How to Rebrand Your Startup: An Uber Case Study

Rebranding is tricky. For one thing, there’s no guarantee it’s going to work, and your rebranding attempts can have an unintended effect. Instead of creating a new image for your company, your rebrand can simply remind customers of your previous image (or faults).

The basics of branding

Before we talk about rebranding, let’s brush up on the basics of branding. You have to crawl before you walk, and there’s no sense in talking about rebranding until we’ve identified these brand-building best practices:

  • Optimize customer experiences
  • Be consistent with your brand messaging
  • Align content marketing with brand image
  • Find some good “brand ambassadors,” i.e. people who can represent your brand to the public
  • Be unique

Even more than the visual aspects of your company, branding is about creating great experiences for customers and showcasing your unique qualities through your content marketing and brand representatives.

To examine this further, let’s look at a case study. Uber’s rebranding efforts present a fascinating opportunity to see what it takes to rebrand your startup in a business world where everything is moving faster than it ever has before.

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The Uber brand

Like all on-demand businesses in the growing gig economy, Uber has an interesting branding predicament. It’s a technology company, and a platform that facilitates connections between customers and contractors. Yet, there’s a very real sense in which contractors represent Uber’s brand.

Uber has the dual responsibility of keeping contractors and customers happy. In that sense, it would seem that Uber is also a people-driven business: a great deal of its brand image depends on the people who make it possible.

Uber’s rebrand attempt

Over two years ago, Inc. took a look at Uber’s rebrand and found it lacking. At the outset, this came down to something very simple and symbolic: the new logo. A good logo isn’t just catchy and underpinned by a deep concept, it’s a symbol of your company’s values.

In the article, Inc. contributor, Justin Bariso. pointed to a blog post by ex-CEO Travis Kalanick. While the post was meant to explain Uber’s logo, it instead betrayed where Uber’s heart was. The logo is made up of “bits and atoms,” and the bits and atoms represent Uber’s biggest investors: Google Ventures (bits) and TPG Capital (atoms). Right away, this tells you that Kalanick and Co. didn’t value their drivers and riders nearly as much as they valued their investors.

After that moment of rebranding in 2016, things got messy. A timeline of Uber’s troubles from 2017 tells the story. In January, Uber kept operating when President Trump instituted his controversial travel ban, which earned the company bad press. Then, a former engineer named Susan Fowler revealed she’d been sexually harassed and ignored by Uber executives when she complained. There are plenty more problems to enumerate, but suffice it to say, Uber’s image took a black eye and Travis Kalanick was forced to resign as a result.

Uber’s true rebrand

Fast forward to May of 2018 when Uber customers received an email, ostensibly from new CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi.

“I’m so excited to write Uber’s next chapter with you,” Khosrowshahi said. “It starts with new leaders, a better company culture, and improvements to our app…”

Uber is reassuring its audience to view it as a company that listens, a company that values its customers and cares about its drivers. After two years of rolling out what appeared to be a rebrand, including a new logo and a new look for its website, Uber is embarking on the real work of rebranding.

Now, the company is attempting to turn its drivers into brand ambassadors, change the image of its company culture, and improve the customer experience.

What does this entail for those of us who want to get some takeaways here to apply to the rebranding of our own startups?

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What rebranding really is

Rebranding goes so much deeper than your logo and the way your website looks. Think of it like this: when you’re rebranding, your brand is a person trying to make up for past mistakes. New clothes aren’t going to do the job; it’s the actions that count.

Rebranding is a complete overhaul of how your company represents itself to the world, and as such, you must be authentic.

Uber’s new chief brand officer, Bozoma Saint John, is in charge of changing the company’s image. In an interview with CBS’ Gayle King, Saint John said she wants to start by focusing on “rebuilding Uber’s relationship with riders and drivers.”

She understands that a brand portrays itself first and foremost through its touchpoints with consumers. In Uber’s case, drivers are the company’s primary brand ambassadors and its primary consumer touchpoints. While a CEO can make for a fine ambassador, employees and contractors are your company’s best ambassadors. Any rebranding efforts should focus on cultivating a culture that turns them into positive brand ambassadors.

Here are some other takeaways from Uber’s attempt to rebrand itself:

  • Your images, logo and design must correspond to what you value
  • You’re a startup — move fast. Make quick, smart decisions about how you’ll prioritize, then do quick, intuitive work on your rebrand
  • Use the resources you have to get the word out. That includes social media, press releases, blog posts and emails
  • Start from the top down. As a leader, review how you represent your startup, as it informs how your brand will interact with the world
  • Surround yourself with good people. Uber was rife with complaints of harassment, bullying and intimidation. Make sure your company culture reflects your company values, and you won’t have to worry about the complaints of harassment, bullying and intimidation that Uber faced

Rebranding is about going deeper and truly grasping what you value as a company. Then, create consistent messages and imagery that illustrates those values to your customers. Remember, this is a conversation with your audience: say what you mean to say, and the rest is up to them.

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