By Dante Pannell
“Thanks for nothing, AOC!”
The Job Creators Network plastered that exclamation on a billboard immediately after Amazon cancelled their plans to build a second headquarters (HQ2) in Long Island City, NY. This unmistakable shot at newly elected U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, located at the center of New York City’s Times Square, put sole blame for the entire HQ2 debacle on the shoulders of one of its most vocal detractors.
Given the increasing power of a handful of tech firms, the ability of the people to send Amazon packing using public dissent is potentially laudable. More and more businesses find themselves in the crosshairs of a loud minority fueled by outrage culture. The only way to navigate this is by clearly defining what the brand stands for — and staying true to it.
From the very beginning, Amazon’s search for cities to build its HQ2 was all wrong. The company announced in September 2017 that they would build a 50,000 employee second headquarters and that it would accept proposals from any interested city. This format — which resembled a dating game show — immediately made the search all about Amazon, not the cities competing for new jobs and investments.
New York was amongst the first cities to throw their name into the figurative hat — and then the courting began. NYC lit up both One World Trade Center and the Empire State Building as beacons of interest. The governor of the state and the city’s mayor began peacocking immediately after submitting their bid. That’s when things took a turn for the worst.
Despite an aggressive push by government — laden with significant tax incentives — New York’s interest in Amazon aroused a passionate group of vocal opponents. Amazon made this search all about them, something some New Yorker’s didn’t appreciate. No surprise, they began to make their dissidence known. Concerned citizens, community organizers, and grassroots groups began their crusade against Amazon at the street level. Despite this group’s outrage, Amazon’s presence was seen favorably by most: the potential move had a 56 percent approval rating from surveyed New Yorkers.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez even got involved, gleefully making herself the face of Amazon’s opposition, and taking to her Twitter account to voice her displeasure with not only Amazon’s move, but their core values and how they would affect NYC: “Amazon is a billion-dollar company. The idea that it will receive hundreds of millions of dollars in tax breaks at a time when our subway is crumbling and our communities need MORE investment, not less, is extremely concerning to residents here.”
AOC doesn’t even represent Long Island City, but by taking up the cause against Amazon, she gave the impression opposition was much more entrenched than in reality. The finale of this saga is that HQ2 is no longer coming to Long Island City. But was cowing to a small, outspoken group truly the right move for Amazon’s brand?
The Amazon brand story has always been all about Amazon. The firm has long-prided itself on squeezing suppliers, undercutting other retailers, and owning an increasingly large piece of the ecommerce pie. The HQ2 search was equally self-centered: from their gaudy initial announcement, to airing the details of the 200-plus cities’ bids and playing them against one another, to the ridiculous terms they ultimately extracted from NYC.
There’s no question Amazon secured the right real estate and sufficient incentives to make the NYC HQ2 a success. And, given Amazon has no problem standing up to the president, it seems unlikely a first-term representative and her posse of activists would cow the firm into submission. But, with such a selfishly-oriented message Amazon was unable to engage the silent majority that supported their move — 56 percent may have supported their plans, but without a role to play in the story, they remained quiet while a smaller group scuttled the deal.
Intimates retailer Livi Rae Lingerie touts the slogan: “No bust too big or small, we fit ’em all.” Since being founded by owners Molly Hopkins and Cynthia Decker, Livi Rae has stood on a platform of inclusion: the two women understood not every woman can take a bra off the rack and find it comfortable. So, they decided to offer women an option that fits them perfectly, while educating them in the purchasing process.
Their custom-fit bra and lingerie offerings ensure that no skin type, bust size, or disability will hinder any woman from finding their perfect fit. The brand’s customer-facing imagery and ads, which emphasize African-American, plus-sized, and disabled models further illuminates their brand story and contributes to a much larger discussion in the modeling industry, which is historically dominated by very specific casting requirements.
Despite authentically aligning every aspect of their brand around body-positive inclusion, Livi Rae ran into trouble after designing a line of thermal cooling bras for woman who have survived breast cancer. This product offering is completely in line with their core narrative, but they were told by their store’s management company that ads for the bras, displayed in the storefront’s windows, were in “poor taste”, and to remove them
With long-term implications for not only their storefront, but their brand as a whole, Livi Rae’s owners found themselves at a crossroads. Either, take down the ads and succumb to the pressures of the small group of people petitioning the landlord, or remain true to their brand’s story and trust that the majority of their customers would support them. They chose the latter.
Unlike Amazon’s case, the majority that supported Livi Rae’s didn’t remain silent. Their supporters spoke out loudly by starting a hashtag: #noshamelivirae. An unstoppable wave of viral support for them pushed the management company to concede publicly, allowing the ads to stay put in the Kennesaw, GA, storefront. By putting customers at the forefront of their brand story, Livi Rae could count on them for support even in the face of pointed opposition — the investment in their story made the attack on the brand something personal that needed to be defended.
The minority’s attacks on Amazon were effective because they spoke to an authentic truth of the brand that even supporters didn’t feel comfortable defending. Livi Rae was able to fend off its opponents by using its story as a means of activating its supporters. Even when story doesn’t rouse audiences to a brand’s defense, telling it consistently and transparently engenders respect in moments of controversy.
Chick-fil-A and their ever-present, cow-inspired branding has secured an undeniable chokehold over the fast food industry. The Southern chicken sandwich slingers are known for their trademark waffle fries and heart-warming customer service. And, for being closed every Sunday — an organizational decision rooted in the religious core values that have defined their brand story from day one.
Chick-fil-A President Dan Cathy has made the organization’s traditional views well-known. During the nation-wide debate on gay marriage, he made a specific effort to further communicate the brand’s values: “Very much supportive of the family — the biblical definition of the family unit. We are a family-owned business, a family-led business, and we are married to our first wives. We give God thanks for that.”
The court of public opinion did what it does best: generate outrage. Groups attempted to paint Chick-fil-A as hateful by pulling documents that showed previous contributions to non-LGBT friendly groups. Country-wide protests were staged in the form of a same-sex “kiss day,” and a Facebook group started to show unity against the traditional views of the fast-food giant. Students at Northeastern University voted to ban Chick-fil-A from opening in their student center, exclaiming: “We are proud of the decision that affirms our university’s commitment to be an inclusive, diverse community that is respectful of all.”
Except, people didn’t stop eating at Chick-fil-A. As a small vocal minority chose to publicly display animosity towards the chain, the majority kept lining up for those signature chicken sandwiches. Chick-fil-A hadn’t changed. The brand stayed true to their core and continued to lean into the values that had always underpinned their story: family-owned, Christian, and service driven. Even though the majority of Chick-fil-A customers are not aligned with their stance on gay marriage (and other family values), the brand’s decision to consistently embrace them, and to be transparent about it, made the attacks largely ineffective. Chick-fil-A continues to be the most profitable food chain in America per location.
For any brand, it can be easy to listen to the loudest constituency — even if they’re a minority. In an increasingly connected world, where technology gives every customer a potential platform to air their grievances, brands must accept contending with these outrages as part of regular business. What’s not pre-ordained is how they respond.
The most essential response comes long before the picket lines and angry tweets. Crafting a brand story that is based in an authentic and true connection to the majority of a business’s customers is vital. That story provides the structure that binds together a brand’s supporters, and the North Star they can follow out of even the darkest moments. Keeping focused on what matters ensures a brand does not divert from who they are or turn their back on the customer base that made them worth attacking in the first place.
Dante Pannell is an associate at Woden. Whatever your storytelling needs may be, Woden can help. Read our extensive guide on how to craft your organization’s narrative, or send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss how we can help tell your story.