Why conscientious consumers no longer want to use Uber, except as a verb.
Like a lot of people, Yamileth Medina has sworn off Uber. Between former CEO Travis Kalanick’s various scandals and misbehaviors, the company’s (now-abandoned) seat on President Trump’s advisory board, and an office culture allegedly beset by sexual harassment, Medina, who lives in Miami, decided earlier this year that she was done. “I closed my Uber account months ago,” she told me recently. Even so, she still Ubers from time to time. In a manner of speaking. As with a lot of people I know, Medina doesn’t use Uber, but she still Ubers. When she uses ride-hailing apps—and Uber is no longer among them—she still uses the name as her chosen noun or verb because that’s just what you say now. Should we take the train or just Uber? “I totally think it is becoming a generic word, at least in my circle,” Medina said. “I use pretty much exclusively Lyft nowadays. But then I try to talk to people … especially people who are slightly older maybe and people who aren’t as hip … Lyft isn’t as well-known. They don’t really understand what you’re saying.
Medina is among the droves of consumers who turned against Uber this year, beginning with an incident during which it appeared the company was strike-busting amid the protests over the Trump administration’s first travel ban. While the company is by no means hurting in terms of ridership even as it continues trying to improve its diminished public image, plenty of consumers who have come to see the company as odious for one reason or another have denounced Uber and deleted its app from their phones. That’s pretty easy to do if Uber is no longer the only ride-hailing game in your town. Lyft and other companies, like Juno and Curb and dozens more, have been happy to ride Uber’s bad press to increasing their market share. But for the #DeleteUber set, giving up the language of calling an Uber or Ubering seems to have proved a greater challenge.
Bradley Perez considers himself pretty firmly anti-Uber. The apparent Trump connection (CEO Travis Kalanick quit an administration advisory council in February) didn’t sit well with him either, and he thinks other companies treat their drivers better. But when he needs a ride, “for some reason I just call it an Uber regardless,” said Perez, who lives in Hollywood, Florida. “It’s like, if you have a scratch on your hand or you have a gash, I would get a Band-Aid, even though it’s not really a Band-Aid, it’s just the name of the company that originally made it popular.”
Medina agreed: “It’s at the point where Uber has entered general pop culture, as opposed to kind hipster-y, younger, millennial pop culture, and maybe Lyft or other things haven’t yet.” Uber! It’s like the Kleenex of things you can dial up on your iPhone.
This is all well and good, but it does create a minor predicament in which, well, we have no idea what people really mean by the word Uber. Are they referring to the app or the category? In this confusion, Uber scabs escape scot-free. As one of my co-workers who shall remain anonymous told me, “It’s a relief to know that when I say I am getting an Uber, people assume I’m not getting an Uber.” She still, guiltily, uses Uber.
Gabe Kangas, who lives in San Francisco, is another never-Uber, but he hasn’t given into the temptation of genericizing the word: He makes a point of not saying Uber when he means another service. “I say Lyft because I’m explicit about the product that I’m using,” he said. “Just because Uber has negative connotations, you don’t want to give them extra publicity or extra mindshare when they don’t deserve it. Especially if you’re not actually using them.”
Usually, brands celebrate when they become generic terms: It means the company has fully penetrated the market. As Perez correctly suggested, Uber isn’t the first company whose name has been genericized. In addition to Band-Aid and Kleenex, there’s Xerox, Q-Tip, Jell-O, even Google. But Uber does find itself in the unique situation of having seriously damaged its brand only shortly after establishing that brand, one that came to be synonymous with an industry it basically invented. As Perez explained, “I learned of ride-sharing through Uber before I even knew what Lyft was. I guess that’s why I call it an Uber.” It’s not just that Uber became popular; as Bill George, the president of the company that owns the ride-hailing app zTrip, pointed out, “They changed people’s habits and their patterns. It’s expensive to get people to change their habits.” And It’s no surprise that a paradigm shift would bring with it some sticky language. (Uber did not respond to Slate’s inquiries about how the company views this shift in its name’s connotation.)
Lyft, Uber’s biggest domestic competitor, has certainly gained market share this year, profiting off of Uber’s troubles. Linguistically, though, Lyft may have a ways to go. A company representative pointed to a tweet from Chelsea Handler, mentions on TV shows like Will & Grace and Insecure, and Cardi B, Nicki Minaj, and Migos’ “Motorsport” music video as evidence of Lyft’s “growing presence in pop culture.” Be that as it may, the name does lack a certain … something. It doesn’t become a verb quite so felicitously as Uber does. “How’d you get there?” “We Lyfted.” “Be there soon, we’re Lyfting.” Meh—right? Lyft sounds just like lift, and in this context that seems less like clever marketing than like a branding speed bump.
Other competitors to Uber are quick to assert their relevance and insist that they, too, are verbs. “They like to [say] that their name has become a verb, but we kind of say that too,” said Geoff Mathieux, a co-founder and CEO of Wingz, a ride-hailing app for traveling to and from airports. “People always say, ‘I’ll take a Wingz to the airport’ and ‘I’m grabbing a Wingz’ or ‘Let’s Wingz it.’ ” (If you say so!)
Joanna McFarland, the founder and CEO of HopSkipDrive, echoed this point. “We are actually starting to hear HopSkipDrive become a verb: ‘Oh, I’m gonna HopSkip my daughter to dance this week.’ ”
Everybody wants to be a verb, certainly; actually becoming one is tougher. “It may be easy for people to understand what ride-share is by thinking about Uber as a kind of name for that,” McFarland said. But she emphasized that her company offers more of a babysitter-on-wheels service, not just typical ride-hailing. “I think people very quickly realize that this is not Uber for kids. It is much more than that.”
“How much marketing budget you have is how many people will know you,” Mathieux said. “Obviously Uber has the biggest marketing budget.”
Mathieux insists that he doesn’t see the word Uber remaining a stand-in for ride-sharing at large because each service is so different. “It’s like saying ‘let’s go grab McDonald’s’ and you mean Burger King,” he said. “To say that Uber is going to replace our name, that people who are grabbing a Wingz will say they’re Ubering, I think that’s far-fetched.”
Bill George, of zTrip, conceded that “ideally, we’d love to have, ‘I’m gonna zTrip it’ ” become the prevailing language. Though Uber may be the biggest player right now, “first in market is not always longest-lasting,” George said, pointing to the BlackBerry craze. He still thinks a generic term will emerge from the wreckage, especially as self-driving cars appear on the horizon: “I think eventually they’re just going to say, ‘I’m gonna take a ride.’ ”
Medina, the Miami Uber detractor, thinks Uber will stay everyone’s shorthand. “I don’t know if Uber itself can get itself together,” she said. “Maybe they can. The term might survive longer than they do.”