THE BLOG
02/09/2016 02:13 am ET | Updated Feb 08, 2017

Uber Logo Change: Are They Kidding?

GEOFFROY VAN DER HASSELT via Getty Images

Uber just changed its logo. According to Uber, the new logo represents bits and atoms. How does this help customers understand what Uber does, what makes it unique, or why anyone should do business with Uber? After all, bits and atoms are everywhere. They are the essential building blocks of everything in the digital and physical world. If these are the key branding elements of Uber, they fail to distinguish Uber from everyone and everything else.

This decision is reminiscent of a branding mistake the Sunshine Biscuit Company made over 100 years ago.

The Hydrox cookie

Sunshine Biscuit, Inc. introduced its Hydrox cookie in 1908. It consisted of two chocolate cookies with white icing in the middle. How did company founders create the name Hydrox? They combined the names of atoms found in water - hydrogen and oxygen. See any parallels with Uber?

Nabisco copied Hydrox when it introduced the Oreo cookie in 1912. Those that knew Hydrox preferred it to the Oreo. It tasted crisper, was a little less sweet, and was made with vegetable shortening rather than animal fat. The problem is that Nabisco did a more effective job of branding and promoting the Oreo. Where is Hydrox now? It is dead - the victim of inside-out thinking on the part of executives that fail to check with customers or branding experts before making an important branding decision.

Starbucks

In 2011, Starbucks announced a dramatic change to its logo. No longer would the Starbucks name and the word "coffee" appear in the logo. Instead the mermaid image would increase in size.

The reaction from Starbucks fans was fierce and swift. As Reuters reported:

"Who's the bonehead in your marketing department that removed the world-famous name of Starbucks Coffee from your new logo? This gold card user isn't impressed!" wrote one customer who identified herself as Mimi Katz.

The Gap

In 2010, the GAP's proposed logo change caused so much ire among customers, the retailer was forced to reverse itself and announced days later it was sticking with its old logo.

Too many companies fail to fully understand that a logo is a symbol of the relationship between the brand and the customer. This symbol represents a shortcut to purchase that makes customers feel comfortable in buying because they know what they are getting.

So many other examples

There are many examples of branding and logo changes that have been rejected by the marketplace. Tropicana Orange Juice, JC Penney, and Gatorade are some noteworthy examples that cost their companies a lot of money in lost business.

Scientific explanation

Neuroscience helps explain why. Read Montague, a neuro scientist at the Baylor College of Medicine, scanned the brains of volunteers as they drank samples of cola. When they were not identified, there was no preference. When shown the Coca Cola logo, their brains showed a decided preference for Coke irrespective of the cola they were drinking.

What scientists have found is the brain takes shortcuts when it processes information. The more it recognizes a symbol with which it is comfortable, such as the logo of a preferred brand, the quicker it makes a decision with less anxiety. Making changes disrupt the comfort zone.

This is why the most loyal customers - the ones with the closest relationship with the brand - are often the ones that are most upset when companies make changes to their logos.
Does this mean that logos should never be changed? No. But there should be very good reasons for doing so. Here are three:

  1. The image is damaged. After the Florida Everglades plane crash, ValueJet became AirTran. It makes sense to change the logo (and name) if the company has had its reputation so deeply damaged that the customers' perceptions are fundamentally altered.
  2. The company has changed fundamentally. If the business has shifted direction, the logo may no longer be presenting the right image. Nokia started out as a paper mill in 1865 along the Nokia River. They added rubber and other products along the way, with their first portable phone being introduced in 1984. As their business evolved, their logos changed to reflect this evolution.
  3. The logo has reproduction problems. Apple's early multi-colored apple logos looked awful when copied. Their target audience also changed from the late '70s and early '80s when they only sold computers mainly to the education market. So their logo evolved into a single color apple.

How social media changes the equation

Too often logos are changed because new executives want to make their mark on the company, they want to give the brand an updated look, or the company has a problem unrelated to its branding that it wants to fix. These are not good or compelling reasons.

There is no evidence Uber, Starbucks, or Gap had any compelling reasons to make the logo changes they made. What's worse, they made changes without consulting their most loyal customers. In the era of social media, companies can, and should, obtain quick feedback from their most fervent fans about logo changes. Those that don't risk eroding this bond and causing an accelerated negative word-of-mouth pyramid and a publicity headache.

Getting back to Uber

There appear to be no market-driven reasons for Uber to change its logo at the present time. The idea did not come from customers, drivers, brand architects, or others in the marketplace. It came from inside the heads of CEO, Travis Kalanick, and his design team. They did not like the previous U logo. They decided that bits and atoms should be the focus of the re-brand because they believe that is where the company is going. Did they bother to get input from customers, drivers, and investors? Did they conduct any meaningful market research? Here are some headlines linking to articles that capture what constituents in the marketplace think about the logo change.

  1. CNN Money: Uber has a new logo, and the Internet is not pleased
  2. Ink Magazine: Uber's Rebranding Reveals Everything That's Wrong With Uber
  3. The Washington Post: Not even Uber drivers like the new Uber logo
  4. Gizmodo: What's Up With Uber's New Logo?
  5. Marketwatch: Uber changes its logo, leaving some befuddled

Unfortuantely, some believe Uber is going to bits and atoms, but not in the sense that Uber executives intend. Bits and atoms may be all that is left of its brand image in the aftermath of the logo change.

Let's hope we are wrong

Those of us that prefer Uber to the other alternatives hope we are wrong about the negative impact of the logo and brand changes. From the market reaction so far and a deeper understanding how human brains process logos and brands, I don't think we are. After all, if I want to be sure I am stepping into a legitimate Uber driver's car, I will just have to look for bits and atoms rather than find the ubiquitous U with which we have become accustomed. The icon in my phone has already changed. I wonder if the atoms and bits can be reformulated into a Hydrox cookie?