Five months into her tenure as Uber's first chief brand officer, Bozoma Saint John made her first big marketing move last week with the debut of an NBA-themed national ad campaign, "Rolling With the Champion." The spot stars ESPN's "SportsCenter" co-anchor Cari Champion, newly trained as an Uber driver, transporting NBA pros like the L.A. Lakers' Lonzo Ball and Kyle Kuzma.
As Uber digs out of its many controversies over the past year—a series of scandals around sexual harassment and illegal practices that led to the exit of founder Travis Kalanick—the campaign offers a glimpse of where Saint John plans to take the company's brand story: straight into the heart of pop culture.
Ad Age spoke with Saint John about her plans and where marketing fits into the scheme of fixing Uber's corporate woes. Our conversation has been edited.
Uber has been in the spotlight for all kinds of controversy. Why focus on sports and pop culture, instead of addressing these issues directly?
There are big cultural issues that need to be addressed, and those are being addressed. But there also has to be the pop-culture angle: How are we firmly in pop culture now? Uber is a verb. People use it colloquially—"I'm going to Uber here, Uber there."
Why not address those controversies in your marketing, though?
It's such a serious matter that it's very important that it be addressed internally, as a process shift, not a marketing shift. This cannot be a marketing ploy. I'm an employee too, and it matters to me that we change. We can utilize pop culture and other things to talk about the brand, but these things that need to be fixed need to be fixed and are not a marketing agenda.
What does this pop-culture connection do for Uber's story?
It keeps adding to the layers of what Uber is. We all know it's great technology. It's convenient. It's already a part of the vernacular in a very authentic way. It's human. There are human stories to be told in the Uber itself. It's not just about what's happening on a corporate level.
And why sports in particular?
We have all these agreements in sports, on a really practical level. There are pickup and drop-off locations at all these stadiums, and fans are able to take Uber to all these games and have a comfortable experience. So let's take it a step further. I legitimately have a job where I have to figure out what happens in the car and tell those stories.
Every time I'm about to go into an Uber I expect to hear an interesting story from my driver.
Think about how many drivers there are: Where do they come from, what are their ambitions? Then you add the riders: Where are they going? Maybe you're in a rush, on a date, or the driver is saving money for something. You multiply that and there's not enough time to tell all of them. I feel overwhelmed by it, to be honest with you.
You've been deep in music. Are you planning to bring that into your marketing?
I'm going to find the right angle to come into music, whether it's based on getting to a venue, or how to transport music artists, or how to integrate Uber drivers who love music or are musicians themselves. This even translates to fashion—it could be New York Fashion Week, driving from show to show.
Do you have a tagline for all this?
The way I'm theoretically thinking about it is that Uber is the official ride of pop culture.