Branding was big news this week courtesy of Uber. With its new look, the ride-share company leaves behind its familiar "U" and replacing it with what looks like a backwards "C."
The rebranding is part of a process of Uber redefining itself and transforming its purpose now that it has become a global brand, according to an Uber blog post on the news. The ride-for-hire app that now operates in 400 cities across 68 countries, with a market valuation close to $65 billion, completely revamped its branding from the mobile app icon to the look and feel of the app itself. The result of the rebranding effort was a multitude of new icons and colors specific to the different countries where Uber operates.
Uber’s rebranding hasn’t been well-received, but beyond the design complaints the real brand problem might be in the perception around the company.
The rebranding from Uber’s perspective
Uber Founder and CEO Travis Kalanick published a blog post about the new brand and why Uber undertook the effort, explaining that Uber evolved from a luxury service offering users private drivers to an “everyday transportation option for millions of people” after the introduction of services like uberX and uberPOOL.
In a series of videos available on the post, Kalanick explains the new look is based on “bits” and “atoms” with the bits designed to "put our technology front and center," "as well as provide consistency, highlight information and make our brand easy to recognize." The atoms are what Kalanick calls Uber new colors and patterns unique to different Uber markets. "The team has spent months researching architecture, textiles, scenery, art, fashion, people and more to come up with authentic identities for the countries where Uber operates," he wrote.
The end result is a decidedly non-traditional rebrand because Uber no longer has a consistent global look, and the process and end result have something of the feel of a startup founder getting too hands-on for the company, and brand’s good.
Response has been mixed at a best, and Erich Joachimsthaler, CEO of Vivaldi Partners Group, told Marketing Dive that it's not surprising. "Just because you can, does not mean you should," he said regarding the rebrand.
The commentariat backlash
Wired ran an article with a deep look into the rebranding, which revealed a somewhat unorthodox rebranding campaign given Kalanick's extremely hands-on role during the entire process.
Separately, writing in the Financial Times, management editor Andrew Hill said the rebranding “suggests arrogance and inconsistency.” Hill expanded on the arrogance of the move, saying it stems from the rebrand presentation, "— itself an expensive-looking exercise — in which Uber first takes grandiose ownership of the whole world by harnessing its bits and atoms."
In the Inc. article, Bariso pointed out that addressing the rebranding might not have been the best use of Kalanick’s time the last two years. "Don't get me wrong, Uber could very well be due for a rebranding. But where the company has really suffered recently is in its reputation with drivers. Just yesterday (ironically on the same day as Uber's big reveal) The New York Times reported on driver complaints," Bariso said. The comment is in reference to a New York Times story about how many Uber drivers are feeling poorly compensated and have protested fare cuts.
Is there a lesson in Uber’s rebrand?
Uber definitely went against the branding grain with its new look. The multitude of colors and patterns to define its brand in different global markets, and the process itself, is outside of the usual rebrand norms. But the lesson in Uber’s rebranding exercise isn’t that hiring third-party experts and consultants to come into your business and tell you how you should be branded is the way to go. There’s nothing wrong with that approach, and there’s also nothing wrong with letting an in-house team craft a new look and feel for a company.
The lesson in Uber’s rebranding goes beyond the colors and patterns. It shows that branding truly is much about perception, and that is where Uber, and Kalanick as the company founder, went wrong.
Uber has been growing very fast. It has also faced legal battles with local transportation authorities as it -- and yes this overused startup term is apt here -- disrupts the traditional power structure beginning with taxi companies. It’s also faced a great deal of controversy on how it handles and compensates its drivers, who the company refers to as “partners.”
Beyond the design choices, Uber’s real mistake with the rebranding was in creating a legitimate perception issue, as pointed out by some of the commentary around the announcement.
It faces real business challenges for a young, growing company, and the esoteric talk about “bits” and “atoms” from the CEO, and the admission the team spent months researching different countries to determine the different colors and patterns pushed the question about where Uber’s priorities lie.
Regardless of how you feel about the new look itself, anyone invested in the company -- be it backers, drivers or riders -- might be questioning that investment this week. For Uber, criticism about its rebrand may not be enough to sink the brand, but the less-than-flattering commentary about the process should serve as a lesson to other companies considering switching up their look as well.
As Vivaldi's Joachimsthaler put it, perhaps before you rebrand, you should weigh whether you really need to, and consider whether the outcome is truly worth the investment.