• Transform magazine
  • December 13, 2017

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Can Uber reinvent and reignite its brand?

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Startup founders and their companies don’t always stay a package deal. But when brand trust is diminishing, and the founder’s fingers are prised from the steering wheel, how can it recover? Without the visionary behind the brand will Uber’s ability to innovate stall? Will Uber still be Uber? When a brand is at such a crossroads what it comes down to is capable leadership

Brands are now bigger than countries. The world’s largest corporations make more money than most countries on Earth combined, transcending their country of origin and wielding astonishing influence, not just over customers but over governments too. As they grow, rework and reinvent the status quo, they help shape the new world order.

Uber, albeit not yet the size of a Walmart or Apple, has nonetheless been a tremendously successful startup, shifting gear into fast becoming a fully fledged multinational, pursuing huge profits, a broader market base and creating a new culture of mobility. Although battling with local laws and cultural integration tactics, realising what works here, doesn’t always work there, has also lead to scandals around exploited employees and communities disrupted. Consumers caught wind of the underhanded tactics and the trust broke down. Anxiety engulfed and CEO Travis Kalanick’s fingers were prised from the steering wheel.

CEOs are accountable for such breakdowns in trust toward the brand, which in effect leads to a breakdown in trust of them as a capable leader.

En route, Kalanick had taken questionable actions that required reaction. He faced sexual harassment allegations and hostility to a community driver who complained that pay rates had fallen before saying, “People don’t trust you anymore.” Uber’s use of a secretive software called ‘Greyball’ even helped it evade law enforcers in areas where app was pending approval.

On his controversial resignation, Uber drivers declared they ‘don’t give a damn,’ about Kalanick stepping down, a clear signal of an ineffective leader. But without the visionary behind the brand at the helm, will Uber still be Uber?

Kalanick was the company’s founder, their chief brand ambassador. He was instrumental in the organisation’s drive, the decision to differentiate by shifting gear from ‘everyone’s personal driver’ to ‘technology that moves cities.’ He was relentless in his pursuit of innovation; UberEats, UberRush and UberCargo are all testament to this. But an entity constructed in its leader’s image quickly turned into a company rife with sexism and sexual misconduct resulting in vindictive headlines, disgust, distrust and even dismissal.

For Kalanick, in today’s world of organised and accessible information for all, his flaws diluted political and legal conversations that a brand like Uber needed to address face on. Kalanick missed the opportunity to use the brand as a force for good.

CEOs become highly representative of the brand itself and if their actions grate against public opinion then their moment in the leadership limelight is short-lived. Just ask Lululemon’s Chip Wilson if he regrets any one of his PR blunders. Look at American Apparel’s Dov Charney who became embroiled in harassment, discrimination and assault suits.

The problem is that Uber is part of a much bigger battle. It is at the pinnacle of numerous hot debates. It has upended the way people access products and services. Its technology has enabled the gig economy, responsible for countless legal disputes around minimum wages, holiday pay, and so on. It has given mobility to previously immobile females across Saudi Arabia. And its headstrong approach to entering new markets causes officials to react with understandable backfire. Search Wikipedia for ‘Uber protests and legal actions,’ I tapped out of scrolling after 10 minutes.

Uber represents a whole new form of company, struggling to find it’s place in society and stand on its own two legs. As it enters new markets, negotiates with countries and reinvents employment practices, it needs to be held accountable for its actions and spearhead the conversation of change.

I’m not against CEOs acting behind the scenes, but this type of company – a company redefining socio-economic patterns – needs to have a leader capable of three things: inspiring, embracing and involving.

Look no further than how Howard Schultz inspires us to make a difference in people lives, placing an emphasis on people over product. Consider how Paul Polman pronounced his ambitions to embrace the effect Unilever has on the environment, thus creating a new living plan. Or Yvon Chouinard’s ability to create a groundswell of activists, involving them in shared issues prevailing Patagonia’s industry.

As Uber negotiates the current crossroads it finds itself at and moves into the next phase of transformation, a rush of contenders to right its course will emerge. But as it navigates a minefield of political, business and legal debates, one thing is for sure, a credible leader committed to a holistic cleanup is needed.

Toby Marks is the associate strategist at Siegel+Gale