Feb 2, 2016 - 2 years read

The Inside Story of Uber’s Radical Rebranding

TODAY, MILLIONS OF people around the world will turn on their smartphones and scan their screens for the black-and-white Uber icon, only to find it missing. Instead, they’ll see a colorful geometric shape—hexagonal if they drive, circular if they’re a rider—surrounding a small, bit-like square. The colors and patterns will vary from country to country—red in China, turquoise in India, dark teal in the United States—but everywhere, the app will open with an elegant, patterned animation, welcoming users to the new Uber.

Go check for yourself, if you haven’t already. Does it work? Do you like it? Are you freaking out? Be honest.

Because right now, on the fourth floor of Uber’s cavernous offices in downtown San Francisco, the company’s pugnacious founder and CEO, Travis Kalanick, is waiting to hear what people think. He’s probably pacing; it’s what he does when he works through problems, and this is a problem he’s been working through for more than two-and-a-half years. “I don’t know what’s going to happen,” he tells me five days before launch. It can take time for people to come around to something so new, he says, “but I feel that it’s going to be good.”

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Uber, the transportation and logistics unicorn many private investors consider more valuable than Ford Motor Company or FedEx, rebranded today. The company updated its logo, and new rider- and partner-app icons reflect the individuality of Uber’s local markets. In place of black, gray, and blue, Uber is embracing bright colors, and lots of them. Each of 65 launch countries will receive a toolbox of new brand assets that include tailored colors and patterns, new midcentury modern illustrations, and guidelines for photography. Uber hopes to develop a more flexible brand that can grow with the company as it develops new products and attracts new customers.

The story of how Kalanick and his design team came to replace the ubiquitous “U” logo is about more than a corporate rebranding effort. It’s a coming-of-age tale. It’s about Uber’s attempt to transform its purpose and cement a new reputation—to change not only how it is perceived throughout the world, but how it perceives itself. Back in 2010, Uber’s founders launched an app that let wealthy bros summon BMWs and Lincoln Town Cars at the push of a button. It was an elegant, elitist way for Kalanick, his friends, and people like them to “roll around San Francisco like ballers.” This, of course, was before Uber ran afoul of regulators and got hit with lawsuits alleging it misclassifies drivers as private contractors. It was before Kalanick raised more than $10 billion—valuing the business at close to $65 billion—on the promise that it would become the future of logistics. And it was before the launch of UberX, UberCommute, and UberPool—egalitarian offerings that feel decidedly un-baller. “The early app was an attempt at something luxury,” says Kalanick. “That’s where we came from, but it’s not where we are today.”

Today, you’ll find Uber in 400 cities in 65 countries. Almost two-thirds of its 6,000 or so people have been with the company less than one  year. That kind of hypergrowth has a history of causing startups—Blackberry, Palm, and Twitter among them—to lose focus. When most of your employees fit in your living room, it’s easy to communicate your plans. But now that task is exponentially harder. What’s more, Uber is a global and a local brand—the Mumbai market is very different than, say, the market in Lagos. Uber’s rebrand, says Kalanick, is about helping every person in its ecosystem—riders, partners, and employees—grok the company’s culture and ambitions.

Here’s the thing, though. Kalanick is not a designer. He’s an engineer by training and an entrepreneur by nature. Yet he refused to entrust the rebranding to anyone else. This was an unusual decision. Most CEOs hire experts—branding agencies that specialize in translating corporate values into fonts and colors—or tap an in-house team. Not Kalanick. For the past three years, he’s worked alongside Uber design director Shalin Amin and a dozen or so others, hammering out ideas from a stuffy space they call the War Room. Along the way, he studied up on concepts ranging from kerning to color palettes. “I didn’t know any of this stuff,” says Kalanick. “I just knew it was important, and so I wanted it to be good.”

Kalanick’s involvement makes more sense when you understand the rebranding was personal. “There’s an evolution here, for the founder as well as for the company,” he says, “because really, they’re very connected.” During Uber’s early years, Kalanick came across as a bellicose bro, a rebel-hero always angling for a confrontation—with regulators, the taxi industry, and competitors. Reflecting on this, Kalanick says it was all a misrepresentation by the media. When you don’t really know who you are, he says, it’s easy to be miscast—as a company, or as a person. For Kalanick, who turns 40 this year and has gained a few more shades of silver in his spiky, salt-and-pepper hair, this rebrand has been an act of self-exploration. It is his attempt to define who he is, and to give himself the flexibility to evolve alongside the company he started.