Why Uber’s rebrand has already failed

In Brand Strategy

Uber recently announced that it had completed the work on an extensive rebranding exercise, covered in detail in this Wired.com article. You may have already noticed the new app icon on your phone if you were lucky enough to find it after the rebrand!

Screenshot 2016-02-09 15.47.20

Image source: wired.com

The initial and perhaps premature negative feedback on the new look was only exarcebated by learning precisely how the rebranding was undertaken.

According to Wired:

The story of how (CEO Travis) Kalanick and his design team came to replace the ubiquitous “U” logo is about more than a corporate rebranding effort. It’s a coming-of-age tale. It’s about Uber’s attempt to transform its purpose and cement a new reputation—to change not only how it is perceived throughout the world, but how it perceives itself.

If transforming Uber’s purpose and cement a new reputation was the goal, then not only has the outcome of this exercise been subjected to creative ridicule, soon it will be apparent how operationally ineffective the work was in achieving these stated goals.

Reading through the article, we quickly understand why this rebrand has missed the mark and how damaging it will actually be to the company in the long term:

Here’s the thing, though. Kalanick is not a designer. He’s an engineer by training and an entrepreneur by nature. Yet he refused to entrust the rebranding to anyone else. This was an unusual decision. Most CEOs hire experts—branding agencies that specialize in translating corporate values into fonts and colors—or tap an in-house team. Not Kalanick. For the past three years, he’s worked alongside Uber design director Shalin Amin and a dozen or so others, hammering out ideas from a stuffy space they call the War Room. Along the way, he studied up on concepts ranging from kerning to color palettes. “I didn’t know any of this stuff,” says Kalanick. “I just knew it was important, and so I wanted it to be good.”

“I didn’t know any of this stuff, I just knew it was important and so I wanted it to be good.” Brand strategists, designers and creatives around the world will no doubt recoil in horror and and disdain for the phrase “I wanted it to be good.” No more vague of a direction has or ever will be given to a designer. No worse reason for a rebrand will you ever find, and no poorer or subjective an outcome will you ever find than an outcome that starts with “I wanted it to be….”

Brand strategy and subsequent branding is not about a single oligarch demanding something “be good.” It is not about any one stakeholder and it is certainly not work that should be led by someone who has neither the experience, natural skill or self-awareness as CEO Travis Kalanick.

Branding or rebranding is the visual manifestation of the heart and soul of an organization. It is based on a balanced and exhaustive understanding of the needs of all stakeholders in an organization. In Uber’s case, that would be shareholders, leadership, drivers, employees, communities, partners etc, yet none of these stakeholders were consulted, interviewed or sought out to help inform a direction that would ultimately turn into a visual representation. You might ask what a driver would be able to tell us about logo design or what the community cares about color palettes, but to ask this question is to miss the point. We don’t want to know their color preferences or design suggestions. We want to know what’s important to them. We want to know what Uber means today and what they want it to mean tomorrow. We want to know how Uber impacts their lives, we want to know what it would mean to them if Uber went away tomorrow. We want to hear their suggestions, their complaints and their deeper desires.

Certain outlets criticised the fact this rebrand took almost three years to complete. When done properly, with the requisite research, discovery, interviewing it takes to understand the needs of a subsection of all stakeholders, this timeline, considering the size of the company, is not unreasonable. What is unreasonable and frankly, downright negligent, is taking three years to work on a design informed solely by the vain needs of a single stakeholder:

As they sketched on the wall and sifted through materials, the group began to focus on a blog post Kalanick had written, in which he described Uber’s culture as the combination of bits and atoms. Bits represented the machine efficiency involved in Uber’s mapping and dispatch software. The atoms represented people. The concept stuck…

So, this entire exercise was designed to line up with Kalanick’s singular view of the company and the world, as if he was the only resident of either. Creating a visual identity and deep rebrand without being fully informed of the needs of the stakeholders and the deeper company issues that it is designed to address is akin to designing a suit for a man you’ve never met, have no idea of his measurements, his ideal colors or his budget. It just doesn’t work that way.

I can get a logo for $5, but it doesn’t mean any more than I have a $5 logo. There’s a reason that companies invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in brand strategy. Because the deliverable is more than a book of designs and colors; it is the roadmap for the direction of the company for the next 5, 10 or 20 years. Something a $5 logo will never get you and something that an ego-led rebrand will similarly not get you.

Mr. Kalanick, you are the proud owner of a logo and color palette that took three years and hundreds of thousands of dollars of labor, and that’s all you have. It’s as useful to the company as a chocolate teapot.

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BarryBarry Chandler is the co-founder of Storyforge, a brand strategy company focused on helping companies discover their purpose to allow them achieve their vision, build preference and drive margin. Barry has been building award winning businesses since launching his first company in Ireland in 2003. His last company, a digital marketing agency, was acquired in 2012 by a California based publicly traded entertainment company which then hired him as Chief Marketing Officer. It is his belief that the greatest brands seek to change the world, improving the lives of their associates, partners and customers.