Fresh from a week-long vacation in Central and South America, I began my first workday back as I normally do; sorting through my email, catching up with and responding to clients, when I came across a story posted in the AIGA discussions on LinkedIn. I spotted a story from Gawker, titled “Uber Got a New Logo, Which Doesn’t Mean Sh*t” and I was instantly intrigued.
The week I’ve been away, I was completely unplugged and hadn’t realized that Uber had undergone a rebrand. The Designer in me had to check it out, which prompted this blog post.
Focusing on the Feb. 2nd Wired article, “The Inside Story of Uber’s Radical Rebranding“, Gawker writer, Hamilton Nolan, does not mince words when he speaks of his dislike for the rebranding effort and the lack of depth in both the redesign strategy and the Wired article itself. I’m in agreement with some of the points Nolan makes, the new app icon makes me feel…well, meh. It falls painfully short, missing the mark (no pun intended) in an otherwise fair, B-, rebranding effort and here’s why.
I’ve been guilty of this in the past and I’ve worked in organizations that have been guilty as well; it’s a natural reaction. When employed at a company, especially as a Creative, you live and breathe your corporate branding at every second, every minute, every hour of the day – sometimes it begins to get a bit stale. You feel as though you need to evolve, when in some cases, you’re just creating an issue where none truly exists; especially for your consumers. There was no mention in either the Gawker or Wired article of external focus groups or any type of user feedback that drove the new icon design; only the feedback and spearheading of CEO, Travis Kalanick, who despite all of his accomplishments and business acumen, has no background in design or brand marketing. That’s the first red flag.
How do you know if you have design problem to solve, if you’ve not asked the people (both the riders and the drivers) that interact with your brand on a daily basis? Did the app icon (or for that matter, the corporate branding) need to change based on qualitative user feedback? Design aside, has the company made a determined decision to alter its brand positioning that addresses not only who they aspire to be, but also addresses the chatter outside of the organization that acutely challenges that positioning. If the answer is no to those questions, then there is a larger problem.
The folks at Uber made a deliberate decision to keep the rebrand effort in-house. Which is a great idea, if you have the right in-house team, with the right specialized skills to bridge the gap between product, brand marketing and design. The Wired article states “By last spring, they’d stopped looking for outsiders to freshen the brand. The company had, by that point, assembled a more complete design team, which had grown more confident in its own ideas. They decided go it alone.” That going at it alone part, signals the second red flag to me.
Going at it alone has pros and cons. I’m sure that the design team assembled brings serious chops and critical design thinking to the table, but what seemed to be missing is the brand architect (we call them CMOs), who adds both the consumer insight and observations from the competitive landscape, that are so critical to rebranding efforts. Designing in silos with team members that share similar backgrounds and like-mindedness can be counterproductive. Let me use one of my favorite analogies, the construction of a house. You wouldn’t hire a team of interior designers to build a new home; you’d assemble a team of specialists that may include a foreman, carpenters, plumbers, engineers in addition to the designers, and at the helm of the effort is the architect, guiding the team to create solutions that are in alignment with the building schematics – or for the purposes of this analogy, the brand architecture.
It seems to be missing from the Uber rebrand exercise, and I’ll get to that shortly. But first, the Wired article mentions that Design Director, Shalin Amin, pushed the design team to create an icon that has a story to tell. “Anyone can draw an icon”, he told them. What’s the story behind it?”. Yes, in fact, anyone can design an icon and yes it’s true, any brand element created should always have a compelling and relevant backstory. But the story of bits and atoms (also the concept in which the team decided to hang their hat on) is one that is internally focused, recognized only by those within the Uber culture, behind their corporate walls. Bits, referring to the robust technology that powers the application and atoms, referring to the network of people that will be influential in the continued global expansion of the brand. The problem with bits and atoms, is that it tells the operational story of Uber and skips out on the “deep human truth about the end user” 1; raising the third red flag.
The human truth about the end user for riders (as told on the website), is safety, trust, and frictionless efficiency. And for the drivers, it’s safety, independence and entrepreneurialism. None of which is communicated in the new icon or branding. The Wired article mentions that card sorting was done to define brand pillars, which is a fine start, but drilling deep down to the essence of a brand requires far more work–something I learned as a member of the ChicagoTribune.com redesign team in the early 2000’s.
The cross-departmental team underwent a lengthy architecture process, in which we scrutinized the attributes and values of each sub-brand, then determined their respective roles in our robust portfolio and overarching brand strategy. The exercise was no small feat, requiring an intense series of workshops, stakeholder interviews and brand audits. I believe that a similar cross-department exercise would have helped to unify the Uber story, ensuring that any tactical application of the brand elements are consistently in alignment with the strategy. A robust strategy could’ve probably solved for the uninspired execution of the icon as well.
I’m not employed at Uber, I wasn’t on the design team–I’m just reading the articles as an outsider and giving my two cents of design opinion, based on the information presented. As with any redesign effort, the stakes are high, more so if you’re an established brand. In my opinion, the team did a good job at telling the bits and atoms story through the design elements (color, illustration, patterns, imagery). I love the idea of creating brand elements that are specific to each market, which is beautifully demonstrated. I just wish they went a bit further with the brand positioning, which would have inherently been reflected in a more distinctive app icon. Why such a departure from the equity that was built with the original? Sometimes a refresh is just as powerful as a redesign. The best part is, you keep the equity and you don’t compromise the integrity.