Does Uber licence row reveal we overestimate the power of brands in the service economy?

While black cab drivers were celebrating the decision by Transport for London to strip Uber of its licence to operate in London, the response among some quarters of the public was rather different.

Uber: London licence revoked
Uber: London licence revoked

Social media was quick to erupt that Uber provided a service that was cheap and easy to use – others blamed the decision on the lobbying of the London mayor Sadiq Khan by members of the GMB, which represents black cab drivers and helped fund his mayoral campaign.

TfL’s reasons for banning Uber were clear enough – it ruled that it was not a "fit and proper" private car hire operator, citing concerns about the firm’s treatment of criminal offences, medical certificates and drivers’ background checks.

However, with more than 750,000 people signing an online petition in a bid to keep Uber operating in London after its licence runs out on 30 September, these reasons didn’t seem to wash with everyone.

Despite the prevalence of horror stories of women being attacked and harassed by rogue Uber drivers, does the fact that it is cheap and convenient somehow override this? And if so, does this mean that in the service economy we are overestimating the power of brands?

Helen Edwards,

partner, Passionbrand

"No – the Uber story is a reminder that ‘brand’ is not just about image but the product and service itself. It is also a reminder that ‘brand trust’ has two types of meaning. The first is to do with intentions: ‘Do I trust this brand to be a good corporate citizen?’ The second is all about capability: ‘Do I trust this brand to deliver on its promises?’  As we have seen before with Amazon and Google, both accused of tax-dodging, consumers are pretty forgiving of brands with questionable intentions but strong capability. Uber’s values and associations may be tarnished but the product delivers: it gets you there, fast, at a reasonable cost. If anything we underestimate the power of the product or service when it comes to a strong brand."

Uttara Masting,

group strategy director, Jones Knowles Ritchie

"While traditional manufacturers develop and sell products, the service economy relies on strong, charismatic brands to sell experiences. The more complex the service is, the more essential it is to have a compelling brand that serves as a means of identification, recognisability and differentiation. Brands like Uber and Airbnb created new marketplaces where none existed and they built these empires in less than a decade. After an initial spate of rapid success, it is now apparent that birthing new economies comes at a cost and the services these brands provide have become mired in controversy. Across international markets we see issues over regulation, privacy, insurance, workplace policy etc. And when controversy strikes, it’s the brand that can lead a flailing business back to the path of success. Today’s newspaper headline from Uber quite simply said ‘We’re sorry’. So, in a service economy role, brand is paramount as an identifier and point of competitive differentiation, but also and perhaps more importantly, as a vehicle to rebuild trust."

Nic Roope,

executive creative director, Poke 

"Depending who you ask Uber is a great brand or an awful brand in a manner reminiscent Brexit’s ‘in’ and ‘out’ camps. As of this moment 765,000 people have signed the petition to save the Uber service in London. Doesn’t that speak of intense brand strength? I would argue that just like Ryanair’s contemptuous relationship with their customers that hasn't detracted from its’ marketplace standing, Uber’s controversy courting has done little to diminish their brand strength, despite denting their public ‘reputation’. Uber’s fanatical attention to service experience and value has been hugely seductive, despite this obsessiveness leading them into troubled waters. We shouldn’t mix up 'great service brand' with a 'service brands we like,' because they might be very different things." 

Laurence Parkes,

chief strategy officer, Rufus Leonard

"Brand thinking links directly from corporate priorities through to customer experience but we must not forget that customers mostly only care about their experience. What has been hit recently is Uber’s corporate brand. People in the marketing or business world are extremely aware of Uber’s corporate shortcomings. However, Uber customers care mostly about what Uber can do for them. This means accessible transport that is considerably safer than the alternative (roaming the streets late at night or jumping into unlicensed minicabs). So, ironically, for most people Uber represents safety – the opposite of accusations levelled at a corporate level. Whether you think the positive brand experience or the negative corporate brand will eventually define the future of Uber, brand remains an essential piece of the puzzle."

Jamie Inman,

head of planning, BMB

"We are underestimating Uber to see it simply as a service brand. Uber aspires to be a super-aggregator (see Stratechery.com) – a platform that takes full control of a category or sector, its users and suppliers. As Ben Thomson writes on his blog ‘there are strong winner-take-all effects. [Super-aggregators] are not only capable of serving all consumers/users, but they also become better services the more consumers/users they serve — and they are all capable of serving every consumer/user on earth.’ They are by definition super-brands, they serve so many people so well. I think we have to hope that does not put them beyond the reach of regulatory restraint."

John Antoniades,

managing Director, global business for Spark Foundry

"In the service economy, brand and service are interlinked – the experience is the brand, and the brand is the experience. As has always been the case, trust will be the motivation behind the rise and fall of a brand. But in this day and age, trust can be built and destroyed quicker than ever before. Improper business practices will be found out and in a world of disruption, there is always someone waiting to take your place. The brands that move quickly to address the issues affecting trust will survive."

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