Brain Chatter: How Uber’s Chief Brand Officer Plans To Steer Past The Scandal

October 26, 2017 Shane Schick

When she showed up in Toronto last week among the corporate types at the Canadian Innovation Exchange, it’s safe to say that Uber chief brand officer Bozoma Saint John managed to stand out.

Wearing giant hoop earrings, a gold belt that wouldn’t look out of place on a WWE winner and a bright yellow dress with black stripes, Saint John admitted she favours strong, bold colours.

Her mission for the company may be bolder still.

Just one week after Saint John was hired, for example, the ride-sharing app’s co-founder and CEO, Travis Kalanick, was ousted following allegations of sexual harassment. In the five months since, she’s watched the firm appoint a new leader while also going through what could only be described as a PR nightmare for anyone trying to develop a beloved brand. While the treatment of women in Silicon Valley has become a hot button issue everywhere, Uber has become the poster child for the controversy.

“It’s a turning point for Uber, but also how we look at brands in the tech space,” Saint John said in her keynote speech. “We’ve traditionally been reliant on making sure the product is good and innovative -- we don’t pay attention to what surrounds it.”

Saint John, who came to Uber from Apple Music, said brands are like human beings -- with personalities, faults and redemptive qualities. To explain that last one, she turned to an unlikely reference: the ice princess Elsa from Disney’s Frozen.

“Elsa learned from her mistakes. She realized she was making bad choices and she managed to change,” Saint John said. Uber needs to demonstrate the same humanity, but that will require a different way of thinking, she added.

“Uber has spent a lot of time on left side of the brain -- where it’s rational, practical,” she said. “The right side is more creative. If there isn’t a balance, you’ll find yourself short, because you’re not creating a complete picture.”

Besides redemption, Saint John said her work for turning Uber’s brand perception around includes showing “heart,” or the passion that drives one of Silicon Valley’s most successful startups. Another major priority, of course, is showing the company is focused on being accountable for its actions -- an area she discussed by using super-hero movies like Wonder Woman as an example.

“You know where the hero has to come to the rescue but there are people who get knocked down or knocked aside as they sweep through? What happens to those people? Brands behave that way too,” she said. “You’re trying to pursue an idea or innovation, but there are still innocent bystanders . . . you have to be accountable for those bystanders and prove that you’re working for the betterment of all.”

Then, of course, there’s authenticity, a word that’s been so over-used it makes a lot of marketers cringe. To Saint John, it brings to mind another pop culture reference: The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. In the same ways Will Smith’s character gets used to being a fish out of water when he goes to live with his rich relatives, brands like Uber shouldn’t necessarily conform to everyone around them.

“It’s not just who are you and how do you behave, but how do you show up when you are totally different from everyone else?” she asked.

Of course, Saint John didn’t have a lot of details on her strategy for Uber given she’s only five months in, but her outlook on its challenges suggests the transformation has already begun.

“My presence at this company will change the company,” she said. “I truly believe that.”

After listening to her for as little as half an hour, so do I.


Shane Schick is the former Editor-in-Chief of Marketing magazine. He tells stories about technology, marketing, innovation, fashion and more at ShaneSchick.com


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