Sep 30th 2019

Uber, brand perception, and a challenging legacy for tech businesses

What do you think of when you think of Uber? Innovator? Disruptor? Killer? Whatever your views of the notorious transportation firm, its impact on business and society are undeniable. But in the wake of high-profile scandals and crises, public opinion on the company remains both divided and conflicted, and has ultimately impacted the perception of the tech industry as a whole.

In the decade since its founding, Uber has been hailed as a pioneer that unleashed new business models, and reviled as an irresponsible Silicon Valley firm which didn’t care who it crushed on its way to the top. It consistently receives negative publicity for its poor safety protocols and lack of worker rights, yet still has 75 million riders globally.

At a New York Times-hosted event on Monday, renowned technology correspondent Mike Isaac sought to delve deeper into this duality, and examine how Uber’s meteoric rise and crashing fall has helped to shape broader perceptions of the technology sector. Tech was once viewed as synonymous with good, Isaac argued, but in 2016 the tide turned, and the adage that tech = progress no longer seemed to hold true. With revelations about assaults, murders and suicides of drivers, and endemic sexual harassment, Uber was instrumental in fuelling a negative perception of tech companies, and when coupled with the Cambridge Analytica scandal, tech giants suddenly found themselves struggling to regain public trust.

“A sea change in the attitude of Big Business”

Fast forward to today and there has been an undeniable shift in attitudes to tech businesses. Data sharing is approached with caution, while both Facebook and Uber have launched high profile advertising campaigns designed to overhaul public perception.

Although undoubtedly it shouldn’t have taken betrayals of public trust and even deaths for technology giants to rethink their policies, the good news is things are changing, and the industry is increasingly acknowledging that profits shouldn’t come above principles. Last month, for example, 181 CEOs of leading American businesses, including Amazon, Cisco and Dell denounced the myth of shareholder value, stating that they must be committed to all stakeholders, encompassing customers, employees, suppliers, communities and — dead last — shareholders. Commenting on the statement in the Los Angeles Times, business columnist Michael Hiltzik observed that it:

“May reflect a sea change in the attitude of Big Business CEOs to challenges to their management principle coming from social organizations…. If issues such as income and wealth inequality, climate change and racial discrimination are going to be addressed, corporate America will have to step up to the plate.”

This harkens back to something the PR industry has long known; businesses need to understand who each of their stakeholders are, and what matters to them. This should be reflected in communications strategies, and is particularly important to understand in the event of a crisis.

Learning from Uber’s mistakes

For startups looking to become the next Unicorn, there are clear lessons to be learned from Uber, and from the shifting consumer sentiment. According to a recent study, 83% of consumers believe brands could play a bigger role in making the world a better place, challenging the Ubers of the world to improve and presenting an opportunity for businesses which adopt a more social conscious. It’s no longer enough to espouse ethical values; leaders need to ensure they are built into the fabric of their business, fostering inclusion and ensuring their solution doesn’t cause harm to society. When developing brand positioning, companies should ensure they clearly establish a vision, mission and values, but must also ensure they have the proof points to support their claims.

But while undoubtedly corporations need to do better – and their users are right to demand they do – as long as we continue to use the services of unethical firms, we are complicit in the problem. As Isaac noted, convenience matters more in the moment than ideals, which created a fertile ground for Uber’s rise, and caused its user base to turn the other cheek to dubious practices. It’s not enough to just ask companies to do better; we as consumers must rethink our role in fuelling demand. As businesses like Uber look outwards at their market perception, we must look inward at our own values, and practice what we preach.

If you’re a tech company looking to build your brand in a post-Uber world, please get in touch with Babel to find out how you can better understand your stakeholders and manage your reputation ethically.