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Bozoma Saint John says Uber didn't really 'poach' her from Apple

Sarah Perez

Uber's first-ever chief brand officer, Bozoma Saint John, spoke today at TechCrunch Disrupt about the challenges ahead of her in her new role focused on transforming the Uber brand. The executive, who most recently led the global consumer marketing division for Apple Music and iTunes, had only been working at Uber for a matter of days before embattled CEO Travis Kalanick resigned following the series of scandals that had been rocking the company, including the reports of sexual harassment and discrimination that resulted in more than 20 employees being fired.

When asked how Uber was able to steal her from Apple, especially given its tumultuous state these days, Saint John said that it wasn't really a poaching situation. Nor was it a decision she made because she was ready to leave Apple, she noted.

"It wasn't that," she said with a laugh, responding to the question. Instead, Saint John said she had met Arianna Huffington, a then recent Uber board member, and they had gotten to talking about all the things that had been happening at Uber.

"We started just basically talking about it. I told her some stories of my own personal Uber ride experiences. I started talking about what I would do, and all those things - because I can't help myself - I've got to insert my opinion. So she suggested I talk to Travis."

The idea was that Saint John would have a short sit-down with Travis to pass along her ideas, in case they were useful. It was only supposed to last an hour, she noted, but it ended up being a much longer affair.

"It turned into eight hours of conversation," Saint John said. "And, in leaving that meeting, it felt like, okay, you know actually, I'm really interested in this. This is a really interesting challenge," she explained.

Of course, taking on Uber's brand is a very different challenge than what Saint John had done at Apple. There, she had been tasked with creating a new brand for Apple Music, and figuring out how to communicate its complexities at scale. At Uber, it was about taking a brand and repositioning it in a new light.

"This is not just about creating a brand - because there's a brand that exists - but about how you evolve it. It was more about that, rather than a pitch to poach," Saint John clarified.

Of course, Saint John only worked at Uber for a matter of days before Kalanick resigned. But that didn't really unsettle her, it seems.

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    Bozoma Saint John (Uber) at TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2017
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    Bozoma Saint John (Uber) at TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2017

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"You can't control everything," she said. "I was very aware of what I was walking into - or as much as I could know. There are obviously certain things that I couldn't know...but for me, the important thing was figuring out how to manage this brand and the storytelling of it."

Kalanick's resignation was a part of Uber's story now, and had to be addressed. As was the hiring of Expedia CEO Dara Khosrowshahi as Uber's new CEO.

Brand storytellers have to be able to "nimbly move as a reaction to anything that happens," Saint John said of the upheavals at Uber she encountered shortly after her hire.

Saint John didn't go into depth as to her strategy with storytelling, but did touch on things that Uber's doing to change its ways in recent days, including its "180 days of change" campaign which has been incorporating driver feedback into its product developments, leading to new features like in-app tipping and 24/7 support.

She also spoke about how she's handling Uber's brand as it continues its legal battles with Waymo and its other federal probes. While she noted that she's not involved with the legal matters themselves, she does understand they can impact the brand image.

To counter that, she tries to find other stories that can be told so the focus isn't only on the lawsuits, she explained. There are a lot of other things happening at a company as large as Uber, as there are with any company of its size.

"The interest right now is in those legal matters," Saint John admitted. "I'm trying to figure out how to tell a more balanced story. Not that those things aren't important - they're critically important, and those should be resolved - but I do want to create a balanced conversation," she said.