How Can Dara Khosrowshahi Repair the Uber Brand? Turn Inwards and Listen.


Evolving Uber’s internal culture isn’t only the right thing for staff and drivers — it’s the most powerful way to repair the broken Uber brand.

So it looks as though Dara Khosrowshahi intends to accept the offer to become Uber’s next CEO.

Khosrowshahi’s name wasn’t talked about much during the endless who’s it going to be? machinations over the Uber CEO vacancy. But his appointment makes plenty of sense. After all, he’s been a stunningly successful CEO at Expedia for 12 years now. And both Expedia and Uber are, when it comes down to it, platform businesses that connect individual consumers to providers who can serve them. Khosrowshahi has quadrupled Expedia’s revenue since taking over in 2005.

We all know Khosrowshahi is joining at a defining moment for Uber. He’ll immediately be pulled in a thousand different directions (more on this in a second). But there is one simple, fundamental truth about the fall of Kalanick, and the situation Uber faces today, that should guide what he does on day one. And that fundamental truth should give rise to an equally simple, powerful response.

A brand in crisis

So, what does Khosrowshahi’s day one inbox look like? Some highlights…

There are ongoing concerns over driver welfare and treatment. Multiple legal battles over the legality of Uber operations in various cities. A lawsuit with Waymo over technology that is fundamental to the company’s longterm strategy to win the self-driving future. And, of course, a host of scandals that have shredded the senior leadership team, steamrollered staff morale, and revealed a deeply problematic internal culture.

Perhaps most of all, though, Khosrowshahi is joining a company whose brand is in crisis. Of course, brand perception is a nebulous and subjective creature. But my sense is that there are plenty of people right now who don’t feel great about the Uber brand. In a recent survey of consumer attitudes, consultancy cg42 found that since the recent spate of scandals began the proportion of consumers with negative views of the company has jumped from 9% to 27%. A full 26% of Uber’s existing customers said they are looking for an alternative (Lyft, anyone?). Meanwhile, 32% of prospective customers now said they did not want to use Uber, up from 13%.

Look, I don’t want to overstate all this. There are many millions of people still using Uber enthusiastically, and many who will say that convenience and price are the drivers behind their perception of the brand. Analysts have pointed out that so far that any potential brand damage doesn’t seem to have affected growth — second-quarter revenue doubled from last year to $8.7 billion. But Uber had a CEO for most of the second quarter, and the full effect of the scandals won’t be captured in that data.

Still, even when you’re the dominant player, how long can poor brand perception be sustainable? Uber folks have got to be worried. The success the company has enjoyed so far is as nothing compared to their ambition to own movement through physical space in urban environments. Fleets of driverless cars dominating every major city across the US and Europe. A massive taste graph that serves billions of users with recommendations on where to eat, sleep, dance. All of that is under threat if they can’t rescue the brand.

After all, investors were worried enough to oust Kalanick.

In UK in June, Uber turned to their first UK TV ads to try to improve brand perception. But here’s the thing: that’s exactly the wrong direction to focus when it comes to their brand. Instead, if Khosrowshahi wants to reboot the Uber brand on the day he arrives, then, counterintuitively, he should turn inwards and speak to his own people.

A brand is a glass box

The reason for that simple but counterintuitive truth is something I’ve written about before: In 2017, internal culture is your brand.

Back in the day a business used to be a black box. Now, it’s a glass box.

Back when your business was a black box, the brand was whatever you painted on the outside of the box. You had control over that. People came and looked at what you’d painted, and either they liked it or they didn’t.

Now, thanks to the radical transparency made possible by a connected world, your business is a glass box. People can see all the way inside. And that means that now the brand is everything they see. Every person. Every process. Every value. Everything that happens, ever.

There’s a single word that sums up what a person sees when they look deep inside your business: they see your culture.

Across the last 12 months, consumers have seen deep inside the glass box that is Uber. That’s thanks to an employee blog post that went viral. A smartphone video that captured Travis berating a driver. The leaked notes on a senior leadership meeting (about sexism). And more.

Uber’s internal culture — of bullying, sexism and win at all costs including human costs — has become its public-facing brand. It has become the bundle of associations, images, stories and feelings people experience when they think Uber. That’s what happens in a world of radical transparency — in a world of glass box brands.

So one question: how to respond?

When listening speaks louder than talking

So Uber is a glass box. How, then, does Dara Khosrowshahi rescue the Uber brand?

Not with TV ads, that’s for sure. In fact, not by saying anything — at least initially — to customers and the wider public.

Instead, he does it with one simple move. On day one, he turns inwards and listens. He tells staff, managers and drivers: tell me about this culture. Tell me what is wrong with it. Tell me what is right with it. Tell me everything. Because together we are going to make it better.

In a world in which internal culture is becoming brand, that inward-facing gesture is not only the ethical thing to do for staff and drivers. It’s also the most powerful external marketing move Khosrowshahi can make.

Because that move will become the beginning of a hugely powerful story about how Khosrowshahi is evolving the internal culture at Uber. And in a world of radical transparency, that evolution will become known to the public; it will be blogged, Tweeted, and livestreamed by staff and drivers. It will become its own marketing campaign, rolling out across multiple platforms.

In a world of glass box brands, that’s what will really and meaningfully change perception of the Uber brand. Not another slick TV ad.

Your glass box

Of course, I doubt I’m telling Khosrowshahi anything he doesn’t already know. I just can’t wait to see him act, and see how all this plays out.

But don’t forget that whether you’re a marketing manager, HR person, founder, CEO, whatever: you’re inside the glass box that is your brand.

Can you steal the lesson that Uber has been trying to teach us all over the last 12 months, and apply it inside your business? Ask yourself: what aspects of our internal culture can we evolve, and how can we turn that into a compelling story?

It could become your most powerful marketing play of 2018.

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

Leave a Reply