Amazon: The Ubiquitous Ultimate Service Brand
Think back to the last time you needed to buy more paper towels or a birthday gift for a friend. Chances are, you probably turned to Amazon for your purchase. You may have even used the app on your Amazon device, or asked Alexa to place the order. Or, perhaps Amazon knew before you did that you were due for a refill. It’s also likely that you were able to place your order with a single click, and that it arrived a day or two later on your doorstep in a familiar-looking brown box.
Like you, Emily West, UMass Amherst associate professor of communication, has been a loyal Amazon customer for over two decades, but she never thought much about what went on behind the scenes at the company. That changed in 2015 when a New York Times investigative report into Amazon opened her eyes to working conditions at the e-commerce behemoth. It inspired West, a scholar of media and cultural studies, with a focus on promotional and consumer culture and platforms, to pursue her own study of the company, which resulted in a book, Buy Now: How Amazon Branded Convenience and Normalized Monopoly, published in February 2022 by MIT Press.
To West’s knowledge, this is the first media studies book devoted completely to Amazon—surprising considering the company’s size and influence. She believes that for years, Amazon’s status as a retail company helped it escape the type of scrutiny given to other tech giants, like Facebook and Apple. But as Amazon has become ever more ubiquitous, with new fulfillment centers popping up around the country and branded blue delivery vans cruising residential neighborhoods, it has gotten harder to ignore.
West wanted to understand how Amazon rapidly grew to insert itself into nearly every aspect of daily life while effectively fading into the background, becoming a type of invisible infrastructure. “I’m interested in what Amazon means in our lives and how it seeks to relate to us as consumers,” she said.
West conducted a multi-method study, which included analyzing Amazon’s branding over time; its product marketing on its website and in advertisements; its press releases; and news coverage and trade discussion about the company’s place in the market. She visited Amazon’s emerging brick and mortar stores, and toured two fulfillment centers.
The result is a picture of a business with a fundamentally different brand logic than the large companies that dominated the 20th century, like Disney, Coke, and Nike. While these companies sell an aspirational image—you can be a particular type of person if you use our product—Amazon is focused first and foremost on providing fast, easy, seamless service—“an offer you can’t refuse,” said West.
"Amazon’s personalized service and multiple touches a day accumulate over time and build this incredible trust,” she added, noting that Amazon is consistently rated by consumers as one of the most loved and trusted brands. “This is enhanced even more with something like Alexa [Amazon’s virtual assistant technology] that personifies the relationship. Amazon uses this trust capital to do so many more things over time—to stretch as a brand in a way that I don’t think we’ve seen other brands do. It’s so interesting to me that people get toilet paper delivered to their door by the same company that produces a TV show they watch on a device also made by the company."
Amazon also removes much of the “work” of consumption through automation: offering users customized search results, “Amazon’s Choice” product recommendations, and product subscriptions. Consumers believe they have a plethora of options to choose from on Amazon’s platform, but in reality, are heavily reliant on Amazon’s spoon-fed recommendations.
“It’s shifting what it means to be a consumer, from a ‘choosing subject’ with the power to comparison shop and make decisions, to a ‘served self,’” said West. “The message is, ‘Just stay within the Amazon platform and we’ll take care of you.’”
Amazon’s not super secretive about how it’s collecting data on you; it sells surveillance as a service.
Moreover, Amazon offers time-saving solutions while convincing consumers through its marketing that they are starved for time and can’t possibly get to a store to shop.
Consumers’ deep trust and affection for Amazon has another consequential effect: “People have actually welcomed the kind of consumer domestic surveillance from Amazon that we might find icky from other companies,” said West. “Amazon’s not super secretive about how it’s collecting data on you; it sells surveillance as a service. It’s saying, 'We are going to watch you and listen to you in order to provide you better service.’”
Survey research suggests that consumers are largely resigned toward this kind of data collection by large companies like Amazon, or perhaps don’t know where to get comparable service without the privacy tradeoff.
“I think it’s important for us to acknowledge what a unique position Amazon is in, owning such a vast amount of consumer data, and push back against it,” said West. “I think we need to reckon much more with the unintended negative consequences of this level of market concentration. In the end, it’s not good for business competition or for democracy to have companies that are this large and so difficult to compete against."
West believes individual consumer action must be part of larger organized efforts to address concerns around privacy and concentration in the tech industry. She is heartened by renewed attention in Washington to anti-trust following a years-long fallow period, but said these efforts must modernize to reflect how companies like Amazon operate and make money. “Lawmakers need to catch up with the logic of the digital economy. We can’t use our understanding of traditional companies to make sense of how these businesses grew so large, so quickly.”
This story was originally published in March 2022.