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Authenticity and Brands: An Amazon Take

Amazon is all over the news this week, as an expose of sorts from The New York Times showed that their work environment may be a little tough.

This should come as no surprise to anyone who has read about CEO Jeff Bezos. He’s a micromanager — detail-oriented and data-driven — just like the company he founded more than 20 years ago. He’s incredibly focused on building Amazon by having Nordstrom-like service for Walmart-like prices. It takes the thin margins of retail beyond the very extreme.



Amazon cannot afford to be inauthentic. It doesn’t have the time or capacity to put up a front that is anything but the truth. Sometimes, that truth isn’t pretty.

As a former resident of Seattle of only a couple of years, it only takes a few months to hear firsthand about life inside their offices off of Lake Union. You hear about long hours and an intense atmosphere, but you also hear about the cool work they’re doing and the people they are working with.  

Needless to say, an Amazon life wasn’t in the cards for me, but it would be hard to pass judgment on people who would be attracted to it. They had different attitudes and were in a different time in their life than I was.

The ones who hated Amazon found out quickly it wasn’t for them found other jobs. In fact, it’s hard to feel sorry for anyone where jobs can be had at any number of really nice businesses in the area — Microsoft, Expedia, T-Mobile, as well as offices of Google and Facebook close by. It’s also in sharp contrast to their fulfillment centers, which actually can have some pretty terrible working conditions and often recruit employees from and are placed in areas where wages are low.

Bezos’ response to the piece — as well as a few other employees’ responses the article — was pretty straightforward: This isn’t the right reflection of Amazon. They see their workplace through rose-tinted glasses and reject some of the more negative aspects of the piece. That’s because, for the most part, the people who thrive and who are the biggest advocates for Amazon really actually like the workplace. Just the way it is, warts and all.

When we think about brands at The Starr Conspiracy, we think of it first through the lens of Drive — immutable core elements that make up what a company is all about.

For Amazon, its envisioned legacy is to be the most customer-centric company. Its motto of “Work hard, have fun, make history” says it all. You’re not getting free meals, nap rooms, or 20 percent time at Amazon. Employees who opt in might be shocked, but you’d hope that the message is clear: You’re going to do some cool stuff, but you’re probably going to work harder than your peers at other companies.

That should be OK.

It’s tough getting blown up by experts for what you might think is a pretty special place to work. At a time when the norm for employers of choice is to demand less work from employees, to throw perks at them like a ticker-tape parade, and to offer heaps of time away from the office, you can understand the sharp contrast of what Amazon offers.

Consider this, though: King County (home of Seattle and most of the working base of Amazon) has a 3 percent unemployment rate. That’s including the fact that it’s one of America’s fastest-growing large cities as well. It’s an employee-friendly market and Amazon is still filling jobs.

And the vast majority of people who work at Amazon have chosen it, either because of or in spite of its renowned local reputation. What’s been described as a brand problem is actually just the opposite. I think there’s a greater understanding of what Amazon is all about, especially if you read beyond the New York Times piece.

Many people have speculated about whether Amazon will get more or fewer applicants, but that’s the wrong question to ask. The right question is will the people who apply and accept jobs have a better understanding of what they are signing up for? Will first-year turnover be reduced?

It’ll be interesting to look at this a year later to see where Amazon stands. My guess is that there will still be more than enough people who are truly into that sort of company.