How Can a Brand Survive in the Age of Amazon?

Established brands and smaller, emerging brands are finding out what it means to endure in retail's new era.
| FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 

This article appears in print as part of the cover story of the January 2018 issue. Click here for a free subscription.

This is one part of the January 2018 cover story. Read the full cover story here.

When there are hundreds of choices, established brands still have an advantage. Lindsay Pedersen of Ironclad Brand Strategy recalls going through dozens of hotel reviews on TripAdvisor and being so overwhelmed by the information, she chose a familiar chain she could count on. So, if your brand has equity, Pedersen says, it’s important to build on that.

If your brand couples products with experiences, that’s another advantage.

“Great products like Starbucks are vigilant about delivering the quality and value they promise their customers,” says Jessica Shapiro, a former director of U.S. marketing at Starbucks who is now vice president of corporate marketing at SAP Concur. The real-life experience Starbucks offers helps differentiate the brand, even though Starbucks shut down its online store in October and now sells its products online through Amazon and other merchants.

Smaller, emerging brands, should understand that branding requires more than promotion. “You can put a nice coat of paint on two houses, but it doesn’t make those houses the same,” says Pedersen. In the Amazon era, brand positioning is crucial: It’s about standing out, and not just with your logo. 

Brand positioning identifies where in the category landscape you fit, what space you own, what territory you can claim. Positioning makes it easier for your customers to see what specific need you can satisfy for them in a way that stands apart from competitors. The more turf you have all to yourself, the better.

“You have to sell something unique to see growth,” says Christine Boerner, founder of Cielo Pill Holders, which sells its products on Amazon. “Otherwise, on Amazon, it’s just a price game.” 

Smaller sellers on Amazon need to do extra work to get noticed, and some of that work must happen outside of Amazon.

“I can’t build an ongoing relationship with my customers who shop on Amazon,” says Boerner, who relies on social platforms to build connections, hear customers’ stories and interact with them. 

Products, meanwhile, must be built with brand positioning in mind.

“A compelling product that meets a specific consumer need is 90 percent of brand,” says Pedersen. Product size, shape and packaging are all tied to brand. And even these things are apparent in a few pixels on the Amazon website. 

It’s also important for brands to go beyond the functional benefits and make an emotional connection to their customers.

“It’s not enough to say, ‘This stovetop espresso maker makes three cups of coffee in under five minutes,’" says Shapiro. An espresso maker that claims to transport you to a vacation in Rome harks to tradition and an authentic Italian espresso experience — something to remember.  

One way to connect to customers is to be “purpose driven,” as Starbucks demonstrates by giving employees tuition and health care benefits and by supporting veterans. “It’s this concern about social impact, closely tied to the brand, that gives Starbucks much of its resiliency,” Shapiro explains.  

Enduring in the age of Amazon comes down to strategy more than execution, brain more than brawn, and all to build a relationship with consumers that’s meaningful and valuable, that taps into their innate need to connect. There’s depth in this. The kind of depth that sticks around. The kind that can transcend convenience or price or anything functional. Brands that can tap into that depth won’t go down so easily, Amazon or no Amazon.

This is one part of the January 2018 cover story. Read the full cover story here.

This article appears in print as part of the cover story of the January 2018 issue. Click here for a free subscription.

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