Excerpt on Amazon from Do Good, Chapter 4 — Trust

The piece below is an excerpt on Amazon from Do Good, Chapter 4 — Trust. by Anne Bahr Thompson © 2018 Anne Bahr Thompson. Published by AMACOM, NY, NY. All rights reserved.

Give to Give — Not Give to Get

Amazon is the largest e-tailer in the United States. A ME brand, it made e-commerce trustworthy in its early days as a bookseller by providing a straightforward shopping experience and reliable customer service through big data analysis. Amazon knows what types of books we like, movies we watch, and products we buy, and, I’d bet, it would likely be better able than Facebook, for example, to profile what type of consumer each of us is. Whereas most of us carefully curate what we post and like on Facebook to reflect the things we want friends and colleagues to know about us, we filter what we buy on Amazon based on preference, price, and delivery time rather than how we wish to be perceived. Yet with all its knowledge about our habits and an excellent reputation for trustworthy service, Amazon serves customers mostly on a functional — not an emotional — level. To embody both ME and WE sensibilities and to move forward and back along the five steps of Brand Citizenship, Amazon should apply its expertise in analytics to foster more personal relationships and establish itself as more of a benevolent friend, not just as a boundless utility.

Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder and CEO, is widely known for being obsessed with customers and continually demonstrates how listening is a successful long-term loyalty strategy. In July of 1994, Bezos launched Amazon with the mission “to be Earth’s most customer-centric company; to build a place where people can come to find and discover anything they might want to buy online.” It was a clear value proposition that set the stage for Amazon’s growth. In 2000, when the Internet 1.0 bubble was bursting, Bezos was repositioning Amazon from a seller of books to a seller of everything from A to Z and, alongside this, rebrand­ing the company with a new logo — one designed to include a smile. Happy employees. Happy customers. Happy investors. They all add up to the Amazon Smile.

Using Big Data to Interpret Customer Needs

Nine years later, shortly after Amazon purchased the shoe retailer Zappos, Bezos emphasized the importance of listening to customers in a video posted on YouTube. As Bezos sincerely and passionately tells us, obsession over customers “is the only reason [Amazon] exist[s] today in any form. We’ve always put customers first. When given the choice of obsessing over competitors or obsessing over customers, we always obsess over cus­tomers.” He went on, “We really like to start with customers and work backwards. . . . [I]t will cover a lot of errors.” He then continued, “It’s not a customer’s job to invent for themselves. You need to listen to customers. It’s critical. If you don’t listen to customers, you will go astray. But they won’t tell you everything and so you need to invent on their behalf.” And Amazon is famous for listening to its customers and inventing on their be­half in large part through its usage of big data.

Although Amazon’s rationale for purchasing Zappos was never made perfectly clear, Zappos is legendary for its customer service, supported by a happy-employee culture. In an article deconstructing the purchase, Mashable hypothesized that Jeff Bezos was attracted by Zappos’s cus­tomer centricity, unique culture, and people — its leaders and its employ­ees. When comparing Zappos’s core values with Amazon’s leadership principles, it’s easy to agree with Mashable’s assessment. Zappos’s core values suggest a more human, friendly, and unguarded culture, whereas Amazon’s leadership principles represent a more hard-driving, almost mechanistic data orientation.

Prime. Prime Now. Prime Day. Prime Pantry. And thirteen-minute drone delivery. For all its convenience and listening to the customer, seven years after it acquired Zappos, Amazon still seems to be more of a public utility than a close brand friend like Zappos — even for its most loyal users. Participants in our CultureQ research chose Amazon as a leadership or favorite brand for more functional reasons than they did other leadership or — most especially — favorite brands, even including Walmart. For the majority who named Amazon, their reasons included reliability, serviceability, and scope. A smaller number also recognized it as inventive and pioneering. They said:

Amazon is a leader. It was the first to revolutionize online shop­ping and gets me things in two days, although a lot of people do that now.

Their model of business has revolutionized the economy, and is adaptable throughout the world.

They are the #1 online retailer. Their Kindle product is innovative.

On the rise for sales, shipping methods and excellent customer service.

Great service for an online company.

Challenges to Forging a Connection with Customers

Amazon’s reported lack of responsibility toward employees dampened the more emotional connection a few participants desired to have with the brand. As one explained, “I love the ease, especially with my Ama­zon Prime account. But I am concerned with its ethics of warehouse labor after reading an exposé on it.”

In 2013, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) exposed poor warehouse working conditions and an emphasis on efficiency over worker health and well-being. Articles like this have had a lasting impact on a growing number of socially conscious shoppers’ percep­tions of Amazon, in the vein of similar negative coverage about Walmart, most notably because it was supported with additional evi­dence of a culture focused on outcomes at the expense of people. In August of 2015, The New York Times published a more controversial piece, “Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace,” which detailed a white-collar workplace culture focused on pushing people “past their limits” — something that reportedly inspired some workers and relentlessly broke others.

The article — and “An Amazonian’s response,” posted by a software developer named Nick Ciubotariu on LinkedIn — received so much at­tention that Jeff Bezos himself felt compelled to send a counterpoint to Amazon employees that he linked to The New York Times. In his message, Bezos firmly stated that the “shockingly callous management practices” and “soulless, dystopian workplace where no fun is had and no laughter heard” are not part of the Amazon he knows. In the interest of full disclosure, I should also mention the people I’ve met who work for or with Amazon love the company.

However, after reading all the press, it’s hard not to wonder if they’re the exception or the norm. As Margaret Sullivan, who was Public Edi­tor for the paper when the Times article was published, added in an opinion piece that was printed a few days later: “Many of Amazon’s techniques and policies are common at other tech companies, and other companies in general. That kind of context was supplied later in an ar­ticle on the front-page of the following Tuesday’s Times about the ‘re­lentless pace at elite companies’ in America.” So why are people so keen to believe the negative perspectives on Amazon’s culture more than the positive ones?

Barriers to Effective Listening: Secrecy and a Lack of Trust

One answer may be secrecy. While Google’s corporate culture has become a benchmark for large corporations worldwide, the general public knows very little about Amazon’s culture and campus. As Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld, the coauthors of the “Inside Amazon” article themselves state, “Tens of millions of Americans know Amazon as customers, but life inside its corporate offices is largely a mystery. Secrecy is required; even low-level employees sign a lengthy confiden­tiality agreement.” Another clue may be found by reviewing CultureQ insights into how good Brand Citizens cultivate trust. Partic­ipants’ comments about Amazon indicate that the brand exhibits lower levels of sincerity and reciprocity. While Jeff Bezos appears genuine in the numerous YouTube videos I’ve viewed, the Amazon brand experi­ence doesn’t include a personal tone of voice — his or anyone else’s. Indeed, other than as a platform for effective purchasing, Amazon it­self doesn’t interact much with its customers, and it tends to give only to get.

Amazon customers pay to join Prime, the company’s loyalty pro­gram, which motivates them to buy more from the company through free, two-day delivery and a streaming service of select movies, music, and other benefits. Forrester estimates that Amazon loses more than $1 billion in shipping charges to Prime customers who first pay $99 to join and then spend 240 percent more than nonmembers — an average of $1,200 per year in purchases per customer, compared to $500 per year. Consumer Intelligence Research Partners further estimates that the company has 63 million Prime members in the United States, significantly more than the 1.4 million needed to break even on Prime, using Forrester’s figures. Given the scope of what it sells, Amazon has countless opportunities to offer free content beyond product reviews. Alongside the free movies and music, Amazon could potentially offer Prime customers select free news through Bezos’s purchase of The Washington Post.

An Attempt to Recognize the Greater Good

Amazon rolled out AmazonSmile in October of 2013 to help customers who register for the service feel as though their purchases are contributing to the greater good. Like everything at Amazon, AmazonSmile is easy, offering an automatic way to support your favorite charity every time you shop. As both a brand consultant and consumer, I was enthusiastic when I first read about its launch and registered for it immediately. I quickly discovered, however, that the experience, including my Amazon Prime delivery time, was identical to the base Amazon brand. The only difference was an AmazonSmile logo in the upper right-hand corner. Most notably, Amazon didn’t include the amount I “donated” to the organization I chose on my purchase confirmation. After I calculated the amount based on what I had bought, I realized this was probably because the 0.5 percent of the purchase price donated equals a very small amount. For example, only 25¢ would be donated from a $50 purchase and $5 from a $1,000 one. Later, I also grasped that I, as the purchaser, was not making the donation. Rather, Amazon was making it through its foundation and thereby taking the tax deduction.

A number of nonprofit experts criticized AmazonSmile when it was launched, noting that the positive feelings it creates among customers who use it potentially deter them from crunching the numbers and calculating the actual amount given to charity. Instead, most customers simply assume that a more substantial sum from their purchase is being contributed — likely deduced from their having previously, independently donated more to that same organization of their choice. Despite my reservations, I continue to use AmazonSmile when I buy things — that is, when I remember to. And each time I’ve forgotten, I think, “I should have typed smile.amazon.com instead of amazon.com” and am a little frustrated that Amazon doesn’t always automatically redirect me to the AmazonSmile page. Every once in a while and by no means consistently, a message pops up reminding me to go to AmazonSmile when I haven’t.

Amazon’s advertising has been predominantly product focused. And, some have said, Amazon Echo with its artificial intelligence and virtual assistant named Alexa was developed to sell more products on Amazon, despite its not offering an Amazon.com shopping experience. So I was surprised to see Amazon’s 2016 Christmas advertisement when I was in the UK. British Christmas ads are the equivalent of Superbowl ads in the United States. People anticipate their arrival, and many are “leaked” to the press or launched on YouTube in advance of being viewed on tele­vision. This specific ad, A Priest and Imam Meet for a Cup of Tea, which aired in the UK, the United States, and Germany, was centered on a sen­sitive subject — interfaith friendship between a Christian vicar and a Muslim imam — at a politically charged time after Donald Trump, then the U.S. president-elect, had promoted banning Muslims from entering America.

It opens with an imam visiting a friend — the vicar. As they sit on the sofa to enjoy a cup of tea, they joke about their aging knees, and as the imam prepares to leave, they laugh again knowing how painful it is to stand up. After the imam leaves, the vicar opens his Amazon Prime app, not knowing the imam is doing the very same thing. An Amazon deliv­ery man then arrives at each of their homes with the identical gift of knee pads. The ad ends with each kneeling pain free, thanks to his new knee pads.

Cognizant of the issues the ad might raise, a spokesman for Ama­zon told the British newspaper The Independent, they were sensitive in their casting. “[T]he gentleman playing the vicar is a practising vicar in London, the gentleman playing the imam is a devout Muslim and the principal of a Muslim school. We used an actual church and mosque for our scenes within the places of worship.” Like other Amazon Prime ads, A Priest and Imam Meet for a Cup of Tea shows how the brand helps us easily solve everyday problems. Unlike others, however, this one portrays an unexpected and selfless friendship, which makes it possible that Amazon was seeking to make a political statement to demonstrate that it has a heart and/or is concerned about a potentially divisive social climate.

In September of 2016, Walmart acquired Jet.com, an online shop­ping site that uses a mix of money-saving techniques to try to woo shop­pers away from Amazon. Having named Marc Lore, founder and CEO of Jet.com, as president and CEO of Walmart eCommerce in the United States, it’s possible that Walmart may win back some of its customers who switched over to Amazon for convenience as it integrates Jet.com into its operations, especially if it more closely associates the Jet.com brand with the Walmart brand name and/or identity. As Lore states in the official notice announcing the completed acquisition, “Together we will be stronger and move even faster to reimagine the future of shop­ping.” Even though a notable number of participants in CultureQ re­search faulted Walmart for their treatment of their employees, our three years of research demonstrated that participants had a greater emotional attachment to Walmart than they did to Amazon.

Amazon’s recent interfaith Christmas ad may however be signaling that the company recognizes it needs to be known as more than a big data behemoth looking to sell goods in every market category. It may demonstrate a cognizance that Amazon will win more fans and loyal customers by blending its commercial ambitions with a meaningful so­cial mission. To enrich peoples’ lives, a brand needs to do more than re­duce delivery time. It needs to freely give more to its customers, the greater global community, and the greater good. ­