Uber's UK TV ad shows the brand has lost its way

Without fear or favour, Richard J. Hillgrove VI tips the tables up on world leaders, brands and countries who all often think they can hide behind the smoke and mirrors via their communications professionals. Bang On takes a full throttle, punk approach to dissecting and analysing modern PR and marketing. It's not for the faint hearted....

The ad follows a young couple but the spot is of little substance

Call a cab, someone. Uber has officially lost its way.

Uber has launched its first above the line major ad campaign in the UK. It says the ‘Getting There With Uber’ campaign is an attempt to humanise the business, broaden its demographic and attract drivers.

The brand has even drafted in Kim Gehrig, the director of ‘This Girl Can’, for its first ever UK TV ad. 'Uber: Effortless Night’ had all the ingredients of a classy classic in an obvious bid to raise Uber up from the gutter following its catalogue of PR disasters.

Gehrig, who also counts John Lewis’ ‘Man on the Moon’ spot among her directing credits, worked with Uber’s in-house team and BBH London to create the gloss-over.

The ad follows a young couple – Grace and Miles – on their first date as they 'effortlessly' get in and out of cabs cinematic style to the track ‘You’re The Boss’ by Elvis Presley and Ann-Margret.

But while the ingredients are quality, the result is more Quality Street – all pretty packaging and very little substance.

Uber could have done with taking the lead from Samsung after its battery-exploding recall. The mobile manufacturer owned up to its failing and tipped its hat to it in the creative of its advertising.

In contrast, Uber has adopted an ‘act like nothing has happened’ approach. Someone in the marketing department needs to buy a new satnav and plot a more effective route to atonement.

I can just see Uber’s Christmas commercial with John Lewis-style jolly holly, festive family togetherness being put into pre-production as I write, but it should never get the green light.

The glossy, cool and calm image is too incongruous for words when the chief executive, Travis Kalanick, was caught on video having a heated argument with one of Uber's drivers. Then there was executive Amit Singhal resigning over sexual harassment allegations, and Uber investors attacking the company over "bullying and lack of diversity. The list goes on.

Out of reactive mode, Uber’s efforts to position its drivers as entrepreneurs only makes the upstart a laughing stock.

There were also the forced, and somewhat cynical, efforts at CSR, PR stunts such as setting up a breathalyser test on a busy Toronto bar strip on St. Patrick’s Day and offering free rides home to anyone over the legal limit. In the US, reaching out to Mothers Against Drunk Driving just smacked of desperate measures.

The fact is that even with the 20 major PR disasters it’s racked up since 2014, Uber doesn’t need to position itself with its creative. It’s a self-driving machine.

The string of corporate crises did lead the company to take the unusual step of releasing financials to highlight its business growth. The company may have lost $2.8bn last year, but it’s growing fast. Gross bookings for 2016 hit $20bn, more than double the previous year.

PR car crashes aside, people like what Uber delivers. If you’re stuck after a night out and can’t find a cab, who you gonna call? Ethics evaporate in the harsh headlights of expediency. Low on funds after that first date? The low-cost option will score every time, and we don’t need an ad to get us in the mood.

When price is a major driving factor, consumers will forgive a multitude of failings. Just look at the Primark effect. Who cares about child labour when you're broke and badly need clothes? Especially as charity shops put up their prices.

With Uber, any publicity seems to be good publicity. It’s a far cry from the ‘90s when low-cost jewellery chain boss Gerald Ratner managed to wipe £500m off his group’s value by claiming its products were total crap.

He went on to say one of its earrings was cheaper than an M&S prawn sandwich and probably wouldn’t last as long. He always maintained he was having a joke. These days we’d be probably more relaxed and laugh along as we wore our bargain basement bling with bravura.

Uber may have started out life as an affordable luxury, but it’s become synonymous with the everyday, easy and inexpensive compared with traditional taxi rides. Have smartphone, will travel. Like Google, it’s even become a verb.

As with Airbnb, Uber is a poster child for the disruption economy. The California-based tech company has changed the way we book a ride in 570 cities worldwide.

It has taken the uncertainty out of taking a taxi; we even get to track the cab until it arrives. Never mind that those low prices mean a blow to workers’ rights. The signposts there all point towards disruption of a different kind as drivers make a stand.

While the entrepreneurs who drive cabs under the Uber flag protest low fares, actual employees are on an average of US $279,000 a year, according to the US career management company Paysa.

Some of Silicon Valley’s most driven find their way to the Uber, attracted by the challenges of working there. They put up with the culture to be able to do the work they love, like developing the self-drive cars you’ll be ordering on your app all too soon.

Still, experts predict that the crowd clamouring to join the Uber ranks will start to dwindle and the increasingly toxic culture may yet spark a brain drain if internal issues aren’t addressed.

The bottom line is this: Uber is primarily a tech company. The real innovation isn’t the business structure or model of using technology to drive down costs; it’s in the technology itself.

It needs to park the papering-over-the-cracks Bridget Jones-style rom-com ads. The company’s creative needs to steer towards that core narrative of tech innovation.

Only mass public protest and direct action will force businesses like Uber to change gear and become more ethical. It’ll take root and branch modifications to the company’s structure and culture.

Until such time, ads like 'Effortless Night' do the business little service. In effect, they’re more effort than they’re worth.

Bang on to Richard on email and Twitter @6hillgrove

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