Mark Ritson: Uber’s logo change is brand masturbation, not brand management

Good news this week for the world’s taxi drivers. Suddenly after months of aggressive market expansion Uber is looking vulnerable and all of it is self-inflicted.

Mark Ritson

At the start of February, Uber launched a new corporate identity along with a nonsensical video (below) to explain the move.

The response has been uniformly negative with most critics rejecting the logo for the usual reasons. It’s too abstract. It looks too much like the Death Star. It looks mysteriously similar to Circle CI’s logo – a company that shares an office with Uber. These, and many more criticisms quickly appeared.

Uber logo evolution
The evolution of Uber’s logo

As a man with no training whatsoever in corporate identity or graphic design, I cannot comment. To me the difference between Uber’s new logo and the one it replaced, and indeed the one that preceded that, all appear pretty fucking arbitrary. More interesting is the manner in which the logo was developed and what that tells you about Uber. It tells me that, despite the £50bn valuation, Uber is potentially about to screw up. Badly.

For starters, there is the simple fact that the logo appears to have involved significant amounts of Travis Kalanick’s time. According to Wired magazine, Uber’s CEO has spent the last three years working alongside Uber’s design director Shalin Amin and a dozen or so others, “hammering out ideas from a stuffy space they call the War Room”. As part of that process Kalanick studied design concepts like colour palettes and font kerning. “I didn’t know any of this stuff,” Kalanick tells Wired.

Kalanick has bigger fish to fry than corporate design. I’d argue even five minutes of his time spent on font spacing is a crime when he is faced with bigger issues like, oh I don’t know, the fact that his company is losing $1bn a year in China or banned from operating in Spain and South Korea.

“The way Amin saw it, Uber’s branding problems were manifold. For one, the company had two logos — one with a U inside a box on the Android app, and one with a U and no box on the Apple app. The letters in the UBER wordmark were too widely spaced, and the U had an unsightly twist on its left prong. What’s more, the lettermark — the stylised, upper-case “U” — looked awkward beside the wordmark. “It read U-UBER,” says Amin, “like ‘Oooober.’”

This kind of myopic, design driven minutiae drives me mental. It’s not that fonts and pantones don’t matter, it’s just that they rarely matter enough to ever necessitate organisational effort. And when they start to represent the main branding “problem” for a company these minor design issues obscure more important branding issues.

What is Uber’s brand position? What are the brand perceptions among its target segments? Does the perception match the position? Do negative brand associations correlate to reduced Uber usage? What is its net promoter score across key segments? Is brand equity sufficient to justify existing price premiums and surge pricing? How strong is Uber’s employer brand across countries? I’d rate each of these questions as being at least 50000% more important than how far from the U we place the B in our name or the colour of the squiggly thing that no-one can actually see when it’s a 2mm wide iPhone icon.

The lack of strategic focus that this design saga reveals is also troubling. The new logo is partly a response to the fact that Uber is no longer a car hire service – it’s now a “transportation network” that delivers “food and packages, as well as people”. Uber isn’t a premium service either anymore. Thanks to a burgeoning phalanx of sub-brands the company believes it has “gone from a luxury to an affordable luxury to everyday transportation option for millions of people”. Those millions of people inhabit 68 countries and Uber is also about to launch a distinctive look and feel in each one of these locations too.

In summary Uber targets millions of people, all over the world, offering to transport anything anywhere at every possible price point in a variety of colours. Sound like a plan?

Playing around with logos isn’t brand management, it’s brand masturbation: indulgent, unproductive and ultimately something that goes unnoticed by everyone except you. Uber’s new logo has distracted its CEO, generated a mountain of negative PR and highlighted the company’s apparent lack of strategic focus. The cost of a new logo needs to be calculated in more than just agency fees.

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Comments
  • Simon 24 Feb 2016 at 8:14 am

    Any need for the F-bomb in this article !!

    • Liam O'Dowd 24 Feb 2016 at 9:01 am

      Sometimes it needs dropping.

      • Curvingthunder 28 Feb 2016 at 3:26 pm

        Sensitivity to the F bomb? How do the thin skinned survive or cope in the advertising world? And just because you’re offended it doesn’t mean you are right.

    • Mike Essex 29 Feb 2016 at 9:11 am

      The title has “masturbation” in it. You knew what you were in for.

    • Rowan 9 Mar 2016 at 12:26 pm

      Oh grow up Simon; at least have a constructive contribution.

      Couldn’t agree more Mark. Yet again it’s proof of a brand incapable of understanding the meaning of branding. Corporate Visual Identity is simply the packaging.

  • Heidi Taylor 24 Feb 2016 at 11:59 am

    I couldn’t even bear to watch the video! The bit, the atom, OMG.

  • Benjamin Reed 24 Feb 2016 at 3:10 pm

    They should have crowd sourced the logo.

  • Chris J Arnold 28 Feb 2016 at 12:09 pm

    I agree and I am an expert in branding. I think they have wasted a lot of time and money to get a very mediocre result. I think they need to do a good marketing campaign to tell people what they are about and to counter the growing negative press. But given the effort it took to get a logo out a marketing campaign would take them a decade to agree on.

  • Paul Dixon 28 Feb 2016 at 12:39 pm

    I think Mark could make his points just as well without the use of “sensational” language. Most organisations would not tolerate this, so why should Marketing Week?

    Yes, we are all adults but we should be able to communicate professionally without resorting to such language just to be controversial and trendy.

    • Hugo Istay 28 Feb 2016 at 1:24 pm

      Which century do you live in?

      • Paul Dixon 28 Feb 2016 at 2:38 pm

        On this occasion Hugo, I’ll answer your question with a question. Why, in your century, do you believe it necessary to use such language in a professional context?

        • Hugo Istay 28 Feb 2016 at 3:24 pm

          We no longer use “thou” and “thee” because language moves on. So-called “swear words” were once perfectly normal parts of Anglo-Saxon speech but the posh ones who ruled us declared that Latin-based words (ie the speech of the educated) are acceptable and Anglo-Saxon words (ie the language of the working class) are unacceptable. It is a class thing, perpetuated by the religious class, whose language was Latin. However, class is being pretty-much washed away and working class language is now perfectly acceptable to most modern ears and minds.

          • Curvingthunder 28 Feb 2016 at 3:29 pm

            The thin skinned’s life span from the previous century has a shorter time span for tolerance.

    • Paul Fraser 29 Feb 2016 at 8:23 am

      I don’t think we need to start a class war over this!
      Masturbation isn’t a “swear word” or even remotely “Anglo Saxon”.

  • Steve at Signature Consultants 28 Feb 2016 at 12:50 pm

    Enough said!

  • Paul Fraser 29 Feb 2016 at 8:20 am

    Mr R is right in this case. But design is hugely important (& often poorly understood). More so though where it’s the “front door” (retail, packaged goods) &/or when you see “the clothes” in use (packaged goods, luxury goods). Uber is a service (& a brilliant one) & they had a great, simple, easily understood logo. Design is about recognition – which means consistency – so titting about with abstract imagery and over-intellectualised nonsense meaning is … as the venerable Mr R says attempting to pleasure yourself. And much like that activity, no one else is getting any pleasure from the “death square”. Hope you enjoyed it Travis!

  • Daniel Saumeth 29 Feb 2016 at 3:46 pm

    Any logo that needs a video to be explained is not a good logo indeed. greetings

  • dan barker 1 Mar 2016 at 7:44 pm

    I’m late to the comments here, but the above ‘evolution’ chart isn’t quite right. The new logo shown above is not actually the new logo – it’s the app icon. There’s a different app icon for drivers, and then… there’s another wordmark logo, not so different from the last. As per here: https://twitter.com/danbarker/status/694649619180032001 . No idea why Uber have allowed it to be communicated so widely that the blue icon is the ‘logo’, albeit A) i suppose semantically you could argue the icon most users will see most regularly could be termed that, B) the fact they’ve allowed it to be communicated as the logo isn’t exactly an endorsement for their brand management skills.

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