Amazon's PR genius

Amazon is pretty much the most secretive company in consumer tech. Apple gives almost all the operating metrics you could reasonably ask for, but Amazon has never disclosed unit sales for Kindle and is systematically opaque about every aspect of the business. It generally refuses even to comment on news stories, which can sometimes be rather funny, as in this quote from a New York Times article about this issue: 

“Every story you ever see about Amazon, it has that sentence: ‘An Amazon spokesman declined to comment,’ “ Mr. Marcus said.

Drew Herdener, an Amazon spokesman, declined to comment. (Link)

However, there is one area where Amazon doesn't stonewall: the warehouses and logistics operation. There's a steady flow of informative and interesting press pieces on this topic. This is partly because it is more interesting to a general audience and partly because you can get raw material without going through Amazon - you can ask the workers and local people about a huge fulfilment centre. But it's also because Amazon gives access: photographers and journalists are allowed in. And the warehouses make for great pictures.

If the only thing Amazon is happy to see talked about is its logistics platform, this is probably deliberate. All the coverage supports two narratives: 

  • Amazon offers very good value

  • Amazon is impossible to compete with

Price is obviously a large part of the consumer story, but talking about logistics is a competitive weapon just like not talking about Kindle sales. Every story about how Amazon has built an amazing, incredibly efficient, incredibly low-cost distribution platform is another ecommerce start-up that doesn't get funded, or even started. Jeff Bezos famously said that he was happy for Amazon to be misunderstood for long periods of time, but no-one is in any danger of underestimating the scale of Amazon's distribution. 

Even apparently negative stories, for example about how hard the workers are driven, benefit Amazon, much like a mobster's reputation: 'don't try competing with these guys'. Hence, one could suggest that even if a journalist sets out to make Amazon look bad, the result is generally something that looks and feels negative but still actually helps the company. 

The same of course applies to stories about how Amazon deals with partners. It's pretty clear that the pleasantness of dealing with Amazon as a customer is quite opposite to the experience of dealing with it as a supplier. Amazon named a project for dealing with small publishers 'Project Gazelle' because Jeff Bezos said Amazon “should approach these small publishers the way a cheetah would pursue a sickly gazelle.” The lawyers renamed it the "Small Publishers Negotiation Program". (Link) Publishers get outraged by this sort of thing, but to consumers these stories can often read as "Amazon squeezes fat lazy industry to give me better prices".

All of this leads to the question; is there any company more successful at controlling the public narrative than Amazon? Nothing it cares about ever leaks. Almost all of the press coverage, even the negative stories, runs to a script that Bezos could have written - "We do amazing things to get low prices to customers" and "it's incredibly hard to compete with us". Of course, both of those things may well be true.