How Amazon reset its image after a bitter unionization battle

November 23, 2021, 3:21 PM UTC
Amazon's campaign puts forward underdog employees in a bid to make us forget numerous reports of poor working conditions.
Kevin Hagen - Getty Images

It started as a fight about a warehouse in hardscrabble Alabama, but the result is a state-of-the-art corporate marketing campaign now playing on cell phones and televisions in living rooms across America.

Earlier this year, news coverage about Amazon was dominated by the unionization battle at the company’s 800,000-square foot distribution facility in Bessemer, Alabama. That local controversy spawned numerous stories about the online retailer’s unforgiving work atmosphere, employee walkouts, on-the-job injuries, and soaring attrition rates. 

Though Amazon workers ended up deciding against the union, the sour image lingered–and a key corporate lesson was learned. The way this company turned the marketing tide has implications for C-suite executives, personnel managers, public relations pros, and even those of us who are just avid media consumers. 

Though Amazon is the $1.8 trillion Goliath of online retailing, the company responded to the unionization campaign by positioning itself as David for a highly effective marketing campaign. It launched a 12-ad “Meeting the Moment” drive that put a very personal face on a very enormous company. 

At the center of each commercial on television and social media was a heart-tugging underdog Amazon employee.

One spot told how a tearful company warehouse worker named Ernesto “found his true calling” to work in the healthcare industry with the help of Amazon’s tuition and training programs. Another introduced us to Christine, who kept company workers safe with daily temperature checks for fevers. Then there was Janelle, who said working in an Amazon warehouse was “like walking into the chocolate factory, and you won a golden ticket.”

When I look at those commercials, I’m not looking at a corporate behemoth. I’m looking at a series of people I can relate to–people who seem like me. I’m putting myself in the shoes of the person who is getting hired. 

The ad campaign has viewers thinking about Brendan, who uses sign language as an Amazon design manager as “part of a group of people with disabilities.” The campaign does not have viewers thinking about Jeff Bezos, the second richest man in the world, whose personal wealth exceeds the gross domestic product of about three-quarters of the nations on Earth.

The new way of reaching your audience is by creating a one-on-one connection. It’s not the big brand lecturing the small consumer. It’s a conversation that builds on what we have in common. 

Much of America may be quitting unfulfilling jobs as part of The Great Resignation. However, at Amazon, an extremely effective TV commercial promises the extreme job flexibility so many of us want. 

Interested? You’re hired!

Even if the warehouse job isn’t a good fit for your own life, you’ll still think better of a caring company that offers employees the schedules they need to pick up their kids from school. 

In the prior era of marketing and public relations, companies built slogans. Now smart companies build personal connections: Do you see yourself in the people who make up their business?

If Amazon can promote itself as a great place to work for deaf people, or stay-at-home moms, or Gen Z students working their way through college, then it’s seen as an approachable, sympathetic company. It’s a place of shared values, a company that has earned the right to your business and your money. It’s not the kind of place with work schedules so relentless that drivers must urinate in bottles

There are lessons here for every business.

Your company may be big, but the people who work there are somebody’s neighbors. Find common ground. Listen to your critics. You may even learn something from them.

Jeff Antaya is the author of “Don’t Ride a Dinosaur into Your Battle for New Clients” and the former chief marketing officer at Plante Moran.

Subscribe to Fortune Daily to get essential business stories straight to your inbox each morning.

Read More

Great ResignationClimate ChangeLeadershipInflationUkraine Invasion