It’s 2nd April 2016, and Uber’s former CEO Travis Kalanick posts the announcement of the company’s rebranding on their newsroom blog. Seven years earlier, Uber had started out as a premium-priced black car service operating on the streets of San Francisco for a hundred friends. Kalanick has seen it grow into a 68-country disruptive logistics giant, or, as he describes it, “an everyday transportation option for millions.”
In the post titled “Celebrating Cities: A New Look and Feel For Uber” he announces the end of a two-year global rebranding process “that celebrates our technology, as well as the cities we serve.” The logotype is thinned and stretched to be “less fussy.” The “distant and cold” black, gray and blue colorway and “U” logo are changed to a colorful hexagonal “atom”. Wired Magazine call it “a coming-of-age tale.”
As part of an increased presence in Asia, Uber Vietnam launched in June 2014. Four months earlier, they’d opened in Bangkok and then in April in Beijing. It would be just under two years after the Vietnam launch, in May 2016, that the company’s office here announced “one more option with two less wheels, uberMOTO.” It entered Uber into motorbike taxi services traditionally dominated by “male, middle-aged, casually dressed [xe om drivers]” but which had been disrupted by Grab in May 2015 with an app-based service that offered accessibility and accountability. The ride-hailing company, founded in Malaysia, dotted the streets with their highly-visible green-shirted GrabBike drivers.
“Eight months ago, Uber Vietnam finished an exhaustive survey of our uberMOTO driver-partners in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. It helped us to understand their need for hard-wearing functional outfits that would help them through long hours in harsh conditions—sun, rain, dirt, and pollution,” Uber’s Marketing Manager, Le Phi, who led the project with Uber’s Operations Managers Binh Thai and Linh Tong, explains. She had joined Uber Vietnam four months earlier after graduating with a Masters Degree from HEC Paris and completing an internship as a Market Researcher in Mongolia. “We saw an opportunity to do something special to enhance our driver-partners’ experience and sense of brand identity. We reached out to Rice Creative in March this year. They are rising stars in the design industry who had impressed us with their work for Marou Chocolate.”
“I think when Uber Vietnam came to us, we reframed their request to some extent,” Joshua Breidenbach, Rice Creative’s Partner, Co-Founder and Creative Director begins. Joshua suggested Uber focus on being more themselves—high-tech but human, dynamic and iconic. “It’s a brand. You’re probably familiar with them from using their service in other countries. And that’s what we wanted to remind them of. I guess we wanted Uber to be more aspirational,” Joshua explains.
In fact, according to Uber, Vietnam is one of only three countries, along with India and Indonesia, where they operate a motorbike request service. “You could call it a ‘dac san’ Vietnam—a Vietnamese specialty,” Le Phi smiles. “We all agreed on the importance of the uniforms of uberMOTO’s driver-partners. They’re out on the streets like thousands of moving billboards. And Uber were in a position in Vietnam where they could be much more visible. People couldn’t really see the original branding,” Joshua adds. “And it’s not just that you see uberMOTO when you call them. They’re going by all the time. At that point, you might decide to use Uber over their competitors.”
Very quickly Rice—whose expertise is in brand strategy—also realized they needed the help of a fashion designer, “We knew we wouldn’t be able to do this with a graphic design team alone. We could figure out the branding stuff. But this was becoming a fashion project. I remember walking out of one of the first meetings and thinking ‘we need Linda Mai Phung,’ but we knew she was busy.”
The French-Vietnamese designer had put her eponymous niche fashion brand on hold to focus on freelance projects in the sustainable clothing industry in Europe. “I’m developing a new active-wear brand with sustainable materials targeted at the European market, so I was familiar with some of the details required by bike riders,” Linda Mai Phung explains.
“We didn’t even consider anyone else,” Joshua says. “I think we have the same values and vision,” Linda agrees. “We knew she could do it. And when we realized she might have time, we asked her into the office. She came in with all these materials already sourced for this kind of project,” Joshua remembers.
Rice had already begun working on the branding for Vietnam, exploring the possibilities within Uber’s global branding guidelines. “These guidelines, that came from the announcement in April 2016, were born of the company’s philosophy to ‘build globally, live locally’. The guidelines are sophisticated and complicated, so it takes time to become immersed in them and to understand them. We’ve got a set of core rules around the brand’s local look and feel, but the colors can be different from country to country. You can see the color for Uber in Vietnam is blue, but in Singapore it’s orange,” Le Phi says.
“So we fell upon this color palette—blue, turquoise and gray—and these diagonal lines like the intersections of highways. This was the visual identity work, the branding work. We presented that to Uber and they were like, ‘that’s it.’” Joshua says. “And me too, it looks super cool. Of course I wanted to be part of the project when I saw that,” Linda adds.
And so, together, they looked more deeply at fashion brands, sportswear, and uniforms. “We wanted this design to be stylish. And we wanted it to be influenced by sportswear. If you’re on your bike all day taking people around that is a sports activity,” Rice’s Creative Director says. They referenced high-fashion labels like Y-3, whose Japanese designer Yohji Yamamoto once said something that could have defined this project, “don’t design with your brain, design by your heart, your soul.” They also looked at edgy skate labels like Palace and Supreme, the workwear and apparel of Dickies and DHL, firemen’s outfits, pilots’ uniforms and even superhero costumes. “These uberMOTO drivers are a kind of superhero,” Joshua says. “Uberman!” Linda laughs.
“When we presented these ideas, Uber extended the project’s deadline—they were wonderful, to their credit, about being out of their comfort zone. They realized there was importance in going through this process. Last time, I don’t think they hired local branding experts or fashion designers. But, in all honesty, I think this was a voyage of discovery for all of us,” Joshua recalls.
Rice and Linda’s divergent ideas for uniform features flowed. “We talked about structure a lot. Not just could this be a different color, but could this be a totally different shape?” Joshua recalls. “We had pockets everywhere, a transparent one at the front where drivers could see their phone, or a wristband into which the phone clips—because the drivers always have to take out their phone and it can be dangerous—and an integrated mask. Although the mask didn’t happen, it’s the reason why the neck zips up so high on the final design, although we wanted it even higher. We thought of many, many options,” Linda remembers.
“Linda brought a high-end designer’s vision to the table but Uber, naturally, had budget restrictions,” Joshua adds. “Also, I think our ideas started to get a little far out. So then we started getting down to brass tacks, to what could be achieved at a certain price point.”
With Uber Vietnam’s budget restrictions conveyed and Rice and Linda’s ideation converging on some core features, the uniform design process began. “I started to sketch in April. We gave lots of thought to how the pieces would fit together. Not just that the raincoat is transparent, but also how the other pieces would connect. I drew around eight different T-shirt designs and about 15 different jacket designs in total,” Linda recalls. “The design for the T-shirt is actually two pieces of different colored material—which was a challenge in production. And the Uber logo boxes are actually stitched onto the finished T-shirts. You can see the colored sections of the T-shirts and jackets create a diagonal line that either cuts through the middle of a logo box, or cuts across its edge. But on some of the first productions, the lines didn’t even hit the boxes. It felt impossible,” the French-Vietnamese designer adds.
“There are always challenges when you have people from different backgrounds and specializations in a project. I think it also took Rice and Linda a while to get the essence of our brand and to come up with the first set of designs, and then we all worked together—Uber, Rice, Linda and the supplier—to adjust the design to suit our driver-partners’ needs,” Uber’s Marketing Manager adds.
“Despite the challenges, the T-shirts happened quite quickly. I think we only had two iterations. With the jacket there was a lot—maybe eight,” Linda explains. “Some fortuitous things happened. We found this reflective gray material for the jacket’s shoulders which brought in the safety aspect but which matched the gray color in our new branding,” Joshua adds. “But my favorite part is the crooked logo box on the arm. It’s placed that way so when the drivers’ arms are bent to steer their motorbike the logo looks straight.”
“I was truly happy when I saw the final jacket—especially the color combinations. Plus, we managed to keep features like the extended sleeves that cover the backs of the driver’s hands. That protects their hands from the sun because we realized lots of drivers already felt the need to wear gloves. I can see lots of drivers are using this feature,” Linda says.
Since September, every driver registering has received this “swag pack” with two helmets—one open-face helmet and another half-helmet for the passenger—two T-shirts, and the showerproof jacket. The transparent raincoat is available as an added extra.
It’s probably too soon for metrics and measures that assess the effectiveness of the rebranding. But Uber, Rice and Linda have been collecting anecdotal feedback of its impact while reflecting personally upon the project’s outcomes. “It’s vivid, modern, and on-point. I’m proud of this project not just for the end result but for the journey we went through together. I understand the heart and soul that went into this project, and I know of the sleepless nights so many of the team involved went through. My satisfaction comes from seeing the driver-partners’ excitement when they receive their new gear,” Le Phi says. “It’s futuristic but friendly at the same time, and it’s a little weird which I like,” Joshua smiles.
“I’ve been riding a lot of uberMOTOs lately. And I’ve been asking the drivers what they think of the uniform—how it feels to wear, whether it’s comfortable. They tell me it’s cool and comfy. One driver I met had sewn two pockets onto the chest so when he rides at night he can put his phone into one of the pockets. He had covered the Uber badge though,” Linda shrugs. “And do I tell them I’m the designer before I ask them my questions? No, I usually reveal that afterward,” she laughs.