Nov 20 2014

Uber – a lesson in brand reputation


You will have been hard pressed to miss the debate surrounding Uber this week, the disruptive car sharing app that has been shaking up the taxi industry in major cities around the world.

The Uber concept is great, get drivers to bid for the customer’s journey, resulting in lower costs for the traveller. The ratings system has also led to drivers delivering better service and customers keeping themselves in shape for fear of being barred from the service if they receive negative reviews. The App is beautifully designed, simple and you can pay for your travel on your card, eliminating the late night trip to the cashpoint that is all too familiar to users of black cabs in old London town (why can we still not pay by card is beyond me).


So far so good, the service has gone from strength to strength, expanded rapidly across the globe and proved popular with consumers.

However it is not all plain sailing. There have been demonstrations in many major cities from traditional Taxi service providers who see this as an erosion of their (admittedly monopolistic) livelihood.

The service has also been dogged by persistent rumours of a ‘laddish’ culture within the startup and concerns over the data the company collects on its users. This blew up spectacularly this week when comments from senior vice president of business Emil Michael made at a dinner in New York went public, where he suggests the company dig up dirt on journalists who reported negatively on the company.

Over dinner, Michael outlined the notion of spending “a million dollars” to hire four top opposition researchers and four journalists. That team could, he said, help Uber fight back against the press — they’d look into “your personal lives, your families,” and give the media a taste of its own medicine…

This, as you can imagine, ignited quite the media firestorm. Especially when he singled out a single female journalist in Sarah Lacy, the editor of PandoDaily, someone who has been highly critical of Uber in the past. Most recently publishing a story that exposed “the outrageous sexism woven deeply into the culture of the company”.

Worse, Michael threatened the use of Uber’s data to track individuals behaviours, placing focus on the use and abuse of customer data by the company. People do not want to feel that their cab company is tracking them and using the data for nefarious means.

The issue was only further fuelled by the interjection of Ashton Kutcher (an investor in Uber) questioning that maybe the media should be held up to the same scrutiny as celebrities and business leaders.

You can understand this point of view, as a celebrity that has every pore of their life, professional and personal pored over and often invented. They may be resentful of the media, as may the founders of a start up seeing the results of their labour being attacked.

Now the major issue at hand here is not the personalities involved, but the brand reputation of a company supposedly valued at $18billion. What effect will this scandal have on the company, will it engage customers to the point of dropping the service in favour of a competitor such as Hailo or lyft.

So what can be learnt from this debacle?

Firstly, however off the record you think a conversation is, there is no such thing as off the record. If you dont want to see something in print, never say it in front of a journalist. In fact, if something is so controversial, it is probably better to never verbalise it at all.

Start up businesses are hard work, you put in long hours and it is an intensely personal experience. It is then very hard not to take it personally when your ‘baby’ is attacked, especially in public and in print. I have worked with many business owners who have been burnt by bad press and then retreat into their shell, refusing to communicate with the media or totally blanking the journalist responsible.

This is understandable, but the very worst approach possible. Firstly journalists are seldom following a personal vendetta against the company or an individual, they just see a story and will go for it. This is their job, break stories, to get headlines and today online views. This is how their career is rated and progressed.

As a business owner, your job is to grow and protect your business, and sometimes this will involve taking criticism on the chin. With social these days everyone is open to immediate and often brutally honest critisism. The key is to see this as an opportunity, not a personal attack.

While nobody likes to hear negative things about ourselves, if we never did we would never have the opportunity to grow and work on ourselves. Lets face it nobody’s perfect and the same goes for business.


So what should Uber have done?

With accusations of misogyny and sexism, Uber should have seen this as an opportunity to reach out and engage its female customer base. Show an understanding of the fears and expectations of its female customers and address concerns.

Uber should take the opportunity to be introspective and take a look at whether there was truth in these rumours, and if so take steps to address the issues. As a company that people are putting trust in, with money, personal safety as well as data, you need to be transparent in your approach. Consumers need to trust and like the brand.

My strategy: How about implementing a ‘Panic Button’ in its app that a customer could use to report an abusive driver or a threatening situation. Uber’s vehicle tracking would be able to deliver exact locations to the relevant authorities providing a quick and simple tool for making female passengers feel more secure. (I think I should trademark this concept – Uber if you are listening I’ll do you a good price)

This would give a great opportunity for PR outreach to demonstrate a commitment to its female user base. Engage its critics in a different debate and defuse a difficult to win argument.

What are your thoughts on the Uber crisis?

Will McIntyre

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