The problem with Uber’s redesign isn’t the design
NOTE: This was written in February of 2016 about Uber’s brand re-design. And though my point about brand is still applicable, it is obviously not a response to the redesigned app experience from later in 2016 nor the recent cultural implosion in 2017.
The Internet was up in arms over the recent Uber visual brand refresh. From Twitter mockery to various creative professionals bashing it, most people are not fans of the new logo and app icon. In my opinion, there’s plenty of real reasons to be upset with Uber, including their seemingly terrible driver screening process, but this is really not one of them.
I believe that most of the tumult can be simply explained by people not liking any sort of change. Whether they justify their objections by calling out supposed design flaws, or business reasons that don’t hold much water, they’re all pretty much wrong. I’ll get in to why in a second, but just know that no one will stop using Uber because of the visual redesign. Six months from now most people will be hard pressed to remember, let alone care. I’ll share why I think that is in another post about “attention evaporation” soon.
Let’s Break it Down
1/ The New Logo
First off, let’s be clear. I am talking about the logo which is actually a wordmark, not the app icon. It is not really a new logo as much as it is a revised one. Gone are the thin, tracked out letters with flourishes on the letters U and R. The new logo is tracked (squeezed) tighter with the letters opened up. This allows for much better legibility at smaller sizes. And after all, where do you interact with the Uber brand the most? That’s right, mobile. Where is the next/current frontier of advertising? Mobile.
2/ Color and Patterns
On the surface, this is a great idea. The previous aesthetic was still rooted in the black, town car service, which felt a bit “Darth Vader-esque.” Plus, the idea of localizing with texture and color is outstanding- provided they are relevant to their specific markets.
3/ App Icons
This seems to be the source of most of the consternation. The argument is that with the removal of the U, people wouldn’t be able to find the Uber app icon. This would result in lost revenue and customer confusion. While it might cause the latter the first few times, the former is simply not true. People will get used to the new icon because they will still want to use the service. I like that Uber has at least started to think in terms of a design system and architecture. Just because you have been using a design aesthetic isn’t the reason to keep using it. Companies also have to vigilant for “brand fatigue” which can cause a crusade to change look and feel because internal constituents are tired of seeing the same logo and assets.
4/ “But they didn’t conduct research!”
This is the only pushback that I am hearing that’s on somewhat solid ground. The argument is that Travis and Co. developed and launched this new design without input from consumers or drivers. I find it hard to believe that no consumers saw this in advance but that’s not really the point. Yes, they should have included relevant constituent research. But the real misstep is that they didn’t start at the what should have the beginning of the project — Brand.
Brand vs. Visual Brand
Brand is more than logos and colors. Brand is the sum total of literally everything a company does. It helps consumers understand how they should think about your product or messaging, and why they should care beyond a mere transaction. Internally, it helps employees and people working on any company’s behalf to execute a brand strategy. It’s the talk and the walk.
The foundation of every effective Brand centers on a brand position. This brand position includes the brand promise (what is to believed), brand attributes (how do we want people to feel), and the brand story (what do we tell people). Ideally companies need to gain insights from within, and outside, the company to develop these. That way they gain universal insights and get a clearer picture of the company, the products, and services, and what resonates in the minds of the target consumer. All, things being equal, they will choose what actually speaks to them. So do the research. They will tell you what is compelling and relevant if you listen.
Uber — A Visual Re-brand, Not a Re-Brand
Unfortunately, as evidenced by the last two paragraphs in this article, the approach Uber took was “the tail wagging the dog.” They are trying to arrive at their brand position the way many do, in reverse:
“Two-and-a-half years after Kalanick began thinking about how to help Uber’s brand grow up, its new apps were ready. He, Amin and six others spent more than two hours guiding me through the choices the designers had made along the way, and the various points at which they’d wrestled with the question who exactly are we?”
It’s a question Kalanick is beginning to answer for himself. “The warmth, the colors, those things,” he says, nodding to the new brand. “That happens, when you start to know who you are.”
Unfortunately, without research it is at best an educated guess.
Will it work for them? Maybe. Despite that some are finding the designs off-putting, Uber has a deep war chest of cheap money from which they can subsidize rides and continue the international “land grab.” If they can become the global default ride-for-hire service first while bleeding out Lyft and other competitors, they can raise their rates and easily transition to other industries.
But let’s say the current VC environment wherein companies are being called to task to become profitable hits them? Or Lyft doesn’t bleed out but gets more money to compete with them? At that point they won’t be able to continue subsidizing rides. What happens then?
The consumer choice comes down to service and brand. If both apps get you a car and deliver you to your destination in a timely fashion, service levels are even. If service levels are even, then it comes down to Brand.
The Difference a Researched Brand Position Can Make
I was at Netflix starting in 2001, and by 2004, the Netflix brand position became “The best way to rent DVDs.” To be honest, it was developed without specific research, but more as a “we need a rallying point so let’s put this stake in the ground.” But when we surveyed members via consumer research what they thought about Netflix we got the feedback that we had positioned ourselves as an “efficient vending machine.” Not exactly the type of brand someone sticks with if/when the next “efficient vending machine” comes along.
So we did extensive consumer research, and came to a highly effective brand position, “Movie enjoyment made easy.” We then knew that everything we did had to pay that off. How we spoke changed, how we presented information changed. And we were able to scale with everyone executing each area of expertise from the same brand position. The result built one of the strongest brands in entertainment.
How strong? “Qwikster” strong. Many of you may have forgotten this story, but back in 2011 when Netflix decided to split the company in two, it made life complicated for everyone. There was a huge backlash with over three quarters of a million people cancelling their accounts. We had gone 180 degrees against our brand position (that took a decade to build) and made movie enjoyment really confusing and hard. And people were pissed. But that decision didn’t change the Brand. So we reversed the decision and went right back to it, improving everything from movie selection, to UI design. And then on to Netflix Originals. Lo and behold, not only had the equivalent three quarters of a million people returned, but both the customer acquisition numbers and stock price started the early stages of “hockey stick” growth. Most companies never get that kind of second chance. While there are many factors as to why the recovery went so well, the core reason for it doing so was Brand.
Good Luck Copying Uber
Companies that are looking to establish their brand position (promise, attributes and story) based on research are usually in one of three buckets:
1/ Just starting out but understand, or at least were told, the value of having that work done. They want to get it nailed down so they don’t have worry for a while.
2/ They’ve been executing tactically for a while with success, but have plateaued, or are not sure how they are going to scale and still be a cohesive Brand.
3/ Have somehow let market conditions shift without reaction and need to do the research now to get back in it.
Uber doesn’t match any of these three exactly. Why? Because of their massive fund raising. They can spend and subsidize to their heart’s content. They can fail spectacularly, lose money, and still grow. But for most companies that strategy simply isn’t an option.
The bottom line is that trying to create a Brand by creating it internally, or stumbling upon it via a design exercise will probably not work. And if it does work, you won’t really know how or why (but your collective egos will sure be thrilled). In the case of Uber, they’ve done no harm. Which sounds good, but in reality is a pretty low bar for a company this significant when it comes to Brand.
Do the research to figure out your Brand. You’ll have a strong foundation for confident, scalable, “hockey stick” growth.
Kaizen Creative Partnership applies the same research and data driven approach to brand positioning, messaging, and design that we used at Netflix. Helping companies discover what they need to be for smart growth.
Thanks to KCP partner Gary McMath and friend, former Netflix coworker, and Spoke co-founder John Ciancutti for the excellent editing assistance.