Amazon is the biggest online retailer in the US and one of the most important tech companies in the world — but critics of the company say Amazon’s biggest problem isn’t its “bold bets” or its efficiency in retail.
Amazon’s problem is coolness. Or lack thereof, perhaps.
“Risk taking is cool. Thinking big is cool. The unexpected is cool. Close-following is not cool,” Bezos said in a memo written years ago, as he was hoping to make Amazon as iconic and widely loved as companies like Disney, Apple, or Nike.
This was partly why Amazon created its Fire Phone, according to a long exposé by Fast Company’s Austin Carr. Bezos wanted Amazon’s first smartphone to be filled with whizzing features like 3D imagery, facial recognition, and a powerful set of cameras.
Bezos wanted Amazon’s phone to be distinctive from the iPhone, and so he was “closely involved” with developing the phone’s hardware and software, according to one research scientist from Amazon’s subsidiary Lab126, the group responsible for making Amazon’s hardware devices. The scientist said Bezos was a constant presence, and even made some of the most minute decisions on the Fire Phone.
But a former “topflight designer” from Lab126 told Fast Company that the pace was demanding and frustrating, and building the phone wasn’t about giving something unique to the consumer — it was about impressing his boss.
“In essence, we were not building the phone for the customer — we were building it for Jeff.”
And even though the Fire Phone released with plenty of innovative features — like FireFly, the software that lets you identify and buy products with a simple button click — the phone was a commercial flop. Initially priced the same as an iPhone, Amazon’s big bet just couldn’t hold a candle to Apple’s bread and butter.
Amazon released several other products after the Fire Phone last year, including the Fire TV, the Fire TV Stick, and new Kindle tablets, but those products aren’t much different from competing products. Amazon’s Echo, however, was a completely unexpected gadget that’s gained some favourable reviews since its late December release.
As Bezos wrote in his memo from years ago, “Explorers are cool.” The Echo definitely showcases how Amazon can be curious and experimental at times, but it needs more of these big bets for the sake of bringing unique experiences to customers — not just impressing the boss — if it truly hopes to become a beloved brand.
A “high-profile innovator in the Valley with strong ties to Amazon” summed it up nicely to Fast Company:
With most of Amazon’s products, I usually get it: I can somehow use these things to buy more s — t. But when Amazon starts to move into selling [high-end consumer electronics] like the Fire Phone, how does the brand do? Amazon is not an aspirational brand. I’ve never heard anyone say, “Wow, Amazon is really cool.” They’re known for notorious e-commerce efficiency, which is about as diametrically opposed to fashionable as you can get.
Disclosure: Jeff Bezos is an investor in Business Insider through his personal investment company Bezos Expeditions.