‘Passenger safety is at risk’: Will Uber’s latest blow from TfL undermine its brand?

The embattled ride-hailing app is facing yet another blow to its brand image

Uber has spent millions on advertising in the past year to convince passengers it takes safety seriously, but Transport for London (TfL) has once more revoked its licence to operate in the capital after finding a “pattern of failures” that placed the public at risk.

The embattled ride-hailing app is facing yet another blow to its brand image as it gears up to appeal the private hire ban, which would render some 45,000 drivers unable to work in one of its biggest markets.

Uber initially lost its licence in 2017 but was granted two extensions, the most recent of which expired on Sunday (24 November). The company will still be allowed to continue to operate during the appeal process.

Beyond convincing TfL that is is “fit and proper” to serve London’s 3.5 million riders, Uber now has a tougher job on its hands: rebuilding its brand equity following devastating revelations from TfL.

A key issue identified by the transport network was a change to Uber's systems which had allowed unauthorised drivers to upload their photos to other Uber driver accounts.

“This allowed them to pick up passengers as though they were the booked driver, which occurred in at least 14,000 trips – putting passenger safety and security at risk,” said the London Mayor’s office in its ruling.

“This means all the journeys were uninsured and some passenger journeys took place with unlicensed drivers, one of which had previously had their licence revoked by TfL.”

Another failure has been permitting dismissed or suspended drivers to create an Uber account and carry passengers, again compromising safety. The errors mean some customers have been riding uninsured and that some journeys occurred with unlicensed drivers, including one who was cautioned for distributing indecent images of children.

“The Uber ban goes to show that a company simply stating in its communications that its focused on safety just isn't enough,” said marketing consultant Sam Brealey on the report.

‘Safety never stops’

Over the past two years, Uber’s chief exec Dara Khosrowshahi has sought to bring a more transparent and open approach to the business' marketing to improve brand perception, focusing firmly on its safety features. But now, TfL’s disclosures are at firmly odds with the image the leader has been desperately trying to cultivate.

Under former boss Travis Kalanick, Uber was accused of having a “toxic” workplace culture; tried to cover up a massive data breach that affected 50 million users; and had an internal spy unit exposed.

In the UK at least, Khosrowshahi has gone some way in mending Uber’s tattered perception with YouGov recently naming Uber as one of the advertisers with the ‘most improved’ reputation for 2019 – along with Netflix, British Airways and McDonald’s.

Though the taxi company’s losses topped $1bn for the year in Q3, bookings made via its app drew in $16.5bn over the 12 months to November, representing a 29% year-on-year jump: showing that its popularity is far from waning.

However, in the face of questions over how it ensures passenger safety following a series of crimes in the UK and the US, the brand has been funnelling money into its marketing.

In 2018, the brand enlisted Gravity Road to develop a campaign focused not only on safety, but also on how drivers were licensed.

At the heart of ‘Makes Sense’ push was a film showing a diner in a restaurant describing exactly how much she knew about her driver before she met him; underscoring how the Uber app divulges drivers names, pictures, ratings, car make and colour as well as their private hire licence number to riders before they hop in a car.

Earlier this year, Uber’s ‘Safety Never Stops’ initiative from 72andSunny Amsterdam saw Uber subvert airline safety briefings to show the precautions the business takes to ensure passenger wellbeing and relay how drivers were subject to background checks.

In light of the most recent revelations, Brave’s managing director Ash Bendelow suggested that Uber doesn’t try to fix its image by targeting customers with yet more ads. Instead it needs to focus on fixing its internal issues.

“Advertising can launch a product in a crowded marketplace, support a business’ brand reposition or help with brand building. Ads can make people feel joy, emotion and humour, or sadness, introspection and empathy," he argued.

"Advertising can do an awful lot of things, but what it cannot do is paper over the cracks of faulty digital governance that allows major breaches of safety and security to consumers – nor should we in ad land be in that business."

For Andrew Gibson, chief strategy officer at Creature London, Uber (like WeWork) is “falling victim” of investor pressure and the need to appease investors at all costs.

Though challengers like Kapten and mytaxi have emerged in recent years, investing in marketing to match, Gibson argues that there’s no player in the market big enough to take on Uber yet – so even if its brand does get dented by TfL’s revelations it won’t see a dip in usage.

“Ultimately I can’t see the ban holding – there’s simply too much consumer demand and still no credible alternative. It's principles versus practicality again,” he adds.

What happens next?

What the move means for Uber’s brand is unclear, however its regional general manager for northern and eastern Europe Jamie Heywood has confirmed the business will appeal TfL’s ruling, describing it as “extraordinary and wrong”.

‘We have fundamentally changed our business over the last two years and are setting the standard on safety,” he says.

“TfL found us to be a fit and proper operator just two months ago, and we continue to go above and beyond,” he adds, saying that it will continue to operate as normal in the meantime and work with TfL to “resolve the situation”.

Uber will have to make some changes to its app and operations to get TfL on side, with the transport network demanding it shows it has “a robust system for protecting passenger safety” and meet 20 conditions it set out in September to ensure public wellbeing.

New hire Melinda Roylett, who joined Uber in August to lead its UK and Ireland operations reporting into Heywood, will likely play a key role in this process.

As for its branding, Uber is working with a streamlined team having slashed its global marketing unit by approximately one-third in the summer, with 400 people losing their jobs in a bid to get the business back in the black.

The layoffs came less than two months after the company overhauled the leadership of its marketing team. The firm is currently without a global chief marketing officer after Rebecca Messina exited after less than a year in June. Her predecessor, chief brand officer Bozoma Saint John, also exited after a similarly short tenure.

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