Corporate Case Study: Amazon boosts brand by putting customers first

Last year, Amazon.com positioned itself as more than just a place to buy products, but as a key destination for consumers, resulting in it winning a higher spot on the global-brand radar.

Last year, Amazon.com positioned itself as more than just a place to buy products, but as a key destination for consumers, resulting in it winning a higher spot on the global-brand radar.

When Amazon.com eliminated its TV advertising budget in favor of lower prices and other kinds of marketing, the decision reverberated throughout the PR industry, which hailed it as proof of the rise of PR and the fall of advertising. At the time, early last year, some analysts noted that it was an odd move for such a huge corporation. Most companies its size relied heavily on ads. But many analysts felt that Amazon was smart to focus its marketing dollars elsewhere. It has a well-established customer base, and the company has several ways to reach that base and beyond, Pacific Crest Securities analyst Steve Weinstein told CNET. That move has paid off. The latest Interbrand/BusinessWeek ranking of the top 100 global brands saw Amazon climb eight spots to 66. The list credits the decisions to cut advertising, lower prices, and find new ways to reach customers as all helping build the brand. Last year, the company posted its first full-year profit, and the company anticipates net sales this year between $6.6 billion and $6.9 billion. And Amazon boasts more than 44 million active customer accounts. Enhancing the customer experience Around the time that Amazon was dumping TV ads, Kathy Savitt was reorganizing the communications team. Last year, while still with MWW Group, Savitt worked as a consultant. At the end of the year, she joined the team as VP of strategic communications. "When I was still at MWW, I spent most of my time at Amazon, aligning the strategic communications, the PR, and the offline marketing functions with the customer experience," says Savitt. "We wanted these disciplines to come together to help drive awareness of Amazon's low prices, large selection, and convenience, as well as create new customer experiences." Savitt's team has done just that, and one of the best examples is on Amazon right now. Late last month, the company debuted "Amazon Theater," where each week for five weeks, Amazon will debut a new, original short film featuring directors like Tony Scott and actors including Daryl Hannah, Minnie Driver, and Blair Underwood. And along with each film, customers can find extras, such as the stars' holiday pages, with comments from the actors and their picks for holidays gifts. Customers can also find links to products that appeared in the films. "This is so emblematic of strategic communications," says Savitt of Amazon Theater. "It's about enhancing the customers' experience. We're relentlessly customer focused. Through PR and marketing, we try to enhance the customer experience, to thank them and delight them, as well as help them discover new products." Last year, Amazon offered, the "Holiday A-List," where each day throughout the holiday season a new celebrity - including Tom Brokaw, REM, Christy Turlington, and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton - offered exclusive content, such as never-before-released songs or new short stories. Amazon's success is tied to three things, says Savitt - low prices, a great selection, and the customer's experience. And having customers see Amazon not just as a place to buy products, but also as a site that offers original content, is an important part of that experience, she adds. "But we don't see the original content in a vacuum," says Savitt. "Equally critical to our brand are the low prices and selection." When Savitt arrived last year, she found that many of the communications functions were not as aligned as they should be. And the focus was more about what Amazon had to offer than how it impacts the customer. Savitt changed that point of view and communications became less insular. "We start with the customer and work backward," explains Savitt, who oversees a global team, the majority of whom are in Seattle. But she also has staff in the UK, Japan, Germany, China, and France. "The traditional model looks at what you're trying to sell and what campaign will help you sell it. At Amazon, we're much more interested in creating and amplifying a compelling customer experience." And that is what drives the team's innovation, says Chris Bruzzo, director of strategic communications. When Madonna released her children's book, customers who preordered it could listen to an exclusive clip of the pop icon reading it. Same with Billy Crystal and his children's book. When customers pre-ordered Seal's new CD, they could listen to a song, as well as hear an exclusive interview. And Turlington launched a new line of yoga products exclusively on Amazon, as did Paris Hilton with her jewelry. It's not just about a book or a CD or a necklace, says Bruzzo. It's about the entire experience of unique content, selection, and price. And that's how his team takes measure of a good idea and how successful it has been. And whether it's Amazon Theater, a product line, or a new feature, Jani Baker, director of product PR, also focuses on integration. Just as the strategic communications team wants to bring together the customer experience, price, and selection, Baker has myriad channels at her disposal, from traditional media relations and online marketing that targets customers based on past visits and purchases, to viral and word-of-mouth marketing. "Our goal is to really generate awareness of what we have, particularly beyond media, such as apparel and sports equipment and gourmet food," says Baker. "We like to talk about the selection we carry. We want customers to know they can buy everything from designer items to underwear. We want people to see Amazon as a shopping destination." Building trust Each project is a clean slate, and what works for the jewelry store won't necessarily work for the sporting goods store, adds Baker. Communications and PR efforts are developed on a case-by-case basis and always from scratch. But what stays the same is generating that unique experience, she says. Even corporate communications, whether dealing with legal issues or online security, is as customer-centric as possible, says Patty Smith, director of corporate communications. The recent partnership between Amazon and Microsoft to crack down on people who try to spoof Amazon's website to steal credit card and identity information was presented as part of the company's ongoing efforts to build and reinforce customer confidence and trust. "We've built a brand that people recognize and trust, and our brand is built on maintaining that customer trust," says Smith. "We have an [American Customer Satisfaction Index] of 88, which is the highest score [ever for a company in the services industry]. Whether it's the ability to search inside books or track packages, we want to help engender a sense of trust. It's part of all things we do to make the shopping experience as great as possible." And that trust extends to the media, who see the company as a barometer on everything from the strength of the economy to trends in what people are buying. Smith says she often fields calls from the media looking for such information, particularly from vertical publications that know they can get commentary on buying trends. Despite the company's strong brand and customer loyalty, it is not without its challenges. A recent Forrester Research survey of Amazon customers found that only 46% consider themselves loyal to Amazon, which Forrester says is better than Barnes & Noble and Borders, but worse than Best Buy and Sears. The good news is that 87% of shoppers told Forrester that quality products and selection are important to loyalty, and 83% said low prices and convenience keep them coming back to Amazon. And that is exactly why none of the company's key tenets - price, selection, convenience, and the customer experience - exist within a vacuum. "Amazon has a relentless focus on the customer experience," says Savitt. "That's one of the first things you learn when you join this company. How does this impact our customers? We put everything though that filter, and that's very different from most traditional marketing departments." -------- PR contacts VP of strategic comms Kathy Savitt Director of product PR Jani Baker Director of platform and technology comms Craig Berman Director of strategic comms Chris Bruzzo Director of corporate comms Patty Smith

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