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6 marketing lessons from Amazon

6 marketing lessons from Amazon Michael Estrin

Amazon is the largest retailer on the planet. It's also one of the few companies to survive the first dot-com bubble. In other words, it's doing a lot of things right, and one of the key drivers of the company's success is the ability to market its brand and its products, which touch just about every category you can think of.

Here are six marketing lessons from Amazon.

Creative still counts

When we think of Amazon, we tend to think about deals and shipping. Everyone from your neighbor to your grandparents knows that Amazon probably has the best price on anything you could want to buy, and they know that the company's bread and butter is shipping it to you as quickly as possible. In other words, nearly every consumer out there knows what Amazon is about.

But that doesn't mean we know, or even care about Amazon. If you really want to know a brand, if you really want to create a meaningful emotional connection between brand and consumer, you need great creative. And while Amazon certainly dedicates a huge portion of its advertising budget to cookie cutter display ads for the products it sell, the company also provides a valuable lesson in terms of how creative drives affinity.

Here's just one example, Amazon's most recent TV commercial for Prime.

Two pizza team

Marketing is a team sport. There's even a cottage industry around building marketing tools that help teams function better. While we're at it, there's also a cottage industry of writing tip-driven pieces about how teams can be more productive. But when it comes to teamwork, Amazon has a novel rule.

Known as the two pizza rule, the idea is to limit the amount of people at a given meeting or on a particular team. But rather than set a hard numerical limit, Amazon has a rule of thumb -- how many people can you feed with two pizzas? The answer is the same number of people that should be at the meeting or on the team.

When you think about it, the rule makes perfect sense. More than two pizzas and you probably have more people than could easily participate in the same conversation. Two pizzas or less, you have a small dinner party. Three pizzas or more, you have a full-on party, which can be fun, but probably won't ever be productive.

Earn customer loyalty, don't reward it

Customers are fickle creatures, and your competitors are only a click away. Not surprisingly, a lot of marketers look for ways to emphasize loyalty. It's not unusual for loyalty initiatives to take the form of customer rewards. And in theory, rewards are a good idea. Who among us hasn't justified a purchase because of the points we hope to accumulate? But then again, who among us hasn't felt cheated or frustrated when we go to cash in those points? Often times, rewards programs look good from a distance, but when it comes to using them, customers either take the time to become experts at navigating a complex set of rules, or they just give up.

So what does Amazon do? Well, in theory, it also offers points because it participates in credit card issuer reward programs. But as Forbes contributor Jonathan Salem Baskin pointed out, the real way Amazon secures loyalty is by earning it.

"I got an email a few days ago from Amazon, telling me the price of the book I'd ordered had dropped, so it was passing the savings on to me," Baskin wrote. "I think it was all of 16 cents. But that small sum is why I'm a loyal customer."

Sure, you could say that customers are loyal to the lowest price, but Baskin thinks there's something deeper at work here.

"It's not the amount, but the gesture that matters. It's transparently voluntary on its part, and it doesn't require me to do anything that overtly benefits the company. It just screams honesty and integrity in one simple, little, inexpensive moment. Those qualities are what make me a loyal customer."

Celebrate your history

Broadly speaking, there are three ways for a brand to get attention -- paid media, owned media, and earned media. While Amazon certainly buys a huge amount of online ads around specific product offerings, the company is also skilled at making its own fun through owned and earned media.

Consider the recent example of Prime Day. Sure, it was basically just a Black Friday rip-off, but Prime Day also had a noteworthy hook because the company framed it as a celebration of its 20th birthday. The event, staged on July 15, was an example of an owned media strategy -- Amazon essentially made the news itself. But Amazon also understood that people love talking about deals just as much as they love the deals themselves, and so the reach of that announcement grew exponentially because publications gleefully carried Amazon's birthday news for it.

Could another brand adopt the same strategy? Of course it could, although the scale will no doubt be determined by that brand's footprint. Still, it's certainly worth asking what internal milestones your brand can share.

Personalized email

Email is pretty much the workhorse of today's marketing mix. It may not be sexy, but it's hard to deny its efficacy. Even among millennials, who we tend to think of as email-averse, the platform still represents an important point of connection between brand and consumer. But if you want to make the most of email, you need to make it personal, and that's where Amazon really excels.

Email marketing company Vero offers a compelling breakdown of Amazon's approach to email. Unlike a lot of marketers, Amazon eschews the typical blast email to tell customers about a particular product. Given the number of products Amazon sells, that make sense. But if they wanted to, Amazon could certainly blast out an email for a deal on purses, for example, to every female customer. The reason why Amazon doesn't do blast emails is that while a blast may move the needle, it also dulls the reaction for the customers who wouldn't find that offer relevant.

Instead, Amazon's approach is all about tying behavioral data to the emails a customer receives. A number of marketers do this too. But the real takeaway is that Amazon's email marketing isn't trying to be everything to everyone -- its goal is to provide value on the most personal level possible.

There are limits to a data-driven strategy

A recent, and widely read, piece in The New York Times gave Amazon and its corporate culture a serious black eye. In fact, at times the story read like a bleak dystopian novel where data analysis squeezes out every last drop of our humanity. Naturally, Amazon disputed the story and one Amazon employee even went viral with his LinkedIn post calling the Times story a "hatchet piece."

But regardless of who you believe, Kate Kaye, Ad Age's data reporter, makes a valuable point that all marketers should listen to.

"Either way," Kaye wrote, "the article should inspire us to question the value of decisions based entirely on data to create business efficiencies at the expense of human empathy and the arguable imperfections that can benefit any organization or project."

At the end of the day, every company is responsible for its own culture. Data can tell us a lot about how we work, what our customers want, and how we can do a better job of reaching them. But data can't tell us right from wrong. It can't tell us how we should behave toward each other and our customers. Those are fundamentally human questions, and here Amazon provides us with an incredibly important, albeit unintended lesson -- we drive the data, the data shouldn't drive us.

Michael Estrin is a freelance writer.

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"Image of an Amazon package" image via Shutterstock.

Michael Estrin is freelance writer. He contributes regularly to iMedia, Bankrate.com, and California Lawyer Magazine. But you can also find his byline across the Web (and sometimes in print) at Digiday, Fast...

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