Why Uber needs to build an empathetic brand to become a credible player in public transport

At SXSW this week, London Mayor Sadiq Khan praised the humility of Uber’s new chief executive officer, Dara Khosrowshahi, in working to address Transport for London’s (TfL) concerns following Uber’s license suspension. Khosrowshahi’s willingness to cooperate shows a new, positive approach from Uber, and leaves it better placed to make good on ambitions to occupy a space within the public transport ecosystem.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Tom D.

However, while Khosrowshahi’s humble approach might be the first step on the road to license renewal, Uber will need to go beyond humility to meaningfully build empathy into its business model if it wants to become a credible player in public transportation.

Today, consumers demand transparency and integrity from the companies, organizations, and individuals they interact with. As we’ve seen, consumer backlash is swift against those revealed to be acting in bad faith. No longer confined to a single sector, this zeitgeist has swept across everything from the music industry to government and forced companies to put their past and present actions under a microscope.

One thing all great brands have in common is that they use their strengths to their benefit. Thus far, the strength of Uber’s win-win service offering has encouraged consumers to give it the benefit of the doubt—riders get low-cost and convenient service, and drivers get a flexible source of income. However, in an era of increased accountability, service will only get you so far, and consumers will forgive transgressions for only so long.

What Uber needs is a brand-led approach to help it build a powerful new sense of purpose and empathy into its business. Too often following a crisis, companies attempt to mitigate the situation with a superficial change to their image. In contrast, a brand-led approach creates the foundations to bring about a holistic transformation of all that the business touches—whether that be values, internal culture, or stakeholder relationships.

Crucially, with a more empathetic brand, Uber would be better placed to understand the many pain points within the public transport ecosystem and to recognize the unique role it could play in helping solve them.

For example, by leveraging its huge amounts of data, Uber might be able to provide a more diverse set of solutions than the transport authority could develop in isolation. Uber could use its abundant data to help TfL better understand how people move around the city, easing congestion during busy periods.

Or Uber could work more closely with TfL to plug gaps in the network due to breakdowns or bad weather, and offer live transport updates to passengers to help them avoid train lines that may be experiencing difficulties. The potential for Uber to play a more positive role is immense.

For its part, Uber has already made some headway weaving empathy into its offering for riders and drivers. In the United Kingdom, Uber recently announced a 24-hour hotline for riders, and for drivers it has introduced limits on their working hours.

The next step for the company will be to develop a brand strategy that infuses this empathy across its entire business, including stakeholder relationships and relationships with city transport authorities. Any improvement to public transport would not only improve this relationship, but also ease Uber’s entry into the public transit niche and help it build consumer trust.

There’s no doubt Uber has revolutionized the taxi industry and disrupted the entire market. Now, it will need to leverage its strengths and transform its brand into something far more meaningful for passengers by infusing its boundary-breaking mentality with empathy. Only then will Uber be able to achieve its lofty ambitions and emerge as a credible player in the wider public transport network.


This piece was originally published in Campaign (14 March 2018). Republished with permission.