Brand Doctors: Moving past #DeleteUber

Will an ongoing social movement wreak long-term damage for the disruptor company? Our experts have their say.

Many brands have weighed in on U.S. President Donald Trump’s travel bans, some of them inadvertently it seems. When Uber did not join a labour strike at an airport where taxi drivers refused service to protest the bans (Uber was initially seen to be scabbing the action), people were immediately urging friends to #DeleteUber. Celebrities picked up the cause, stoking a growing fire.

Uber’s CEO Travis Kalanik then faced further pressure when it came out that he would sit on President Trump’s economic advisory council, something he was eventually pressured into leaving. As Uber accounts began to be deleted en masse, the company began to reach out via email, clarifying that “Uber shares your views on the immigration ban: it’s unjust, wrong and against everything we stand for as a company.”

As Alan Middleton, a longtime marketing educator and commentator, puts it: “Uber’s dilemma – to comment or not to comment on these political issues – is one that will keep PR executives busy for months, maybe years. Simply put, in societies with extreme divisions in viewpoints on social issues, you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t.”

Karen Howe, a former creative director who founded the brand consultancy The Township, also points out that the situation isn’t helped by past events (like surge pricing during Hurricane Sandy) that have painted Uber as “a bit of self-interested bully at times versus a noble flag-bearer for the common good that they would have you believe.”Strategy asked both experts to offer prescriptions for a brand ailing in an uncertain political bed.

Karen Howe, founder, The Township

KarenHowe Consumers do forgive, but it’s not easy. Forgiveness comes at price, and that’s a good thing. Long gone are the days when you could just leap on Oprah’s couch to find redemption. History shows that an immediate and sincere mea culpa goes a long way to getting a brand back on its feet. But consistency and honesty will keep you there.

It starts with getting in front of an issue and owning it. Say you’re sorry, and mean it. Acknowledgement alone is not enough. You need to help those harmed by your actions. Thus Uber has launched a $3 million program to help drivers affected by the immigration ban. But this cannot be an empty, one-time gesture. Consumers are too cynical and too connected to tolerate empty platitudes. They will spank you if you dither. Volkswagen knows it well.

As a brand, Uber needs consistent, concerted messaging and actions that never deviates. Today it’s a more complex environment. With the democratization of commentary that social media provides, you have no place to hide if you aren’t honouring your commitment.

Alan Middleton, executive director, Schulich Executive Education Centre

Alan MiddletonUber is an interesting case as a “disruptor” that is still a target of regulators, pressure groups and politicians. As such, it has a high profile and is vulnerable. But its natural audience is likely to share the anti-immigration ban view. So should Uber just “shut up?”

What caught them was that, in a world of social media, they may not be able to.

So how should they have proceeded? First, they should have considered the old golden rule of marketing: know your customer. What are their likely biases and strength-of-viewpoint?

Second, know your political risk. Are you in a highly regulated industry where government relations and/or contracts matter?

Third, what is the nature of the issue? Is it a “news of the hour” type or a sustainable issue? Fourth, what are your corporate and brand values? What do you believe?

Is Uber’s brand damaged by the indecision and mishandling? Not in my view, partly due to the quality of the service delivered and brand strength, but also because they were lucky enough to have the issue subsumed beneath the Superbowl overload and ongoing Trump tweets.