, March 11, 2016

U Must be Joking: Uber and the Metrics of Rebranding

In a perfect world most companies would never need to rebrand because they got it so comprehensively right first time. The logo, colours and typefaces would start out fresh and exciting – the epitome of the new brand’s values – and by the end of the brand’s life they would be classic icons where the brand’s look and feel has become the generic of their market category like Kleenex and Hoover.

In the real world, there are many reasons why brands need to refresh or rebrand, most commonly to reposition because of a change in brand strategy with a new brand promise. Sometimes international expansion means that the original branding does not translate. Markets and media change; for example some brands have adapted to meet the needs of the digital era. Often there are indications that, due to market trends, the brand has become old fashioned and a more up to date image is required. Mergers and acquisitions also drive a lot of rebranding work as brands are swallowed up and adapted to fit into different corporate portfolios.

In all these cases, quality brand strategy applied to rebranding starts with a thorough understanding of customer or consumer perceptions of brand values and how they relate to the brand promise. Most brands that have made it out of the ‘S’ in SME (Small and Medium Enterprises) will use dedicated research for that. Marketers need a clear picture of the before and after and the benefits that rebranding will bring.

In case you hadn’t heard (or recognised the new logo on your smartphone), Uber has rebranded. The company launched its new brand at the beginning of February to a wave of (not quite universal) condemnation from both consumers, industry insiders and the media. For example the FT called it arrogant and inconsistent while Gizmodo compared it to ‘an asshole’ when turned on its side. Mark Ritson writing in Marketing Week called it brand masturbation on the basis that the CEO, Travis Kalanick, has devoted far too much time rearranging the deckchairs in house while he had much bigger issues to deal with. The near universal social media anger has often been from archetypal consumers unable to find the new app logo at 2am after a big night out!

My question is: does the fact that almost nobody likes it actually matter?

To answer that, you need to look at the metrics of rebranding. This involves having a clear view of the objectives of the rebranding exercise. A starting point may measure brand awareness and recognition and target market perception of brand values. It might also look at relative positioning against the competition. There might be technical issues with the current branding or brand portfolio that need to be addressed. Then you look to the future and what you’re trying to achieve, where you want to be immediately after the rebrand and in the medium and long term. This vision, based on knowledge and understanding of the brand, creates both the brief and the metrics for success.

With Uber, the announcement of the rebrand makes it clear there were technical issues with the branding that Travis Kalanick wanted to address. The company has changed since its last rebrand with services like uberX and uberPOOL, changing from a luxury proposition to “an everyday transportation option for millions of people.” He identifies a need for a simpler typeface that works better at a distance and when the branding is small. He wanted to create more flexibility in the brand allowing it to reflect a transportation network, woven into the fabric of countries and individual cities and how they move adding colour and patterns to a brand that had been black and white (since losing the red magnet U of its first branding). The announcement lays out what the rebranding exercise was trying to achieve (the brief) and how well it has achieved it (the metrics).

All very worthy, but without consumer research to back it up, this could just be the subjective opinion of a charismatic entrepreneur used to getting his own way. The only research mentioned in the announcement is investigating the “authentic identities for the countries where Uber operates” to help with colours and patterns. It therefore looks like the other metrics involving consumers and other brand stakeholders have simply been missed out.

Uber Red Magnet LogoSo back to my question, does the fact that almost nobody likes it actually matter?

It could be argued that the Uber brand owned (past tense now) the letter U in the same way that Skype owns the letter S on a sky blue background and McDonalds has the golden arches of the letter M. A branding agency tasked with rebranding that type of powerful brand would argue evolution not revolution. Brand recognition has real value in the real world. You don’t risk that type of recognition lightly…unless you’re the brand founder, still in control of a huge brand and there’s nobody (and no research) to advise you otherwise.

I would be happy to place a bet that before-and-after research would have shown a huge reduction in brand recognition levels for the smartphone app icon. Some brand values may also be affected negatively as consumers are irritated by the new branding. This was almost certainly the case when they lost the “red magnet” in 2011. However, in the short run, apart from those who can’t find the app at a crucial time, Uber is unlikely to lose much business. To answer my own question, this is a brand still in the growth stage of its lifecycle and you can get away with a lot when you have a useful product with high levels of demand in a growth market. In the longer term, the damage to Kalanick may be more substantial since his judgement has been called into question and he’s wasted too much time on a management area that a CMO would have handled much more professionally and successfully. And if he’s got this important business area wrong, then where else is the company going wrong?

Image credit: Uber

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