Uber has a new CEO, but right now, it’s the Boz show.
Bozoma Saint John, Uber’s new chief brand officer, is on the speaker circuit as the new face of new Uber. In the past month, she’s appeared at TechCrunch Disrupt in San Francisco, Advertising Week in New York, Forbes Under 30 in Boston, and espnW in Newport Beach. Attendees of her sessions walk out and say, “I love her,” which is a reaction not usually associated with Uber.
Welcome to the new Uber: warm and fuzzy, and people-oriented.
“We focus so much on our brands’ stories. It’s easy for people to lose sight of telling our own stories. We are as much the storyteller as we are the audience,” Saint John wrote in an email to Mashable.
Known in the industry by her nickname “Boz,” Saint John is a former Apple executive with a reputation for empathy, transparency, and great fashion. She’s leading the charge for the Uber rebrand that is well under way following the ousting of cofounder and former CEO Travis Kalanick, whose aggressive tactics and general disregard for government regulation or social norms helped build the company into a global megapower—but also led to his downfall.
Kalanick’s personality became part of Uber’s DNA. Uber grew from a noun to a verb over the last eight years without much care for human empathy or the constraints of others. But in the wake of #DeleteUber and several other scandals related to a toxic workplace culture and routine law-breaking, Uber is desperately trying to keep its spot atop the ride-hailing industry.
On its face, Uber’s new strategy looks like typical public relations: hire a great person to speak about not only how great the company is but also how great she is. It’s putting a new face on a brand that’s seen to the everyday user as just another app on their phone. BuzzFeed once described her as the “actual coolest person ever to go onstage at an Apple event.” Her Twitter and Instagram handle is @badassboz, where she has shared photos of herself at the beach and at Uber’s offices.
It’s a human element that Uber has been lacking.
“Did you really have to put that bikini picture up? Yes, because I looked good,” Saint John said at Advertising Week last month. “We only get better by telling our real story. That’s the only way to be.”
She’s not naive to Uber’s missteps in the past. At nearly every one of her public appearances, the onstage interviewer has asked Saint John if she had any hesitations or concerns with accepting the role at the embattled company.
“I’m very hopeful. I’m a natural optimist. … I think that people are innately good. I’m able to walk in the office because I love life and I love people,” Saint John said at Forbes Under 30 Summit in Boston this week to an audience of women in the tech industry.
She’s also one to admit her own mistakes. “I don’t curse in front of my daughter. Well, sometimes,” she quipped at Advertising Week.
Going forward, Uber hasn’t been public with an action plan, but Saint John and other Uber spokespeople have described it as an ongoing effort. That may include brand campaigns like more TV ads and paid partnerships. Her job is to keep Uber relevant, but not with news that would inspire other #DeleteUber movement.
“I’m not that upset with the spotlight that Uber has now … because I want to prove the fact that change is possible. Evolution is possible,” Saint John said during Advertising Week in New York last month.
Saint John is fighting the publicity battle, but she’s not alone. New CEO Dara Khosrowshahi has also begun a charm campaign with drivers and, most important, the city of London, where Uber might end up getting banned.
Whereas Kalanick might have played hardball, Khosrowshahi has been saying all the right things.
It’s not all smooth sailing. Among Uber’s many problems, Khosrowshahi also inherited Kalanick, who still remains with the company due to his stock-based voting rights. For example, Kalanick usurped the board and appointed former Xerox CEO Ursula Burns and former Merrill Lynch CEO John Thain as directors last week.
“We all hope this is Travis’ last stand,” a source close to the situation told Recode. “He has to be stopped from fighting, which is all he knows how to do.”
Externally, Khosrowshahi’s leadership experience at Expedia and displayed at other events has been met with positivity. He’s participated in just a few public speaking gigs since his appointment to Uber CEO.
But if what Saint John has been preaching is true, that’ll surely change.
“In this day and age, we can’t hide behind the brand,” Saint John said last month at Advertising Week. “There’s a certain truth that needs to be told about who is behind the decisions.”
Khosrowshahi and Saint John also may be joined by new leadership in the coming months. Uber is still without a chief operating officer and a chief financial officer among other top positions after several executives departed earlier this year.
At his first meeting with employees last month, the new CEO said he was committed to hiring more talent to led Uber forward. For now, he can rely on at least one other executive at Uber to sing his graces.
“I’m so excited because he is forceful, steady. He has a really strong point of view, and he has enough edge,” Saint John said onstage at Recode‘s Code Conference in New York last month. “I love a little badass in the right way.”