Amazon and the art of storytelling
One of the first reader questions arising from my recent article on the dangers of McStorytelling was the obvious one: “Okay, smart guy: if McDonald’s is an example of poor brand storytelling, then give us an example of a company who does it right.”
Fair enough. First, some ground rules. When we talk about brand storytelling, we’re talking about far more than the brand’s marketing materials, television commercials, web site, or social media presence. I’d argue, in fact, that traditional marketing and advertising activities are the least essential component of your brand story. Why? Because it’s the easiest part to fake. Anybody can pay an agency thousands (or millions) of dollars to craft a marketing campaign. If that marketing campaign doesn’t reinforce what your customers already know about you through the brand experience, however, then the campaign will fail on the core storytelling components of sincerity, consistency, and resonance. In my previous article, I argued that the McDonald’s “Signs” campaign, while sincere in its conception, failed on the core story elements of consistency and resonance.
For an example of a company that excels at all three elements of brand storytelling, consider Amazon. Forget for a moment Amazon’s inability to turn a profit, its questionable labor practices, and its strong-arming of publishers, and focus on the story Amazon tells to its customers. Chances are, you can articulate Amazon’s story without much prompting: Amazon puts the customer first in everything it does.
How do we know this story? Amazon does little to no advertising, after all; other than occasionally promoting its latest device, you would be hard pressed to recall the last time the company advertised through traditional media. And yet Amazon dominates online retailing, and poses a significant and lasting threat to traditional brick-and-mortar retailers. Amazon’s story is not only central to its success; I’d argue that it’s the primary reason for the company’s success.
Amazon’s story begins with its storyteller: CEO Jeff Bezos. Bezos has been telling Amazon’s story since he started shipping books out of his garage in Bellevue, WA in 1995. This Bezos quote sums up Amazon’s story in a single sentence: “The most important single thing is to focus obsessively on the customer. Our goal is to be earth’s most customer-centric company.”
In his book “Start With Why,” author Simon Sinek details how successful companies define their reason for existence—their “why”—well before they get to the “how” and the “what” of their business model. Customer-centricity is Amazon’s “Why.” Jeff Bezos articulated this “why,” and then built a company to demonstrate it.
In a storytelling approach to brand building, we would call the “why” your “thesis statement”—your brand’s core message. Articulation of your thesis statement is but the first step in telling your story. To demonstrate the sincerity of his story, Bezos spent the next two decades incorporating the message in every aspect of his business. From its low prices, to its free returns, to its recommendation engine, to its one-click online ordering process, to its free shipping to Amazon Prime members, Amazon continually and consistently delivers on its brand promise. The company is famous for its data-driven approach to improving the customer experience, even conducting A-B tests on its web site font sizes to deliver the best online experience it can.
As the company has branched out from its retailer roots to develop its own devices and deliver streaming media to its Prime members, it has maintained focus on demonstrating its core thesis. The company developed the Amazon Kindle to make downloading and reading e-books easier for its customers. It has developed its own tablets and smart phones not because it needed or wanted to compete head-to-head with Apple and Android, but rather to make it easier for its own customers to purchase, download, and stream Amazon content.
Amazon also continues to add benefits to its Prime membership program such as free streaming movies, television shows, and music. The company has landed with both feet into original television and film production. It has even developed a proprietary line of diapers and baby wipes exclusively for Prime members. With as many as 50 million Amazon Prime members paying the company $99 per year for the Amazon experience, Bezos’s company has likewise achieved that elusive element of resonance in its story—it has demonstrated sincerity and consistency in its story so well that its customers are willing to pay for the privilege of living it.
Perhaps the most telling proof in Amazon’s commitment to its brand story is that it puts the needs of its customers before that of shareholders. Every company claims to be customer-centric, but few companies indeed are so customer-centric that they’re willing to risk shareholder attrition by trading short-term profits for long-term customer relationships. But that’s precisely the message Bezos delivered to shareholders in an April, 2013 letter outlining the company’s long-term vision. Money quote:
“I think long-term thinking squares the circle. Proactively delighting customers earns trust, which earns more business from those customers, even in new business arenas. Take a long-term view, and the interests of customers and shareholders align.”
That, folks, is customer-centricity in a nutshell. More recently, Amazon has suffered share price declines, as some investors have grown tired of taking a back seat in Amazon’s relentless quest for customer satisfaction. Far from getting spooked enough to change his strategy, however, Bezos instead responded to investor concerns in an earnings call by stating, "As we get ready for this upcoming holiday season, we are focused on making the customer experience easier and more stress-free than ever.”
Bezos has succeeded by building his company around a sincere, consistent, and resonant brand message. Amazon is a first-class example of brand storytelling—and it didn’t require a clever Super Bowl commercial to deliver that message to its customers.
Rick Ferguson is principal and managing director for Phabulousity, a brand storytelling consultancy based in Cincinnati, OH. Interested in having us tell your story? Hit us up here.
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Rick Ferguson is the author of The Chronicles of Elberon fantasy trilogy. Rick is also a globally recognized marketing expert with appearances in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Advertising Age, Fast Company, the Globe & Mail Canada, the Guardian UK, the Financial Times India, MSNBC, and the Fox Business Channel. He has delivered keynote speeches on marketing principles and best practices on six continents. He is also master of time, space, and dimension.