Uber, Uber, Uber. When will you learn?

If you haven't heard, the company that everyone loves (or hates, depending on which side of the fence you're on) unveiled a complete rebrand yesterday.

My take? It reveals Uber's true colors. And they're not very pretty.

I've followed this company from the beginning. At that stage, I thought these guys had a brilliant idea. In fact, I still believe that.

It's what they've done with that idea that horrifies me.

In my opinion, Uber has become a symbol of everything that's wrong with business today: taking advantage of employees (in this case, even worse--freelancers with no benefits) for corporate gain. Hubris that prevents good decision-making. And an unbelievably inflated valuation.

A close analysis of the rebrand helps identify some of the company's major problems:

1. The logo

Bits and atoms. That's the basis of the new logo, according to Uber's official website. But what does it all mean?

Maybe this video announcing the rebrand can help:

 

 

In case you don't have the time, I'll summarize for you.

"For Uber, the bit represents our technology. It's complex, precise, and advanced. But when it's expressed, it's effortless and refined."

OK, not too bad ... yet. But as we keep rolling:

"And if you think the bit is a big deal, consider the atom. Born 13.8 billion years ago, the atom is responsible for everything. From the BLT ... to moms everywhere ... to New York City. And for us, the atom signifies our rapidly improving cities, the goods we move from place to place, and most important, the people we serve."

If these statements were made tongue-in-cheek, I might like this so far. But they're not. 

And here is where it gets really good:

"Until a few short years ago, atoms and bits existed in entirely different worlds. But then, something happened.

What if we brought these two worlds together?

What would that look like?"

Yes, you guessed it. Apparently, fusing the basic building block of our universe with one of the brilliant technological inventions of our generation ends up in ...

An app that coordinates logistics.

Anyone else a little let down by that?

But to truly understand where Uber went wrong in the first place, you have to read this blog post by CEO Travis Kalanick, written two years ago. In it, he describes bits and atoms as symbols of Uber's most valuable assets.

Its customers? Its drivers?

No.

Its investors, Google Ventures (bits) and private equity firm TPG Capital (atoms).

Now it all makes sense.

Hold on, we haven't even gotten to the aesthetics of the logo yet. David Shantz sums it up nicely in a comment he left on this VentureBeat article:

"A brand identity should be a recognizable image that differentiates--a unique graphic element that makes an emotional connection on an immediate visceral level ... you don't think your way through a great brand.

You have to make the identity something that people like, will come to love, and can create an emotional bond with ... What seems to have been done here is a stripping out of everything recognizable, unique, or with any tangible personality."

Kind of like bits and atoms, by themselves, as viewed by the naked eye. Maybe that's what Uber was going for after all.

2. Wrong focus

Don't get me wrong, Uber could very well be due for a rebranding.

But where the company has really suffered recently is in its reputation with drivers. Just yesterday (ironically on the same day as Uber's big reveal) The New York Times reported on driver complaints. Many Uber drivers are starting to feel more and more like (very poorly compensated) employees as opposed to contractors, without the benefits employees deserve.

The Times quoted Tsering Sherpa, a New Yorker who drove for Uber six days a week:

"They call us partners. But they're treating us like slaves."

According to this behind-the-scenes look published yesterday by Wired, the rebrand took lots of attention from Kalanick--and approximately two years--to finish. Nothing necessarily wrong with that.

But given all the other elements of running the business, I wonder how much time that left Kalanick to address the concerns of his drivers?

3. Overly rapid growth

According to that Wired report, Uber operates today in 400 cities in 65 countries.

But there's a problem: " ... almost two-thirds of its 6,000 or so people have been with the company less than one year ... that kind of hypergrowth has a history of causing startups--Blackberry, Palm, and Twitter among them--to lose focus."

Look, the idea behind Uber is great, it's long overdue, and it's changing the way we travel. And this is Kalanick's baby, so I respect his decision to grow at a rate that he (and investors) are comfortable with.

But you can't have it both ways. The question comes down to, what are Kalanick's priorities?

  • Does he want to control the brand and culture of this company?
  • Or does he want to grow as quickly as possible, so that Uber becomes a globally recognized household name--even if that name evokes disgust for many?

I'm not saying it isn't possible for Uber to be a global leader and keep a great reputation.

But is it possible at this rate of growth, with the current problems the company is dealing with?

Not a chance.

4. Ignoring criticism

Unfortunately, Kalanick has been labeled by the media as arrogant, belligerent, and looking for a fight--especially with regulators and the taxi industry.

According to Wired:

"Reflecting on this, Kalanick says it was all a misrepresentation by the media. When you don't really know who you are, he says, it's easy to be miscast--as a company, or as a person."

The truth is, I don't know Travis Kalanick. He might be sweeter than your grandmother.

But come on, Travis, that video! If you don't want to be labeled as pompous, you can't claim to be bringing bits and atoms together to solve the world's greatest problems.

I can understand how Kalanick might not be able to see the forest for the trees here. We all make mistakes, and those mistakes multiply when we get extremely passionate about an idea.

But Uber's board of directors has some pretty smart people on it--where are their voices? Can't they hear the complaints? Aren't they aware of the criticism?

Of course, they are. Whether they simply don't want to challenge Kalanick or he is simply ignoring them, I don't know. But either way, they're failing too.

As I've written recently, criticism is not always fair. It's not always respectful.

But you can learn from it anyway.

Putting It All Together

In the end, Uber may survive these magnificent mistakes. Kalanick and Uber's leadership team might start listening to all those loud voices. The company may adapt. And in the end, Uber might succeed.

Or it could all blow up--into billions of atoms and bits.