Amazon goes Hollywood

Amazon_1According Brandweek, will attempt to expand its brand by offering a weekly online program, Amazon Fishbowl with Bill Maher. Streamed live through a high-definition media player, the program, slated to run for 12 weeks starting June 1, will begin showing previews on Tuesday, Jan. 24.

According to Amazon,

Amazon Fishbowl with Bill Maher has a simple, yet powerful mission-to help our customers discover new books, films, and music, and to help the creators of these works find new audiences. (Kathy Savitt, vp for strategic communications, content, and initiatives, as quoted in Anonymous 2006, below).

Now this raises some of the same problems we discussed yesterday, but it also confronts us with a spectre much more terrifying: undue brand specificity. 

The really great brands are a study in multivocality.  So when you sit down with consumers and ask them to tell you about the brand, the first reaction is often, "well, let’s see, Coca-Cola, it’s, well, its sort of.  I mean, you see, its…"

Now normally when this happens in an interview, the consumer is spitting nails of frustration  (fixing the anthropologist to the methodological cross in the process), but in this case, even as they are stumbling over their words and virtually drooling with indecision, they are smiling…and this is because they are talking about something that is many things to them.

Amazon is not an old brand, but it has taken on some of this magnificient indeterminacy.  Amazon was beginning to take on that transcent quality that great brands have.  If you thought about it, it was equal parts the Pacific Northwest, Jeff Bezos, tremendous choice, the death of retail, and particularly a respite from the horrifying push and shove of December shopping.  There is something magical about the brand, as in, "I want Tom Asacker’s new book on my doorstep tomorrow" and there it is. 

There is even something endearing about the brand, and I think this comes from those sometimes wildly  mistaken recommendations Amazon makes from time to time.  ("It’s trying," we think to ourselves, "it’s trying.")    It’s almost as if Amazon the brand bears a resemblance to Bezos the man.  Both are transparent, agreeable, eager to please.  (No trace of the smugness of a Bill Gates or the arrogance of a Steve Jobs.)   But we know there has to be lots more going on.  And there is it.  Some brand traces…and a certain indeterminacy.

This is put at risk when Amazon appoints Bill Maher as a voice of the show.  Here Maher is in November of 2005, talking Bush’s "big bird flu speech."

[Bush] made a big announcement today which – and, look, bird flu could be real. My parakeet used to say, "Polly want a cracker," and now it says, "I’m bleeding out of my rectum."

Funny…but vulgar, anti-Bush, and anti-pet.  (And in this country, presidents may be fair game, but pets are still sacred.)  The mismatch between Maher and Amazon grows still more marked when Maher is strident and scornful, as he almost always is.  This is really unBezosian.  Indeed, it pushes the Bezos image in the direction of Gates and Jobs, and perhaps beyond.

But the real problem is that it is, as any single voice must be, particular.  And this interferes with the brand indeterminacy that Amazon needs.   Great brands are a house of many mansions and there is always that transcendant quality.  The last thing we want is a new face and a particular voice for the brand. 

Long term solutions

This is a short term problem.  There will come a time when consumers become familiar with the idea that the brand speaks with many voices.  Some of them already grasp this and have come to expect it. 

But let’s face it: many consumers and that’s because we keep insisting that the brand is a single thing and that it speak with a single voice.  I give you this announcement from Brandweek.

Wal-Mart has named auto industry veteran Julie Roehm as svp-marketing communications, responsible for the overall development and execution of advertising strategies, creative services and special events for Wal-Mart Stores U.S.A. She will report to John Fleming, Wal-Mart’s chief marketing officer. This is a new position within the company.

"By creating a single source of responsibility for our marketing communications, we will ensure the consistency of our message to our customer," Fleming said in a statement. "We want our customers to know that whatever their shopping needs, Wal-Mart provides products and services that are relevant to their lifestyle, at great value. Julie’s experience will be instrumental in our efforts to showcase that message." (emphasis added)

There we go again, insisting on consistency in the age of the long tail when consistency is where brands go to die. 

So Amazon’s problem is a short term one.  One day, there will come a time when Amazon will be able to use Bill Maher and Dennis Miller as simultaneous spokespeople.  (There will come a time when it has to.)  But until then let us wonder about this choice of Maher.  It will not be good for the brand. 


Anonymous.  2006.  Amazon Expands Footprint with Original Programming.  Brandweek.  January 19, 2006.  here.

Maher, Bill.  2005.  Real Time with Bill Maher.  November 4, 2005.  Transcripts on line.  here.

O’Loughlin, Sandra.  2006.  Chrysler’s Roehm Drives Over To Wal-Mart.  Brandweek.  January 18, 2006.  here.

7 thoughts on “Amazon goes Hollywood

  1. Mary Schmidt

    I like Bill Maher but fully agree that this may be a big misstep for Amazon. He gets a bit too snarky even for me at times. But, hey, they’re trying! That said, this got my synapses to snapping – and I’d submit consistency is crucial to keep the customer mind share. However, we now need consistency in tone versus the actual words.

  2. The Owner's Manual

    It’s was Bill Maher’s mouth that got him and ABC into so much trouble by praising terrorists that his show got cancelled. Anyone who’d hire him to shill for them does not understand why Fox routinely doubles the ratings of CNN today. The cultural center of gravity in the US is not Air America or Harry Belafonte or Michael Moore.

  3. Chuck

    Bill Maher’s announcement as an addition to Amazon’s marketing strategy reminds me of a quote I recorded “…our idea of failure is unextraordinary existence that most of us actually lead. We are constantly in motion, and we can scarcely be satisfied.”

    Geez, hasn’t Amazon’s ambition clouded their judgement.?.

  4. Carlos Leyva

    Who is going to stop buying at Amazon because Bill Maher is shilling for them? Not me, because I happen to think he’s funny. But, uh, what about if it was Bill “the factor” O’Reilly shilling for them, then Barnes and Noble online might start looking pretty good. Guess you’re right, not a good idea to piss off half the nation.

  5. Tom Guarriello

    Has there been a worse spokesperson choice in your memory, Grant? I’m struggling, but I can’t come up with one.

    I like the Fishbowl idea, though. Why not use Jon Stewart? Smart. Funny. Well-read.

  6. Amos Bray

    To counter your commenters: this is not Bill Maher “shilling for Amazon”, except in the sense that Maher (or Dennis Miller or for that matter James Gandolfini) is “shilling” for HBO by broadcasting on their network. Yes, money no doubt is changing hands but then money tends to do that. It could and I would argue should be looked at another way: as an experiment in big-branded webcasting in the same way as blogging is an experiment in mini-branded webcasting. (The latter, almost by definition, is less “live”, an aspect of the web-as-event I think that has yet to be solved. According to Maher, btw, that’s why he wants to be involved and that seems perfectly reasonable.) Nor do I think in any way Amazon will suffer undue brand specificity, either with its consumers or its image-at-large, by such an association, no matter what people think of Maher personally. Why? Because it won’t be positioned or branded that way. Another way to put it: Does anyone think Brokaw/NBC and Maher/Amazon are equivalent ratios?

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