Uber Can’t Buy Me Love

Robber barons 1Uber’s robber-baron approach to reputation management is getting old. Rockefeller and Mellon, who made their fortunes in oil, turned their reputations as shady businessmen around by making generous donations to the arts and education. But this strategy is very 19th century, and it has its limitations. Specifically, in today’s information era, it isn’t as easy to erase bad behavior by throwing a little money around.

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick secures his company’s market share by operating illegally, ignoring local regulations, playing footloose with passenger privacy, profiting off of local tragedies and scamming the competition. Meanwhile, the company’s reputation management consists of one-off efforts: adoptable puppies driven to your door during the puppy bowl, a partnership with No Kid Hungry to allow passengers to donate through the app, and a partnership with Goodwill to offer free pickups for Goodwill donations. Don’t get me wrong, those are all worthy causes. Uber has definitely done more good than harm by supporting them. But the cutesy one-off philanthropic efforts are not doing much to improve the company’s dirty-bathwater reputation.

Now, Uber is attempting to repair its reputation as a misogynist organization (see the India rape, Boob-er and Paris driver objectification scandals) through a partnership with U.N. Women

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Like its previous philanthropic efforts, this one certainly sounds impressive. The company plans to create 1 million jobs for women by 2020. However, my first reaction is a mild eye roll. First, those jobs will probably offer little to nothing in the way of benefits and security since Uber drivers are all independent contractors — the gig economy is not really one that protects women’s livelihoods. Second, Uber has shown to only care about safety and security after something bad happens (see the India rape scandal). Any protections for these legions of new drivers will more than likely be too little too late.

I for one, will continue to vote with my pocketbook by choosing Lyft.

While Uber has never hidden its “profit at all costs” approach to doing business, Lyft has been sustainable from the start. The company originally started as a carpooling app — aimed at reducing congestion and building communities.  It’s got embedded sustainability written all over it. So, I believe the company when it announces a philanthropic initiative. And these initiatives improve Lyft’s brand and reputation because they are a natural extension of what the company is already doing rather than an aberration.

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Because the company operates with wellness in mind, its most recent effort to support Dress for Success — offering free rides to underserved women on their way to job interviews — is both beneficial and believable. In addition to doing good, this initiative has the intended impact of furthering the brand’s reputation as a supporter of community.

These competing cause marketing campaigns demonstrate the financial value of a good reputation. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that covering 3,000 Lyft rides for needy interviewees is probably cheaper than hiring 1 million women in the next five years. But Lyft’s initiative did a better job of extending the brand’s promise, and therefore it was more successful, at least for me.

Uber’s approach reads as old-fashioned, off the mark and just a little desperate.

Image credit: Chris Drumm, Flickr

Jen Boynton

Jen Boynton is editor in chief of TriplePundit and editorial director at 3BL Media. With over 6 million annual readers, TriplePundit is the leading publication on sustainable business and the Triple Bottom Line. Prior to TriplePundit, Jen received an MBA in Sustainable Management from the Presidio Graduate School. In her work with TriplePundit she's helped clients from SAP to PwC to Fair Trade USA with their sustainability communications messaging. When she's not at work, she volunteers as a CASA -- court appointed special advocate for children in the foster care system. She enjoys losing fights with toddlers and eating toast scraps. She lives with her family in sunny San Diego.

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