A hot-tempered CEO. A sexual harassment lawsuit. A federal investigation. A political controversy followed by a viral campaign to boycott the company.
Uber, for all its brand recognition, just can’t seem to avoid PR disasters (and it appears to be affecting its bottom line). Amid the fallout, one has to wonder: Would stronger brand storytelling enable Uber to move forward from the crises, or perhaps even avoid them?
Even Uber admits it has a brand voice problem. Uber general manager and head of cities Fred Jones noted that the company “never really had a brand voice in terms of what we stand for and what we believe in,” according to Marketing Week. Honing in on that brand voice and communicating it to users is a top priority this year, Jones notes.
It’s not a new goal for the company. In 2015, Uber CEO and cofounder Travis Kalanick underscored the company’s need to do a better job at telling its brand story, Marketing Week notes. In 2016, a graphic rebrand was supposed to “change not only how (Uber) is perceived throughout the world, but how it perceives itself,” according to Wired.
Yet despite these attempts, Uber’s brand story remains elusive. Yes, Uber has achieved dominance in the ride-share industry, but its meteoric rise and laser-like focus on expansion and profit may have come at a cost. If the only story your brand can tell is “we’re cheaper than the competition,” it may not be enough to keep your consumers loyal, especially as the scandals continue to grow.
Uber’s storytelling troubles foreshadow long-term problems. If the company can’t define what it stands for or the story it wants to convey, how can it connect with consumers? And as the #DeleteUber debacle proved, it’s all too easy for consumers to jump ship when they realize a brand’s values are bankrupt.
Despite a brand’s best efforts, PR crises happen. An adept response can mitigate the damage, but a poor response can make the situation far worse.
Brands that have honed their storytelling ability have an advantage in this arena. For one, brands that have a long history of living and sharing their values through content may be better able to explain a snafu as a one-off event, especially if they show appropriate contrition and a willingness to fix the problem.
A very damaging crisis, however, may require rethinking an entire brand. Again, brands with a content focus have the advantage here with their ability to adapt messaging quickly to the current environment. Crises demand that brands evolve; strong storytelling can reflect that positive evolution. In the wake of a crisis, a brand’s content strategy needs to alleviate the damage while also signaling that the brand has rectified the situation moving forward.
BP’s response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 marks one example of shifting content strategy following a major incident. After the disaster, BP built messaging around accountability and learning from mistakes, as the Content Standard has noted previously. By 2016, the pitch had shifted, focusing on how gas and petroleum products are useful and relevant in our everyday lives. While the new campaign doesn’t reference the oil spill directly, it does offer a prime example of how brands evolve in response to crises. It’s not hard to imagine that BP’s softer, more emotional tone comes out of a desire to leave the incident behind while distinguishing itself from competitors.
Uber now finds itself in desperate need of a similar branding overhaul. Increasingly, the company’s perceived lack of empathy is threatening its bottom line. Over 200,000 users deleted the app following public outcry over Kalanick’s participation on President Trump’s economic advisory board, according to the New York Times. The #DeleteUber campaign eventually forced Kalanick to step down from the council.
Many times, brands can lean on leadership to serve as brand ambassadors. In Uber’s case, this approach has been a liability. After Uber CEO Kalanick was caught on camera lashing out at a driver, he issued a statement essentially admitting his immaturity (Kalanick is 40).
“To say that I am ashamed is an extreme understatement,” Kalanick wrote. “It’s clear this video is a reflection of me…. I must fundamentally change as a leader and grow up. This is the first time I’ve been willing to admit that I need leadership help and I intend to get it.”
When your brand story pivots to your CEO needing to grow up, you may have a problem.
Taken together, these incidents weave their own damaging narrative: That of a callous company, too focused on profits, too dismissive of the people that ultimately drive the business. That oversight has opened the door for competitors, like Lyft, to tell a more compelling story.
Image attribution: Lyft
As far as market share goes, Uber dominates competitor Lyft. Nonetheless, underdog Lyft appears to be positioning itself as a more palatable alternative to Uber via its brand storytelling efforts. On the surface, the companies aren’t that different: Both are privately held and do not offer benefits to its drivers. Their brands, however, tell very different stories: Lyft deliberately seeks to position itself as the socially conscious alternative in the ride-sharing space.
“There’s more of a story to tell about a company that puts people first, a company that focuses a lot on experience and making sure we demonstrate how we treat drivers and passengers really well,” Lyft CMO Melissa Waters told the Wall Street Journal.
While Uber floundered amid the #DeleteUber scandal, Lyft promoted “Round Up and Donate,” a program that allows riders to contribute to partner charities by rounding up their fare to the closest dollar. The more Lyft can show off its values, the more it can siphon socially aware customers from Uber.
If Uber had cultivated a similar story, would it now be better able to withstand the storm of bad PR? And if the company better understood its own values, would its leadership be more compelled to behave in accordance with those values?
Maybe Uber’s self-inflicted wounds were inevitable. Maybe not. What is clear is that the scandals make Uber appear soulless at a time when consumers are keenly attuned to brands that share their values—and the company continues to struggle to communicate what it stands for. In time, these snowballing problems could erode consumer and investor trust and seriously damage the company’s prospects.
For marketers, the Uber example serves as a cautionary tale. Ignore brand values—and how you articulate them—at your peril.
Featured image attribution: Uber