BRAND/corporate reputation is probably one of the most fragile assets in the arsenal of any organisation’s sustainability tool kit, whether it is in the business of making profit or providing charity to the less privileged, or whether it is privately owned, listed in a stock exchange or government-controlled.
Badly managed, corporate reputation can prematurely and brutally cut short the journey of any brand. Carefully managed, it can propel it into a world of glorious success. Over the years, we’ve seen apparently infallible brands crumble in the aftermath of compromise to their corporate reputation by poor(er) quality products and services, and deliberate or careless conduct and utterances by their representatives. Think BlackBerry.
No self-respecting brand can regard itself as infallible if its reputation management regime is faulty.
The advent of digital media, especially the plethora of social media platforms, has ensured that no brand can do things at night and hope that they will not be known when the sun comes out in the morning, embarrassing it and pushing it into a defensive mode as a result. In competitive markets, consumers can quickly shift their loyalty and shareholders can move their investments to safer environments to avoid losing money or being accused of supporting morally deprived brands.
Let’s take the case of Uber, the apparently uber efficient e-hailing taxi system (though they do not really want to refer to themselves as a ‘taxi service’) launched four years ago in the US and which has, to date, managed to grow its presence in more than 250 cities worldwide.
With such rapid growth and seemingly no shared corporate values to talk about, Uber’s reputation rests firmly in the hands of participant drivers wherever it exists. By the look of things, all one needs to integrate the system as a driver – referred to as a partner operator – is to have a good car and understand how the application functions.
In recent months, partner operators have been accused of acting as taxis – which they do – without the necessary public transport operating licences and of overcharging through exorbitant surge fees during the festive period (South Africa); flouting competition rules by stealing business from established taxi operators who have followed all local regulations to operate public transport businesses (South Africa, USA, South Korea, UK, etc); of rape (India) and other unprofessional conduct towards customers.
Uber CEO Travis Kalanick is an outspoken opponent of local government regulation who has fought off all sorts of criticism in several parts of the world. His carrot and stick approach to reputation management had him promising to create up to 50 000 full-time jobs in the European Union by end of 2015, on the one hand – hoping to generate goodwill – and, on the other, brandishing an arrogant middle finger to established local government regulatory processes and those who adhere to them.
No doubt, Uber has come a long way since its founding as a startup in San Francisco four years ago. With increasing worldwide presence, its value is now estimated at just over $40bn, based on fundraising from investors. But an Uber ride can either be uber efficient or uber nightmarish. Customers who have never had a bad experience will stop at nothing defending it, while many of those who have been unfortunate are determined never to use it again.
In this way, Uber is a reputational moving target. But this cannot last for too long. Recent negative reports have sufficed to discourage many potential clients from trying the system for the first time, depriving the company of yet to be calculated potential revenue.
Given all of the above, Kalanick should be careful of being seen as an uncaring and pompous executive who carries on like an unstoppable teenager. Uber’s rapid growth trajectory is, by all counts, impressive. However, it can still be hurt badly if those tasked with managing it fail to implement consistent, value-driven, reputation-enhancing activities that will win more hearts, minds, and a greater following.