Poor Amazon. What a difficult few months it has experienced. Back in Summer/Autumn 2012, the brand that defines Internet retailing was riding the crest of a wave. Our CultureQ participants ranked it as both a leader and a good brand citizen. Millennials, Gen Xers and Baby Boomers alike in the UK and US believed Amazon offered products and services that simplified and enriched their lives by making shopping easier and often times cheaper. What’s more, they touted the brand for its efforts to define new lifestyles and ways of doing things.

The last few months, however, have been a roller coaster ride for Amazon’s brand reputation. Despite gathering larger than ever revenues last year and sitting on pile of cash close to $9bn, the company reportedly paid paltry levels of corporation tax in Europe, something which doesn’t sit well at a time when every day people are feeling the full force of tighter fiscal management. In February, the brand’s new Kindle Whitepaper ad, Perfect at the Beach, which makes a non-issue of gay marriage, was well received by some. Early March and another hiccup – its decision to stock the awful Keep Calm and Rape Them, Hit Them, and Knife Her tee shirt line.

Brand leadership requires a connection to social context

With the shooting in Connecticut still fresh in American’s minds, it’s no wonder people across generations are reporting they’re still very concerned about becoming the victim of random acts of violence (CultureQ, December 2013). Furthermore, some women tell us they’re especially concerned about women’s rights and civil liberties being compromised in the US during 2013 (CultureQ, December 2013). Leadership brands that are also favorites, such as Amazon,  must tread carefully. Loyalists feel betrayed when a favorite shows they are disconnected from the social context in which they operate and the day-to-day concerned of the woman or man on the street. In our latest study, Amazon is variously identified as both a good and bad brand citizen, showing how important personal experience and perception is when it comes to how people categorize brands.

Whilst stocking the tee shirt may be considered to be a misjudgement, the action is unlikely to hurt their P&L. However, the images and commentary leave an indelible trail across the Internet and potentially scar the brand’s reputation with some consumers. Calls for apologies and donations to women’s refuges may assuage any lurking corporate guilt and cut it for some people, however, an increasing number of consumers tell us gestures after the event are hollow. It’s far better to be open about mistakes before the situation escalates.

Amazon has been recognized as a brand leader to date. Yet, the balanced  combination of  characteristics such as innovation, fair pricing, convenience, and service are fast becoming generic attributes for leadership brands.

Leading brands differentiate through good citizenship

The signs are all there.  In 2013, people will become more selective about the brands they interact with and remain loyal only to a trusted few that consistently lead through demonstrating they deliver responsibly in a number of different ways. People’s inner circle will be made up of good brand citizens who are distinctive because, they:

  • Respect all stakeholders, and act in their best interests
  • Sincerely demonstrate their philosophy through their actions, products and service propositions, and delivery
  • Bring together people rather than act divisively or being controversial (intentionally or not)
  • Use their influence to positively move society forward in ways their target audience can relate to and are motivated by

Brand leaders: remember in 2013 good brand citizenship will be about being a bigger than you brand.