From fighting taxis to liberating drivers: Uber shifts its corporate narrative
Mid-September, I was one of the “few” lucky 150,000 persons that attended “the largest tech conference in the world to take place in San Francisco”, Dreamforce 2015. The week-long event, organized by Salesforce in its birth city, is a powerful demonstration of the mix of business acumen and outward corporate generosity that characterizes its CEO, Marc Benioff.
In a fireside chat with Uber’s CEO Travis Kalanick, another business leader based in San Francisco, Benioff asked Kalanick whether “Uber [too] has got a heart”. The hour-long conversation offered a platform to Kalanick to articulate a new corporate narrative that is strikingly different from what we had heard from the company so far.
“An asshole named taxi”
You may remember Kalanick’s conversation with Kara Swisher of Re/code in May 2014 about Uber’s war against taxis. At the time, Uber was already facing a lot of opposition in US cities and was preparing to survive an “Ubergeddon” in European capitals.
Reflecting on the past months, Kalanick explained then that “when we started Uber, it was not about a battle or a war. But that war or battle had been brought to us. For too long, […] we did not realize it but we are in this political campaign and the candidate is Uber and the opponent is an asshole named taxi.”
Kalanick announced then that Uber was going “to start fighting,” which it has since done vigorously in courts, in the press and in conversations with local and national governments.
A year and several dozen billion dollars in valuation later, Kalanick’s take on taxi drivers has dramatically changed. Taxis are no “asshole” any longer. They now have the sympathy of Uber’s CEO. At Dreamforce, Kalanick described drivers as being “abused” by companies that own the licenses and the cars, forced to work 12-hours shifts with little revenues and no flexibility.
Uber instead, explains Kalanick, offers those drivers a flexible schedule and improved revenue streams with no entry costs.
Kalanick has identified a new target in Uber’s “political campaign”. It is a powerful player that hides in the shadows: the taxi companies that own the cars and licenses. They have very close ties to local governments and the ability to disrupt entire cities to make their point, as we have seen across Europe over the past year. Courtney Love and Kara Swisher were first-hand witnesses of their power.
Why the new narrative?
So what happened in a year? A lot. Really. Some might say that Uber as a company is maturing, and so is its corporate narrative. What’s sure is that it has faced many legal and political battles. Some it won: New York; some it lost: France (Sept. 22 French Constitutional Court’s decision, in French); many, still ongoing: Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Spain, and the list goes on.
Many of its difficulties in Europe have been attributed to a harsh communications style and an aggressive narrative: a “cowboy” approach to local markets that disregards existing regulations and threatens to fundamentally transform the economy.
In the last year, Uber has equipped itself with corporate “political campaigns” experts to try and turn this situation around and reform what it calls “outdated rules”. Among the new hires feature several former Google employees that built the company’s relationships with European policymakers.
Some results can already be seen. A new wave of political supporters is emerging. Among them, Alexander De Croo, Belgium’s Deputy Prime Minister and Economy Minister.
Uber is also changing its message and showing more empathy.
The company is getting ready for a different kind of battle, a pan-European one that could end all its local wars.
European online platform regulation: one battle to end them all
The European Commission just launched an assessment process that could result in the regulation of online platforms. In a 46-page questionnaire, the EU executive asks whether and how it should regulate companies that act as intermediaries on a two-sided market and have the potential of becoming monopolies.
Many businesses will be impacted: marketplaces, search engines, review sites, social networks, and many household names like Yelp, TripAdvisor, Netflix, Spotify, Apple Music, iTunes, AirBnB, Google, Expedia, Hotels.com, Facebook, eBay, Amazon, Etsy, etc… potentially anyone that sells other companies’ products to end-users.
For Uber, this process could end up in two ways: the final rules could provide the legal and political tools to end a continent-wide war, annihilating all local attempts to restrict its business, or the new package could be its death sentence, creating more barriers expensive to overcome.
Rules won’t be created overnight. We are talking about a 2-3 year timeline at the shortest. That’s plenty of time for businesses to get involved and provide their input. European lawmakers have repeatedly said that they are willing to engage in a dialog with companies, big and small – an opportunity that should not be missed.
For Uber, efficiently influencing this process means keeping its corporate messages in check. Kalanick’s dream of a San Francisco filled with Uber cars exclusively will likely be perceived as confirming Uber’s market domination ambitions and will no doubt attract the attention of Margrethe Vestager, the European Antitrust Commissioner.
Uber will also need to make sure the European legislator is well aware of how it conducts its business and how the company contributes to the local economy and to society. For that, support from local politicians, in addition to users and drivers, will be crucial. They are the ones that hold the keys to favorable local and national rules, often more than national governments themselves.
At Dreamforce, Kalanick disclosed more about Uber’s giving back program. It turns out that the company has developed successful charity campaigns tailored to local needs in many places across the globe. An example of this: at the peak of the refugee crisis in Germany, Uber cars collected food and clothing from locals to help refugees.
Uber’s problem, it seems, is not its lack of civic commitment, but that it does not communicate about its good deeds. At Dreamforce, Kalanick underlined that the company purposely does not promote this part of its business. It looks like now is a good time to start doing just that and show that Uber, indeed, has got a heart.