Travis Kalanick, Radical Transparency, and the Rise of Glass Box Brands.


The fall of the Uber CEO signals a profound shift in what we mean by the word brand.

So Travis is gone. After persistent accusations of endemic sexism, a memo telling employees not to have sex ‘if you are in the same chain of command,’ and that time he berated a driver and the video went viral (obviously), the Uber CEO bowed to pressure from investors and stood aside this morning.

There’s a lot of talk right now on how this heralds a new era for the Valley. The beginning of the end for the aggressively non-corporate, roll with me, bro-CEO. And there’s probably some truth in that.

But I’m interested in how the tale of Travis highlights a much deeper emerging shift for business. It’s a shift in the way brands work, in the very meaning of the word brand. And it’s of deep relevance for any founder, entrepreneur, CEO or marketer, inside the Valley or not.

So what’s this shift about? Here’s one way of explaining it. (Full disclosure — some of these thoughts are taken from another article I wrote recently on glass box brands).

Back in the day a business was a black box. For outsiders, it was pretty hard to see what was going on inside. The brand was painted on the outside of the box. People came and looked at it. They either liked it or they didn’t.

Today a business is a glass box. Outsiders can easily see inside. They can see the people and the processes. They can see the values. They can even see what the people inside the box feel about what they’re doing.

That’s thanks to the radical transparency that is part of a connected world.

That transparency means that one employee can find a global audience when she blows open your culture of sexism and harassment. It means that when a senior executive manterrupts a globally-recognised female business leader to make a sexist comment in a meeting about sexism, that private moment will eventually become public. It means when you berate an employee of your own company for raising the issue of pay, millions will get to see that.

You get the picture.

Uber are far from the only brand to realize the hard way that every brand is now a glass box. Radical transparency makes stories like the 2015 New York Times take down of Amazon’s culture much more likely. Or take Volkswagen. They hyped the Transparent Factory, where customers could watch their VW Phaeton being built before their eyes. But turns out they forgot their whole brand is one massive Transparent Factory. And that brand took a crunching hit when people got to see what was going on inside.

So what does all this mean? At heart, there is one big consequence for the meaning of the word brand.

Back when a business was a black box, the brand was only (okay, mainly) whatever was painted on the outside.

Now that a business is a glass box, the brand is everything. Every person. Every process. Every value. Everything that happens, ever.

Whatever happens inside your business: the world can see that. If they can’t right now, they will soon. If it’s of any possible interest to anyone outside the box, it will be seen. It will be part of your brand.

And if your brand is unethical, or callous, or slipshod, or just kind of meh, no one is going to want to hang out with you.

So if you want to build a brand that people will love, there’s now only one way. Start with what is deep inside your business and work your way out. Create a business you’re happy for the world to see all the way through. One with great internal processes, driven by great values, put into practice by happy people. That takes real meticulousness.

It also helps if you’re starting from scratch. But in 2017 a powerful play for established brands is this: show consumers you’re moving in the right direction making positive changes to your brand’s internal culture and processes, and telling the world about them. It’s a play based on the key truth that there’s really no such thing as ‘internal’ culture any more. Your culture is always public, and it’s your most powerful public-facing asset or liability.

If you’re obsessed with watching innovations in a structured way to spot trends, then none of this comes as too much of a surprise. Our radar first started blipping on all this back in January 2015, when we saw Intel CEO Brian Krzanich stand on a stage and call out the lack of diversity in tech companies, including his own. Kraznich promised to dedicate $300 million to building a more diverse workforce at Intel by 2020. Think about that: a massive announcement (and massive spend) that is nothing to do with output for customers and everything to do with ‘internal’ culture. Why? Because Krzanich understands that internal culture is now brand.

Since then we’ve seen many further examples of this trend, which we came to call Insider Trading. From Starbucks opening a store in Kuala Lumpur dedicated to hiring deaf staff, to Spotify launching a campaign and some great posters Spotify dedicated to a new parental leave policy.

And then there’s Juno. An Uber competitor built entirely around one idea. Nothing to do with cost, speed, or service quality for customers. It’s that Juno pays its drivers more, and gives them equity in the company. All Juno wants you the customer to know is, ‘we treat our people better’. That’s how a startup competes in the age of glass box brands. In April Juno was acquired by Gett, but I hope they plan to maintain this powerful point of difference.

So where does all this ultimately lead? We’re in a world now in which consumers want to tell a story about who they are and what they stand for via the consumption choices they make. That means that the values of the businesses they engage with are more important to them than ever; they need those values to align with theirs, to form part of a positive story about who they are as people.

But in a world of glass box brands, you can’t ‘build a great brand’ any more. You just have to be a great business, all the way through. That’s your brand. Maybe we’re not there yet, but we’re on the way.

And the fall (for now) of Travis Kalanick is just one signal — albeit a spectacular one — of that shift.

David Mattin is Global Head of Trends & Insights at TrendWatching.

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