A Tale Of Two Disruptors

Much has been commented, posted and tweeted about Uber’s rebrand, and it’s probably fair to say that it wasn’t met with excitement – at least when it comes to branding professionals. Whether it will be well received by the general public or not, only time will tell.

So for now, perhaps the best way of assessing it is to compare Uber to a peer that has recently gone through a similar process, Airbnb. Both are tech disruptors. Both have endured their fair share of regulatory controversy in recent years. Both realized the need to humanize their brands. Both are (very) well funded. But the similarities stop here.

I’m sure you will remember when Airbnb’s new symbol became laughing stock for months. But beyond the symbol execution, the new identity was rooted on a strong concept – the idea of belonging anywhere. To get there, Airbnb engaged a London-based branding consultancy that immersed their team into their business, staying with 18 hosts across 13 cities on 4 continents. Airbnb’s rebrand created a strong emotional connection to their offering and replaced a generic identity with something fresh and proprietary.



Uber, by contrast, had an iconic identity when it decided to embark on a rebrand. The sleek black and grey palette and the recognizable U icon had a good deal of visual equity that is now lost. According to CEO Travis Kalanik, the previous identity was “somewhat cold and distant” and the goal of the refresh was to “bring out the human side” – which in a way makes sense as the brand became perceived as elitist and aggressive in some markets. If only they had taken the opportunity to tell a compelling story.

Kalanik, who apparently micro-managed his in-house design team over the course of three years, argues that the new concept is about becoming part of the fabric of cities across the globe, moving Uber from luxury to utility. And this is where it falls flat, in my opinion. Not only is this a massive jump for any brand, it also lacks a credible narrative. The creative execution is a complex collection of patterns, photography and colors that may prove difficult to implement. And the new symbol is so generic that it will take considerable time and investment to build recognition.

But now that the rebrand is out, there’s only one way ahead: stick to it, engage your audience and gradually evolve the identity to make it more meaningful. If Uber is to learn anything from its fellow disruptor Airbnb, when faced with ridicule about its new “Bélo’” symbol, there was no sign of u-turn. In fact, a dedicated website allowed people to share stories about “belonging anywhere” and enabled them to create their own version of the symbol, now with over 150,000 participants.

Often, CEOs and in-house design teams suffer from knowing too much about their brands – to the point of not having enough distancing to put things in perspective and make sound decisions. This is where professional advice and simplicity come in to define what brands stand for and how they can stand out. As for Uber, I’m sure we’ll see each other again – if there’s no price surge.

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