No Lovemarks for Uber
June 22, 2017
Some days ago, I attended a presentation on the UK branding of Uber: Be Anywhere, Effortlessly. In the set-up of the campaign architecture, Uber aims to be a brand that is trusted and even loved. It immediately raises the question: can Uber become a true lovemark? I doubt it. We have come to glorify Silicon Valley and ignore its dark side, but Uber has insulted too many stakeholders to serve as a lovemark. Indeed, its 'unpleasantness is now an assumed part of the brand' (The Guardian, June 8, 2017).
Unpleasantness? In marketing slang, Uber became big because its two-sided business model (customer and drivers) kills the friction of the traditional taxi UX (User Experience). However, Uber also has a knack for creating serious friction elsewhere. While rising demand and rising prices are symbiotic, customers have now experienced the downside of excessive surge pricing. The company uses advanced tricks of the behavioral economics playbook to push its drivers to the limit. Employees have raised considerable questions on sexual harassment. Lately, one of its top engineers was legally forced to stop working on a major development because he had stolen trade secrets from his former employer Alphabet.
In a cynical sense, Uber has merely become a fully normal organization. In big companies, wrongdoing is not the exception but borderline normal. In one study, a whopping forty percent of Fortune 100 companies were engaged in such serious wrongdoing that the national media reported it. Forty percent is most likely an underestimate (Donald Palmer, 2013).
Therefore, let us continue to question the origins of corporate success. We may seek inspiration in Silicon Valley, but we should abstain from glorifying it. Its ethical problems are too regular to be labelled exceptions. When employees of the much applauded Amazon are typified as Amazombies, it signals a serious management problem. If culture eats strategy for breakfast, at Uber it eats ethics the rest of the day. Among the notorious 14 core values former CEO Kalanick presented in 2014 were always be hustlin' and principled confrontation. A former manager synthesized this aptly as 'an excuse to be assholes' (New York Magazine, May 29, 2017).
Second, we must remain vigilant against the malicious antecedents of leadership success. We all love the idea of an upstart entrepreneur who acts as the heroic business equivalent of an Expendable in the Sylvester Stallone movie series. Kalanick, just like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Jack Ma and many others, are role models for everybody with a passion for business adventure. However, unchallenged leadership is a dangerous liability on your company's social balance sheet. When Kalanick went to the lactation room to meditate, Uber board member Arianna Huffington viewed this as 'part of the change coming.' How nuts must one be to be appointed as CEO or board member at the world's most valuable startup? It reminds us that the problem with bottlenecks is that the neck of the bottle is at the top of the bottle.
Thirdly, we must assess our own behaviors. As long as consumers like the price and ignore the perils of Uber, change will not come swiftly. Is it therefore not time to shelve the harsh, masculine concept of 'King Customer' and substitute it by a gentler, feminine 'Queen Society' in marketing theory and practice? Addressing this last question is not only the task of academics, consultants or business leaders. It is also the task of us, consumers. If we hail a cheap ride and ignore the wrongdoing, then we are part of the problem.
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