Uber is on a journey in more ways than one.
Its meteoric rise might have put it at the top of Fortune’s Unicorn List, but today the company is fighting a reputational war on several fronts. Fresh from damaging revelations about a serious global data breach and already knee-deep in a licence appeal in London, this week the company found itself on the back foot once again as claims it failed to respond to official requests about its management resulted in its licence being suspended in Sheffield.
Of course, this all comes in the wake of well-documented allegations of sexual harassment and an aggressively sexist company culture that began spewing out of the company in February and eventually culminated in the ousting of co-founder Travis Kalanick as chief executive in June.
Despite its problems, change is afoot. As part of efforts to rebuild its tarnished reputation led by chief brand officer Bozoma Saint John and new chief executive Dara Khosrowshahi, Uber is ushering in a new raft of cultural norms. Into the dustbin goes "always be hustlin’" and "principled confrontation" and in come "we build globally, we live locally" and "we do the right thing".
In both words and actions, Uber sounds like a brand that has, in no uncertain terms, been told to ‘grow up’.
The reason is that, like so many of its tech contemporaries, Uber has scaled rapidly and globally almost exclusively on the basis of a disruptive business model and speed to market. It is of one of the many digitally native businesses defined by a ‘launch fast and iterate faster’ approach, exploiting digital network effects and peer-to-peer economics – not to mention a bullish approach – to pull the rug from beneath a variety of incumbent players.
Dynamic and exciting, yes, but in the dash for domination there is an inevitable risk of prioritising growth above all else. And when this is the case, then there is an equally inevitable risk of neglecting your brand, your purpose and your company culture - the essential elements that serve to underpin everything a business does.
As the late branding guru Wally Olins said, the concept of brand is quite simple: it’s the central guiding idea of a business that "persuades outsiders to buy and insiders to believe". Without it, or without articulating it properly, companies such as Uber can find there is a price to pay. This is arguably the reason they are now having to work so hard to clear up the mess, learning the hard way that a disruptive model, a great user experience and a nice logo are not enough when times get tough.
And times are certainly tougher in 2017. Digital innovators haven’t needed to worry about any of this until now but today’s consumers and policymakers have woken up to the darker sides of digital, and they are looking beyond the appeal of novelty alone to ask deeper questions about the nature of the services at our fingertips. If consumers cannot find satisfactory answers backed by a clear, compelling and trusted brand story, those businesses are at risk.
Snap is arguably the latest of the tech darlings to find this out. In its third-quarter earnings report on 7 November, the messaging platform missed analyst targets for revenues, new users and total daily users, triggering an 18% drop in its share price. With growth hard to come by, Snap chief executive Evan Spiegel is ushering in a raft of changes, and those are associated as much with the brand as they are with product and user experience. It is pivoting from being known as an app for teenagers to becoming a profitable messaging business, embracing its creative roots to build a broader audience of real scale.
There are other examples. Amazon has acquired an existing brand – Whole Foods – in the hugely competitive US grocery market. We have been happy to buy books, music and toys from them but will we trust them to feed our family organic apples and French cheese, and if so - why? For that matter, will consumers trust an Uber branded credit card in light of the way it has covered up a major data breach?
For Uber, it’s not yet clear where its brand journey will end and Dara Khosrowshahi clearly has his work cut out. As we head into 2018, perhaps other disruptor brands should see it as an alarm bell and ask themselves: is it time to grow up?
David Parry is chief operating officer at global branding consultancy Saffron