Loyal Uber users have emerged overwhelmingly in support of the brand after it was effectively banned from operating in the capital. But if it’s to emerge unscathed it will need to recognise problems of the past and convince consumers, and the powers-that-be, that its values go beyond price.
In the aftermath of Transport for London's (TfL) decison not to renew Uber's private hire licence, killing the cab service in London (UberEATS, its food delivery arm won’t be affected), industry observers were quick to note that it was indicative of a fightback from government bodies against certain Silicon Valley giants.
Nick Constantinou, former marketing boss at Uber-rival Addison Lee and current managing director at ad agency Doner, suggested that both governments and the public are becoming tired of the monopolistic behaviour of these businesses.
“Today’s decision is definitely a wake-up call to these businesses that they also have responsibilities and standards to maintain,” he said.
“It is a surprise but on inspection also overdue. Uber’s innovative approach to the category has undoubtedly led to massive growth. Unfortunately, its cavalier attitude has pushed the boundaries of acceptable business practices. It was a matter of time before a major city authority stood firm to change the way it operates.”
Mayor Sadiq Khan said simply that Uber must “play by the rules” when it comes to customer safety and security, referring to the multiple reports of assaults and other serious crimes involving some of its drivers.
While TfL and the government have sought to ban Uber in the name of safety, the public they’re claiming to protect has turned.
According to social listening firm Meltwater, within a few hours there were over 60,000 social media posts about the decision to stop Uber running in London and the overwhelming majority were negative towards TfL, Khan and, tellingly, black cabs.
Of the posts analysed, 42% were negative while just 10% were positive (the rest were neutral).
Kevin Chesters, chief strategy officer at Ogilvy UK, said it points to an underlying belief that this decision was not based on “customer safety” but about protecting the black cab business model.
“Obviously, the issues of safety are serious and need to be addressed but who will gain the most from this decision? It’s not the customer. It’s the black cab association and the people who have a strong interest in businesses, like Uber, failing,” he said.
“I don’t see a lot of customers on Facebook and Twitter saying ‘hurray Uber has lost its licence’. I see confusion, a lot of anger and a bit of dismay. People aren’t blaming Uber, a lot of them are blaming black cabs and TfL.”
Regardless of the underlying reasons, Uber still finds itself with just three weeks to appeal the ruling and the company wasn’t slow in starting an online petition to galvanise its disgruntled users.
But, if it’s going to overcome the ban and, more importantly, retain its supporters, then ultimately it has to see this as a wake-up call to the pitfalls of winning customers purely on price.
“We would argue that had Uber stood for more than just price and built a more positive brand it might not be in this position in the first place,” suggested Laurence Horner, strategy director at Lucky Generals.
Uber has sought support from the public by suggesting that some 40,000 of its drivers will be put out of work by the ban. But the company has faced mounting criticism over its working conditions and failure to guarantee basic employment rights.
Next week, it will appeal an employment tribunal ruling that would give its drivers access to the minimum wage, sick pay and paid holidays.
TfL is also seeking changes around how it reports serious criminal offences, obtaining medical certificates and driver background checks as well as transparency about the use of Greyball, software that can block regulatory and law enforcement bodies from gaining full access to the app.
“With all the lurid headlines about company culture and things like fare surges during terrorist incidents it's been easy to feel that its disruption of the industry has benefited Uber more than consumers or society," said Horner.
In recent attempts to deal with the negative headlines and put corporate responsibility higher on its agenda, Uber brought in a new chief executive in former Expedia boss Dara Khosrowshahi and poached Apple’s Bozoma St John to take on the newly created head of brand role.
But it will need to work twice as quickly if it's to meet the 13 October appeal deadline and turnaround its fortunes in the capital.
Constantinou said that Uber’s brand will take a short-term knock, but in reality, it will survive if it changes the way it operates and engages more with government. Meanwhile, Chesters predicted that “the appeal will work and it’ll be a storm in a teacup”.
But as Uber deals with the fallout, its competitors are hoping for a new business windfall. Rivals including Lyft and MyTaxi have already sent their users special “offers” such as 50% reduced rates in an effort to quickly convert.
“If we were running a brand like, say, Chauffeur-Prive, who have focused on hiring better drivers, listening to customer feedback and building a more premium service, we'd be looking to make the most of this story,” said Horner.
But beyond the quick win, there is a bigger opportunity for a competitor or new player to be the brand leading the charge for a better regulated market. After five years of operating, Londoners have become accustomed to the easy experience of booking with Uber.
‘You can’t force people to use black cabs if they think they’re shit,” Chesters added. “So if I was one of those companies I’d be looking at how to fill the gap.”