Localizing a brand: Uber breaks new ground to grow, again
February 9, 2016
Hate it or love it, Uber’s logo change had 8 million+ users in 400 cities and 68 countries registering a new visual identity last week.
Like the company’s blitzkrieg through local taxi markets, the redesign, 24 months in the making, broke new ground in terms of global brand adaptation.
From the new brand guidelines: “When we start designing for a specific market, we look at the culture holistically—art, architecture, tradition, old and new fashion, textiles, the environment—to create color palettes and patterns that are both fresh and relevant. We’re launching with 65 local color palettes and patterns, representing countries in which Uber operates. These colors and patterns are authentic expressions of the real world’s diversity, and they afford flexibility in our communications.”
We’ve seen brands localize their names (Coca-Cola) and we’ve seen brands localize their logos (RJ Metrics), but what’s groundbreaking here is that Uber is localizing colors and partially localizing the logo. The “bit” is the connecting element. If that’s not enough to make your design/brand team queasy, add that these 65 color palettes and patterns will be applied by individual city teams at Uber, and that there are now different logos for different Uber products, both at the rider and the driver level.
This intensely local design is a direct result of Uber’s intensely local expansion strategy. We’ve long admired their empathy for global users and the care with which the Uber app UI is localized for local markets and habits. Will the local design strategy be just as brilliant as the local expansion one?
User’s localized design strategy
Wired’s great inside story on the “radical” rebranding of Uber, done with the cooperation of the design team and Travis Kalanick, the company’s CEO, who lead the redesign, dives deep into the thinking behind the new logo, colors, typefaces and brand guidelines. Writes author Jessi Hempel:
“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…The designers mocked up mood boards for individual cities, regions and countries, piecing together images representing architecture, textiles, fashion, and art, among other things. Then they met with people like [Nigeria general manager Ebi] Atawodi in their local offices via video conference to help edit the boards. They landed on the bright colors of the traditional Nigerian fabric, approving of the navies and reds and yellows the team in San Francisco had selected, and bringing them images to inspire their work. The result is a set of colors that are specific to each city. “
So let’s evaluate the 4 local mood boards published so far by Uber (the global ones were not posted) for India, China, Mexico and Ireland.
The image is of the Gateway of India in Mumbai, a structure built during British rule to commemorate King George V’s visit to India in 1911. Could have chosen something less colonial, but OK. The chosen green shade for the dominant color is associated with nature in India. The secondary colors of yellow and orange have sacred/holy associations, and the two reds are associated with purity.
The images are of Yi Jiang River in Guilin, China (a Southern city of about a million people where Uber does not currently operate) and what looks like a Taoist temple. The dominant and secondary colors are spot on: red for celebration and fortune, yellow for happiness, lots of blues for sky and water.
The main photo is of the Mexican city of Guanajuato, known as the birthplace of Mexican independence from Spain. The second picture is probably the most interesting secondary photo of the four mood boards: they are tiles in the Talavera style famous in the city of Puebla, Mexico, where they cover the facades of the Spanish colonial buildings there. The pink chosen is, of course, Mexican pink, though given that Mexico’s government taxis have painted their vehicles this same shade, it may be a confusing one for Uber’s users.
Rolling hills and green for leprechauns, get it? Though the primary color may be too close to the shade we associate with too many beers on St. Paddy’s Day, the secondary colors hew close to the shades of Irish tartan pretty widely recognized as Irish.
How good is the localized design?
Mainstream thinking in the branding space is that when it comes to logos and their colors, the simpler, the better. Forty-three of the top 50 global brands only use 1 or 2 colors in their logos. The research on global color associations and the impact on brand perception is robust, so the top brands tend to choose 1 or 2 colors that have the most universally positive associations.
Uber’s global palettes have some limitations. Though no faux pas were committed in the four published mood boards (the last British troops also left through the Gate of Mumbai, so it’s a symbol of independence, too), not committing any across 65 local and 5 global ones will be a feat. The localized patterns we analyzed didn’t seem to have any cultural associations, so unless we’ve missed something, those could be adding a layer of complexity with little emotional payoff for the local user.
Also: color increases brand recognition by 80%, so without a single color or two that we can associate with Uber globally, the company could face difficulties expanding brand recognition based solely on the bit element in the logo. Even for existing users, it will be a while before we re-associate Uber with the multicultural, grounded palette of the redesign from the elitist black-and-steel palette of today.
This is hard, and not for everyone
We love the cities-first, intensely-local approach that Uber has taken, though they may be figuring this out for a while to come. Key to Uber’s successful localized design strategy will be whether or not the new brand assets and design framework are simple enough to get applied globally in a locally consistent manner. What logo and colors will an American user who travels to China see when they go to Uber.com or open the app? Could it be different between Shanghai and Beijing? What about an American using the Uber app in Spanish in San Francisco, heading to Mexico? What about the other product marketing assets? Right now, all of Uber’s localized sites are using the exact same color palette (screenshots below). The brand guidelines themselves are only English, as are the videos describing the new ethos. Even with 24 months of lead time, the fact that they weren’t ready at launch says a lot about how difficult localized branding can be.
Brand recognition is not easily earned. The interplay of the design and localization teams will be critical to the successful launch of Uber’s localized design strategy, though with the departure of Uber’s head of design and brand just hours after the redesign announcement, there could be uncertainty around global design leadership. But with +200 designers globally and plenty of open positions for designers in local markets (always a good thing), Uber certainly has the resources to pull this off, and pave the way for global brands everywhere.