This piece first appeared in Marketing Gazette.
If you look past the politics and the intrigue, you will find that the story of Travis Kalanick’s departure from (and Arianna Huffington’s subsequent arrival at) Uber is, above all else, a marketing story.
It’s a story that has seen Lyft – Uber’s primary competitor – skilfully pivot around the fallen CEO’s every misstep, and in doing so carve out a niche as “the ethical ride service” which, without their rival’s antics to bounce off, would never have been possible.
It’s also a story that has seen Uber unwittingly develop a brand identity as the “bad guys” of taxi apps, partially through the scandals, and partially through Lyft’s reactions to them. We now find ourselves with a classic brand standoff, in the mould of Coke vs. Pepsi, where we have two giants slugging it out for market dominance, with the public forced to take sides.
What makes it not so classic however, is that unlike most brand face-offs, this scenario didn’t arise from advertising. These propositions aren’t the result of an agency’s “big idea”, or any brand pyramids, onions, or cuboids. They haven’t been forged through tag lines, campaigns, or media buys. They have instead been formed through the day-to-day realities of how these companies operate, and the wider public’s reaction to these realities.
This is how advertising works now.
Everything remotely interesting about a company will find its way out into the public domain, and whatever pattern emerges from these anecdotes and facts will be its brand.
Because of this, creating a strong brand now means taking the same strategy and creativity that used to apply to campaigns, and instead applying it to the business directly, shaping it in such a way as that you indirectly control the message that will be created in the court of public opinion.
In general this is a pretty good thing, as businesses now have to become more and more innovative and interesting in order to build powerful brands. But it also poses some challenges, as Uber are now finding.
The principal challenge is that every internal company action is now a mini-advertising campaign, lending a brand dimension to decisions that used to be purely functional. The identity and practises of the CEO are prime examples of this. CEOs are now not only there to do their job well, they have to act as company mascots into the bargain. Mark Zuckerberg is to Facebook what Tony the Tiger is to Frosties – and so too was Kalanick to Uber.
So, what do you do if an ad is causing you damage? As Pepsi showed us, you pull it – and thus the same fate is likely to befall an attacked CEO.
But changing CEO is not like pulling an ad. Unlike maybe an ad, the brand image created by a CEO and their practises will be based in truth and can’t be wriggled away from so easily.
The smart move in marketing terms is to stick with that image and simply nurture it more effectively. There were of course some really great things about Kalanick’s Uber, such as phenomenal vision and innovation. This wasn’t in spite of Uber’s culture, but because of it. This is their brand too, just looked at through a different lens, and whilst it may not be as media-friendly as Lyft, it is far more groundbreaking.
Thus Uber now have a choice – double down on what they already have (with the poisonous bits surgically removed of course), or pivot. It remains to be seen which of those moves the Huffington appointment represents, but for Uber’s sake I hope it’s the former. If they go for the full pivot, we will essentially have a market leader trying to occupy the brand position of their nearest challenger. That’s marketing suicide, as if I want a business like Lyft, I already have… Lyft.
Whether or not their board has the stomach for such a tricky tightrope walk is another matter. The fact is that having a pioneering CEO comes with a level of uncertainty that is highly undesirable in today’s media climate. Sometimes it’s just easier to embrace generic mediocrity. Uber certainly wouldn’t be the first brand to deliberately dampen what makes them special. American Apparel (a brand for better or worse built on a highly unusual business model and a hyper-sexualised image) fired their highly unusual hyper-sexualised founder Dov Charney when his antics could no longer be tolerated, opting instead for conventional management in the hands of fashion industry veteran Paula Schneider. The story ended in bankruptcy, a result (according to Charney) of their attempts to run it like Gap.
It’s interesting to wonder whether Steve Jobs would have survived at the helm of Apple were he operating today. Obviously he had been ousted before in favour of “safe” management, but at least then it was an internal decision. In 2017 would Apple have been able to spin his bullying behaviour as simply a commitment to high standards? It seems doubtful.
So, whilst organisations need to wake up to the marketing impact of their CEOs and business practices, they also need to be mindful that they cannot simply pivot away from their core brand when things go sour. Only by applying a clear understanding of their core positioning to management practises will they be able to balance dynamism (which Uber had), with safety (which they didn’t). The alternative is simply letting fate decide – and fate doesn’t do happy endings.