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How Bozoma Saint John plans to fix Uber’s brand problem

“Nobody is okay with this.”

Uber Chief Brand Office Bozoma Saint John onstage at Code Commerce Keith MacDonald
Rani Molla is a senior correspondent at Vox and has been focusing her reporting on the future of work. She has covered business and technology for more than a decade — often in charts — including at Bloomberg and the Wall Street Journal.

Bozoma Saint John, Uber’s newly minted chief brand officer, wants to take a brand with an ugly image — sexual harassment, stolen trade secrets, profiteering off protests — and make it something people love.

“There needs to be love there, some emotion connecting the user to the product,” Saint John told Recode Thursday at Code Commerce in New York City. “We’ve got to get people to be in love with the product.”

That won’t come as a campaign. “You have to show it,” Saint John, formerly the head of global consumer marketing for Apple Music and iTunes, said. “I don’t think you can in an ad.”

To Saint John, building a new brand image has to happen in the background through human resources, changing company culture and hiring women and people of color.

“There has to be more of us. Hire more women. The numbers matter in this particular case,” Saint John said. “There’s no magical Wizard of Oz that’s going to fix this for us.”

To the public, she wants to change the narrative to tell Uber’s other stories.

“It’s about storytelling, about upward mobility, movement,” she said. “I want to see drivers who’ve changed their lives because of this opportunity.”

To that end, Saint John plans to drive an Uber herself.

How would Saint John prevent issues like the #DeleteUber campaign, which hurt Uber’s business earlier this year when customers perceived the brand as taking advantage of a taxi strike?

“Sometimes it can be as simple as a statement. Uber has made statements about things that as a company and a country we don’t want to stand for.”

On diversity problems in Silicon Valley:

“This is not unique to Silicon Valley, it happens in grocery stores. I’ve been a black person all my life ... It is really bad in Silicon Valley and that’s where I work.”

On why she took a job at Uber for professional reasons:

“As a marketer, a brand person can rarely come in and literally put your stamp on it and say I did that ... It’s about the total structure of a brand.”

On why she took a job at Uber for personal reasons:

“If I can go into the situation like this — the tip of the spear for what is wrong — and we can fix that thing, I know for sure this will be all right. I want to hold up the mirror and say if this place can do it, so can everyplace else. I want to feel that. I don’t want to be in a situation where I feel like I can’t produce or can’t be my whole self because of prejudices or uncomfortable situations because of who I am.”

Watch Recode’s full interview with Saint John below:

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