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The Hyper-Localization of Uber

Will the-branding of Uber becomes the un-branding of Uber?

Last week, Uber did more than just roll out a new logo. They announced a manifesto to deliver a hyper-localized experience to every one of its customers in every part of the globe, kicking off what could be a major trend for the localization industry in 2016.

Is the new logo ugly? Yes. Is the idea behind it dumb, lofty and pretentious? Absolutely. But if you can get past their goofy story about “bits and atoms,” Uber’s rebranding is a critical and necessary move, and one that was long overdue. Since its founding in 2009, Uber has transformed itself from an elite Silicon Valley black-car service into a global logistics titan operating in over 65 countries and 400 cities. Although Uber has the most recognizable “U” in the world, their difficult-to-read typography and text-based logo were never meant to be exported to a global audience. Uber needed a global solution to their branding: a universal symbol that wasn’t tied to any region or language.

To build even more flexibility into their brand, Uber is rolling out a different look and feel for each of its 65 countries. Each new look was developed by in-house designers who collaborated on “mood boards” of colors, patterns and photos to evoke the regional flavor of each country – an incredibly ambitious task that took their team three years to complete. But according to Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, that’s just the beginning:

“Every city has its own character and our long term goal is to have unique designs for cities as well as countries. This will mean adding hundreds more color palettes and patterns overtime.”

China
China. Image courtesy of Uber.

Geotargeting and hyper-localization certainly aren’t new, even for Uber. They company already incorporates localized design elements in its app by changing the color if the car icon according to what city you’re in. Hyper-local marketing generated a lot of buzz in 2015 as companies came to learn that digital natives everywhere are expecting a more custom-tailored digital experience from bigger brands. As brands adjust to a new global reality, localization is on track to become one of the fastest-growing industries of 2016.

While global companies recognize the importance of localizing their designs and so they’re appropriate for their target audience, most try to keep core features of their identity – their brand guidelines like colors – consistent across the board. However, any localization professional can tell you that governing international brand standards and can be extremely difficult. For most companies, the idea of custom-tailoring their brand to every major city they serve would be a nightmare. Uber has thrown caution to the wind, taking the concerns that keep bigger, more established brands up at night and tossing them out the window. And Uber’s hyper-localized approach will inevitably have its own unique set of challenges.

In order for a brand to build credibility, they have to deliver consistently. Although Uber seems to have a few governing guidelines for their new look (bright colors and linear patterns), Uber is taking the consistency of its branding into its own hands at a critical time.  As Uber aggressively expands into other aspects of the logistics industry – everything from food delivery to on-demand helicopter rides – their new branding angles to reflect their changing values. Uber needs to tell their story now more than ever, but their new brand identity could be gambling with its international reputation. If an Uber user in Beijing thinks their app interface is not as attractive as when they’re in Shanghai, will they perceive that they are receiving a lesser quality of service? Perhaps.

Ireland
Ireland. Image courtesy of Uber.

On the other hand, Uber’s size and decision to keep all of their regional designs in-house may work to their advantage. With a core in-house team at the reigns of your marketing, it’s easier to take control of your brand. However, Uber’s rapid expansion (two-thirds of Uber’s 6000 employees have been with the company less than a year) leaves a lot of uncertainty as to how long that will be the case.

Hyper-regional branding also has the tendency to feel patronizing. It may make sense for a design team in Silicon Valley designing a New York interface to want to incorporate the Brooklyn Bridge, or a Seattle design using the Space Needle. But a Western design team’s projected perception of the local flavor Beijing may differ wildly than what a local considers a more authentic aesthetic – not to mention that perhaps some international users would, in reality, prefer a more westernized look and feel over a regionalized one. Many other brands have taken on hyper-localization and came out smelling like roses. For example, Snapchat has employed the use of geolocated designs in the form of location-specific filters to great success. Perhaps a unique look for each of Uber’s cities could instill a similar sense of regional pride.

Regardless of these issues, this was a gamble that Uber needed to take. Uber wants the world to know it’s more than “everyone’s private driver” and needs to tell their global story now more than ever.

Uber’s brand gamble will be something for companies to keep an eye on in 2016. It remains to be seen whether the re-branding of Uber becomes the un-branding of Uber.

March 13, 2017

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