-Randall Hull, The Br@nd Ranch®

There is an old branding adage: A logo is no more a brand than a steering wheel is a car. Yes, both are important components, but they are not the thing itself.

So, when I heard Uber, the ride-hailing service, was “rebranding” earlier this year I thought they would invest in the experience of interacting with and using their service. But it seems they left that in the trunk.

Their “rebranding” effort was driven by an in-house team with Uber co-founder and CEO Travis Kalanick personally steering the redesign. He attempted to explain the new look in a blog post justifying the months spent on researching local cultures, scenery and architecture in an effort to develop different pallets to decorate around the app. The company even created an Uber Brand Experience web site.

The response has been quite negative, as noted here, including criticism of the CEO for expending a significant amount of time on a corporate identity exercise — more than two-and-a-half years according to Wired Magazine. (http://www.wired.com/2016/02/the-inside-story-behind-ubers-colorful-redesign/)

Here is the before and after:


Say what you will about the elements of the new look, a design critique is not my point here. My point is this — let’s not confuse corporate identity systems or redesigns or “realignments” — or whatever a company decides to call the exercise — with branding, or rebranding, as in this case.

That is not branding.

As Marty Neumeier said in his excellent book The Brand Gap, “A brand is a person’s gut feeling about a product, service, or company…It’s a PERSON’S GUT FEELING, because in the end the brand is defined by individuals, not by companies, markets, or the so-called general public. Each person creates his or her own version of it.” Your brand is the aggregate of every experience your customers have with your product, service or company. That is where the rubber meets the road.

Amazon founder, Jeff Bezos, was quoted as saying: “Your brand is what people say about you when you are not in the room.” This is in sync with Neumeier’s statement “A brand is not what YOU say it is. It’s what THEY say it is.”

And what is the foundation of a brand? Trust. Trust should always be the goal. No product, service or company will ever succeed at communicating value — fundamental to a successful brand — without establishing trust first. Neumeier succinctly states, “Trust comes from meeting and beating customer expectations.”

No amount of “tailored colors and patterns, illustrations, and photos” from an internal team, even with the most clever designers or CEO at the wheel, will achieve this. The Uber brand was created and will continue to be redefined by its customers’ trust in the organization based on their experiences. And, these experiences are determined by every interaction with Uber, its employees, and, most of all, its drivers.

This is where Uber swerved. They were distracted by the sparkly hubcaps of a new corporate identity and took their eye off their customers’ experience. It would have been a far better investment in their brand to have pointed their high beams at the litany of incidents and complaints from drivers and customers rather than a multi-year ‘reupholstering’ project.

Examples of the problems can be found here, here, here, and here.

This doesn’t signal the end of the road for Uber, but it is a substantial s-turn they will have to negotiate. Do that and Uber will be steering in the right direction. Then a trustworthy brand will follow without a trailer hitch.













  • James Mahoney

    To borrow from the bard, a corporate identity by any other name would smell as sweet or as stinky to the beholder.

    Innumerable professional discussions spend hours upon hours trying to define what a brand is–mostly so brand experts can distinguish themselves as the elite of the communications world. The insiders strongly assert that a logo (or identity) is not a brand. And in the rarified air that we in the business breathe, they are right, of course.

    And so it rankles when civilians misuse “brand,” as the illuminati define it, to mean “identity” or “logo.” But in the wider world, it doesn’t make any real difference, except to bend out of shape the noses of people who make their livings helping to define the desired attributes that a client wishes to have associated with their brand, and helping said client to then achieve those associations.

    But ask your mother or any random non-communications person on the street what, for example, the Apple brand is, and chances are almost certain they’ll describe the logo.

    And that’s why even many, if not most, professionals would use the word “rebranding” to describe an initiative to change the visual elements and positioning that identify the brand.

    • Randall Hull

      You raise a point I hear too often, thus the reason for the post.

      The bard was talking about a different name for a specific thing. I am talking about the wrong name for a complex set of attributes not defined by the company.

      I would argue that it is our job as professionals and practitioners to educate the public as to what terms mean so we properly set expectations. We are in a communications profession, after all.

      It is even more important for those in the profession to understand the difference. Many I encounter don’t!

      The issue is not what members of the public think brand is but what the company is trying to pass off as “rebranding”. ‘Lipstick on a pig’ is not rebranding, it is mere “prettying up”. The point is to fix the real issues that define the brand — the experience — and cease misleading customers and the public by misinforming them of what the company has done.

      This isn’t about living in the rarefied air of ivory tower brand elitism. It is about what the customer should expect when presented with “rebranding” from a company.

      It is disingenuous at best and does no one, not the professionals nor the public, any good to call it what it isn’t.

      • James Mahoney

        Indeed, we are communications professionals, after all. Presumably, that means that we understand the intellectual/emotional landscape of target audiences, and can craft communications, including concepts, that the target audiences can quickly grasp and smoothly accept.

        Until relatively recently, “visual identity + tag + positioning” equaled brand/branding. This built on the centuries-old understanding of “brand” (case in point, Bass Ale’s distinguishing red-triangle trademark established in 1777).

        Because the options for two-way communication were very limited, branding was largely one-way from the company out to its marketplace.

        The massive commons of the Web changed that.

        And in the new world, communications thought-leaders expanded the meaning of “brand,” a notable example being the Marty Neumeier book you cite, 2006’s “The Brand Gap.”

        Now, a decade later, we still have a small cadre of brand professionals railing against the wind that “brand” doesn’t mean what 99.9999999% of the world thinks it does.

        It reminds me of another “pig” quip: Never try to teach a pig to sing. It just wastes your time and it irritates the pig.

        So, if I’ve raised a point that you hear too often, doesn’t that strongly suggest that it’s time to move on from the quixotic quest of trying to rebrand “brand” in the face of massive indifference?

        Doesn’t it make more sense, as communications professionals, to coin another word for this uber-brand concept? One that doesn’t have to re-engineer a deeply embedded understanding of the traditional meaning of the word, but rather, leverages that common understanding?

        Because the bottom line is that no one outside of our industry, and lots of people in it, cares two figs whether or not they’re using the word “brand” as you wish them to. So if you want them to get the new religion, then give them a new talisman that builds on the old one.

        It’ll save you time, and it won’t irritate them.

        • Randall Hull

          Take a look at Marty’s later book “The Brand Flip”. He sees what I see, as do others.

        • Randall Hull

          Read Neumeier’s “The Brand Flip”. He sees what I see, along with others.

          • James Mahoney

            The question you raise in your post isn’t whether the brand flip that Neumeier describes is real (obviously, it is). Rather, the point you raise is irritation that the rest of the world isn’t up to speed on what some consider to be the evolved meaning of the word “brand.”

            Neumeier observes that “A brand isn’t what you say it is; it’s what they say it is.” He could just as easily state, “The meaning of the word brand isn’t what you say it is; it’s what the overwhelming majority understand it to be.”

            So my point is, why waste so much time and energy trying to redefine a word that has a deeply embedded, common understanding? Does it not make more sense to coin an additional, easily grasped term that describes the new dynamic?

            Let “brand” keep its acknowledged, amorphous meaning, and give companies a new conceptual term to hang their outreach efforts on. Industry thought leaders have created new terms before to shift perceptions–“positioning” and “unique selling proposition” are two examples. Seems like its time to do it again.

          • Randall Hull

            There were two points in my article. You are focusing on one, which you may if you wish.

            You missed Neumeier’s point as well. “A brand isn’t what you say it is; it’s what they say it is.” is not the same as “The meaning of the word brand isn’t what you say it is; it’s what the overwhelming majority understand it to be.” He isn’t addressing a word, he is addressing a view of what brand means. I know Marty and I know what he thinks and means.

            You and I will not agree. That point can’t be missed.

          • James Mahoney

            Actually, we are in violent agreement on the first point (as I mentioned, and which is the more important one), and we are in agreement that we won’t agree on whether to expend further (likely fruitless) effort to re-align what the world understands “brand” to mean.

            Thanks for taking so much time to discuss it.