employer,” said Heaton and Prout. “Uber underestimates this at their peril. It’s not enough to tell employees what’s expected of them. Uber needs to invest in their internal culture and people (of all demographics), and collectively decide who they want to be and what behaviors will be rewarded. It’s got to feel inclusive and action-oriented, or no one will believe it. Travis Kalanick may have gotten Uber to this point, but its future lies in the hands of its employees. Because in the end, the brilliant jerks are always more trouble than they’re worth.”

@KristinaMonllos kristina.monllos@adweek.com Kristina Monllos is a senior editor for Adweek.