Uber -- how do you make it likable?

Commentary: Bozoma Saint John, Uber's new brand leader, says there is no Uber brand. What will it take to create a pleasant one?

Chris Matyszczyk
4 min read


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Bozoma Saint John. Uber's first step toward humanity?

Paras Griffin/BET

If you ask many people in the tech industry about Uber , you'll see curling of upper lips and clenching of fists.

So when Uber hired Apple Music marketing executive Bozoma Saint John to be its first chief brand officer on Tuesday, some might have wondered why she would do it. (Shortly after they tried to dismiss a thought about the money, that is.)

Saint John gave a small clue in an interview with Business Insider. She said there was no such thing as the Uber brand. Instead: "It's a magical product. People love to use it."

This is wise. Uber CEO Travis Kalanick has managed to make (and earn) the sorts of headlines that would make many a self-aware CEO wince with shame. Relatively few, I suspect, in the outside world have paid that much attention. Or, at least, have cared enough.

If they had, Uber would have endured far greater ridership issues and Kalanick might (only might) be gone. As Saint-John rightly says, people love the product. The black-and-white, slightly evil starkness of the logo passes them by like a recalcitrant taxi driver. 

They don't care about the Uber brand, but goodness do they care about the convenience and price of what it offers. 

What could get people emotionally involved with the brand? "Now it's time to tell the human story," Saint John told Variety. Which, of course, would be a challenging story to tell to, for example, the Uber driver whom Kalanick berated in his infamous lecture on life video.

Saint John's difficulty will lie in making many people care about an indispensable (to them) utility. It's like getting people to suddenly care about PG&E or Facebook. Like the latter, Uber has gained utility status very quickly. It's there because it's supposed to be, right?  

Where Airbnb has done a good -- if occasionally unctuous -- job of making its brand stand for bringing people together in as human a transaction as possible, Uber hasn't bothered trying. It's focused far more on mowing down local regulations in its path, getting the world's taxi drivers mad as hell and strutting in what it believes is a manly manner. Which is all a human story, but not quite the one Saint John wants to tell. 

At Apple Music, Saint John wasn't working with as blank a canvas as she has here. First of all, the brand was already called Apple Music , which brings with it extremely strong emotional associations. Moreover, she was working with a product that was very much a me-too to Spotify. 

Apple Music made a lot of ads featuring famous stars that were brief moments of entertainment, rather than constituting any coherent whole. It acted as if people would want to come toward it because it was Apple. Yet, Spotify had already secured a lot of emotional commitment. Apple struggled to break that.

How, then, might she begin to tell Uber's human tales? By creating communication that has the express intention of making people feel good. It sounds simple. It's something Uber has actively ignored.

She might begin to tell stories of how Uber helped in human situations. She might even get stars to perform "Carpool Karaoke" with Uber drivers in ads. (Wait, Apple Music's involved in that series, isn't it?) More generally, she might try to use the star power with which she's familiar to add a little friendly gloss to the stark and bark of the black-and-white. 

Ultimately, if the men at Uber Central grow a human side (a very big if), Saint John -- who is an extremely engaging character -- can show them how to make people warm to the brand in every action the brand takes. From the look it projects to every interaction between brand and customer, public or private. 

It's the drivers who will need to be (excuse me) the vehicles for much of that feel-good nature. If they suddenly feel they work for a company that has -- somewhere -- a heart, they're more likely to project that heart to customers. And customers will then feel a greater sense of belonging. 

I feel sure it won't be long before Uber will be sponsoring music festivals, as well as making other social gestures that will make at least a few people in tech mutter: "Wait, Uber's doing that? That Uber?"

And, if Saint John gets her way, that Uber will start to become this other Uber, one you never imagined you'd like. 

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