I grew up, as I’m sure we all did, reciting a rule that was engrained in my memory from the first time a police officer came to my elementary school for a fundamental safety lesson: never get in a stranger’s car.
That’s why it’s incredible that, flash forward to today, I hop into strangers’ cars at least once a week, tipping them extra for quality conversations, phone chargers and free candy. I, like most us, went from terrified of the concept to accepting it as a daily routine. It’s safe to say Uber has done what no brand has done before: building trust from a foundation of utter fear, changing the course of the transportation industry and inspiring an entirely new kind of economy, where sharing isn’t just caring, it’s pure profitability.
But for a company that’s built on the faith of its consumers, there’s a dark side to Uber that the brand just can’t seem to escape. Lawsuits, scandals and serious legal allegations have opened the doors to conversations about whether or not the brand has a company culture we can trust. After three (count em, three) rebrands and countless crises in less than nine years, it’s clear to everyone but Uber that the brand’s problems go far deeper than a logo.
In San Francisco, 2009, faced with an $800 private car on New Year’s Eve, Garrett Camp realized there had to be a better way to request luxury car service. From there, he brought on Travis Kalanick (Uber CEO from 2010 to 2017) and created UberCab, an app that provided high-end black car service at the push of a button for wealthy users in the city.
It wasn’t until 2012 that the Uber we now know came to be, with its original name and logo overhauled for the one we first became acquainted with. The shift occurred when Kalanick realized the car service could be even more accessible if drivers could operate out of their own vehicles, while keeping the same reputation as a luxurious, high-end brand. From there, the “Cab” was dropped and the original logo was swapped for the modern black icon and silver “U” that we would probably still recognize as Uber today. With no talk of company values or culture and a singular focus on perceived luxury, rebrand number one was established.
As Uber increased in popularity across the United States and internationally, its offerings became more diverse. The options for an UberX versus an UberXL reflected this expansion, and with them came a realization for Kalanick: Uber was no longer a luxurious car service designated for a select few—it was the new way for the masses to get from point A to point B. It was the end of transportation as we knew it.
In 2016, after the shift from luxury to economy, Kalanick knew the brand’s identity would need a refresh to match. But before a new look could be created, the company established five pillars to articulate their newfound positioning: grounded, populist, inspiring, highly evolved and elevated. With new positioning in tow, the team at Uber decided their updated look would also need to reflect their company culture—a smart move, but ultimately half-baked.
Kalanick described Uber’s company culture using the metaphor of bits and atoms to represent the mechanics (cars) and people (employees) behind the service, but didn’t dive into exactly what that meant about how the company conducts itself, treats its employees or interacts with its consumers. It was less an attempt at defining company culture and more a justification for the elements used in Uber’s new logo.
Even the company’s five pillars, a term which is typically used to describe pillars of values, were merely adjectives describing how the brand wanted to be perceived, not how it ought to behave. Positioning and culture are not one in the same, yet despite a lack of any true meaning, the pillars and metaphor were brought into the brand’s assets, and the second rebrand was born.
For a while there after the second rebrand, Uber had it made. The brand became an international household name, and their staff of 50 quickly expanded to nearly 7,000. By the end of 2016, Uber was worth an estimated $66 billion dollars—not bad for a start-up less than seven years old.
But, like all good things, it didn’t last. Ignoring the development of company culture led to controversy after controversy: a site hack resulted in the exposure of the personal information of over 57 million drivers and customers. iPhone tracking through the app violated Apple’s terms of service. Countless lawsuits were filed not only by unsatisfied riders, but also by entire cities and states that claimed the brand ran improper background checks on their drivers. Uber’s actions during the John F. Kennedy airport strike led to over 500,000 users deleting the app, a former engineer for the brand accused the company of rampant sexual misconduct and all of these instances pushed consumers to Uber’s growing competitor, Lyft. By June 2017, Kalanick was forced to resign.
With Kalanick gone, Uber brought in Dara Khosrowshahi, formerly CEO of Expedia, to become their new leader and bring the brand back into the world’s good graces. Khosrowshahi hired the brand’s first ever chief marketing officer, Rebecca Messina, and just two days after the announcement and three years after the last rebrand, Uber unveiled yet another new identity.
The five pillars were pushed aside, with terms such as friendly, safe, reliable and ambitious as the new desired characteristics of the Uber brand. This manifested in the new look through rounded typography and a return to a simple black logo design, with Uber’s brand standards now publicized on its own website. But while the rebrand may be the most attractive to date, is it enough to overhaul the mess that remains of Uber’s neglected company culture?
The brand is making steps in the right direction, but it’ll take more than that to shake the impression of Uber’s knee-jerk reaction to controversy: changing its image, not its culture. In order to make a real difference, Uber executives will need to make serious decisions about the way the company operates, treats its employees, interacts with its customers and contributes to our society. Design is an important aspect of any brand’s identity, but without the trust of its employees or consumers, no new font is going to cut it.
The third rebrand is now one month old, but only time will tell how long this one will stick. The next time Uber gets into hot water, one can only hope a fourth rebrand won’t follow. Instead, the company should use this time to take a step back and examine its values—real values.
From the very beginning, Uber’s focus has always been on appearance and perception: what people think of them, what they look like and how that could translate to more profits. Those five pillars established during the second rebrand speak directly to the brand’s lack of understanding when it comes to the difference between positioning and values, and it was that misunderstanding that led to the near demise of one of the most iconic brands of our era. Now, it’s time for a true overhaul at Uber: not of its branding, but of its behavior.
It’s too soon to tell if Uber will be able to salvage a workable company culture or gain back the trust of consumers, but there’s still hope yet. After all, Uber’s the one we all put our trust in when we broke from that fundamental safety lesson and got in a stranger’s car for the first time.