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Month: August 2022

Reports of the brand’s death are greatly exaggerated

Reports of the brand’s death are greatly exaggerated

When the lawyer for a new online trading company first heard the founder’s suggested name, he was a bit surprised to say the least. He didn’t think “Cadaver” was the most appropriate choice. Later when a number of financial analysts weren’t convinced of the business model, instead of saying “.com” they started saying “.bomb”.

That founder would have the last laugh and would soon be able to paraphrase a famous quote saying “The reports of our death are greatly exaggerated”*.

The founder was of course Jeff Bezos, and the brand would go on to become Amazon

The original name Bezos chose for the brand was “Cadabra”, not “Cadaver”, that was just what the lawyer misheard. “Cadabra” was intended as a reference to the word “abracadabra” and to show how magical online shopping was.  However, the lawyer’s response caused Bezos to re-think his plans.

He and his then-wife, MacKenzie Tuttle, began searching for alternatives. They registered the domain names,, and They also registered the domain name which according to reports in Business Insider was a favourite. However, testing on friends suggested it was often felt to be unfriendly.  It was dropped as front runner, but the pair kept the registration and if you type “” into your browser today, you’ll be redirected to homepage. (Go on, try it)

Like some previous brand founders, Bezos’ final choice was led by a letter. George Eastman is said to have come up with Kodak as he liked the letter ‘K’ and thought it was incisive**, but Bezos’ choice of ‘A’ was pragmatic. At the time, website listings were alphabetized, so a word that started with ‘A’ would be a sensible choice.

Bezos started leafing through the ‘A’ section of a dictionary. When he landed on the word “Amazon,” the name of the largest river on the planet, he decided that was the perfect name for what he planned would become earth’s largest bookstore… and more.

Bezos had a vision of explosive growth and ecommerce domination which was summed up in his motto “Get Big Fast”. He contended that the brand would not merely be a retailer of consumer products rather was a technology company whose business would be simplifying online transactions for consumers. He 1996 he handed out T-shirts with the motto printed on it at a company picnic.

It was this thinking that was often met with scepticism and led to financial journalists and analysts disparaging the company and referring to it as Amazon.bomb. Doubters claimed ultimately would lose in the marketplace to established bookselling chains, such as Borders and Barnes & Noble once they had launched competing e-commerce sites. The lack of immediate company profits seemed to justify its critics.

However, the brand was getting Big, Fast. It reached 180,000 customer accounts by December 1996, after its first full year in operation, and less than a year later, in October 1997, it had 1,000,000 customer accounts. Its revenues jumped from $15.7 million in 1996 to $148 million in 1997, followed by $610 million in 1998. In 1999 Bezos was Time magazine’s Person of the Year.

The company quickly began to diversify, selling more than books. Music and video sales started in 1998. That same year it began international operations with the acquisition of online booksellers in the United Kingdom and Germany. By 1999 the company was also selling consumer electronics, video games, software, home-improvement items, toys and games, and much more.

Bezos and his team worked tirelessly to claim the high ground of Internet retailing before anyone else got there.

Looking back in 2015 as he announced Amazon’s results Bezos said “Twenty years ago, I was driving the packages to the post office myself and hoping we might one day afford a forklift, this year, we pass $100 billion in annual sales and serve 300 million customers.”

Looking at the evolution of the logo raises a question for me, did he also choose Amazon as the name because it included the ‘Z’ and the potential to highlight the Amazon was the everything brand? The arrow (smile) linking the A and the Z only became part of the identity in 2000.

And finally, despite its size and success, Bezos can actually foresee the brand’s demise. In a recording of a 2018 all-hands meeting Bezos is heard to say…

“Amazon is not too big to fail … In fact, I predict one day Amazon will fail. Amazon will go bankrupt. If you look at large companies, their lifespans tend to be 30-plus years, not a hundred-plus years”.

Bezos went on to say (then) that it was his job to delay that date by as long as possible, and ensure that reports of its death continue to be an exaggeration.

And the moral of this story is Think BIG. Amazon didn’t set out just to sell book, Disney is more than films… what is your Big Hairy Audacious Goal?

* The quoteThe reports of my death are greatly exaggerated” is often attributed to Mark Twain but it is not quite accurate. The real quote comes from Twain’s response to a journalist from the New York Journal who contacted him to inquire whether the rumours that he was gravely ill or already dead were indeed true.  He replied “I can understand perfectly how the report of my illness got about, I have even heard on good authority that I was dead. James Ross Clemens, a cousin of mine, was seriously ill two or three weeks ago in London, but is well now. The report of my illness grew out of his illness. The report of my death was an exaggeration.”

** I tell a longer version of The George Eastman – Kodak story in my book “The Prisoner and the Penguin” which is still available on Amazon (and other retailers too!)

Celebrity endorsement made it better

Celebrity endorsement made it better

The wedding of “Bennifer” and the “Wagatha” trial shows our on-going fascination with celebrities.

As I have written about before, celebrity is a well-used tactic in marketing.

In my first book of brand stories – The Prisoner & The Penguin –  I told the tale of how the highly esteemed Eleanor Roosevelt finally agreed to do a celebrity endorsement. She did a commercial for Good Luck Margarine in which she said, “The new Good Luck Margarine really tastes delicious.”

Unfortunately, the brand was a failure. Asked about her experience she said she had received a sack full of letters in which “one half was sad because I had damaged my reputation and the other were happy that I had damaged my reputation.”   

I recently heard about another celebrity endorsement which centres on Roosevelt and thought I should add it to my collection of brand fables.

The celebrities in this story are the 1930s ‘it’ couple – The Bennifers of that era.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt Jr was Eleanor and FDR’s fifth child and at the time of this tale a Harvard student. Ethel du Pont was the heir to the du Pont family fortune and so one of the richest socialites of her day.

The paparazzi loved them and followed them to every event they attended, and their pictures filled the society pages.

So, attending the Hock Popo Ski Club party at the Agawam Hunt Club, Rhode Island, in November 1936 was nothing out of the ordinary. Nor, at first, was the sore throat and slight cough that FDR Jr complained of the next day. It hadn’t even been bad enough for him and Ethel to leave the party early.

However, things soon changed. The throat got worse and a few days later FDR Jr had a fever and was put to bed. Just before Thanksgiving, and now diagnosed with an acute sinus infection he was admitted to the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

Tiresome, but still nothing too much out of the ordinary or so everyone thought. He was a strong young man, and with some rest and something to take the fever down all would be well again soon.

Only it wasn’t.

The infection didn’t clear up and in fact got worse. He remained in hospital. His mother was getting more and more worried and insisted on a new doctor, a top doctor specializing in ear, nose and throat.

Checking over his new patient the doctor was very concerned, there was a tender spot under his cheek which looked like it was infected and the beginnings of an abscess. He immediately took a sample and discovered a highly dangerous strain of strep, one that could release poisons and other infections into the blood stream. If that happened it could ultimately lead to the death of the President’s son.

While the White House medical staff considered the option of a risky surgical procedure, the new doctor remembered reading some reports about a new drug, Prontosil, developed by Bayer in Germany. The reports spoke of near miraculous results and initial tests at John Hopkins were also very positive.

He recommended it to Mrs. Roosevelt.

At first, she wasn’t sure but having read more about it and in the face of the still worsening condition of her son, she agreed.

Some carefully wrapped glass phials were duly shipped from Germany to the USA. The doctor gave him an initial dose and followed it with further doses every hour.

Ethel sat in the room with FDR Jr, his mother sat outside working on correspondence. At first nothing seemed to be happening and the hours seemed to drag on and on but in the morning, things started to change.

The swelling around the abscess looked like it was shrinking. FDR Jr was sleeping better and seemed to have more energy when he was awake. Later that day his fever broke.

The doctors were amazed; never before had they seen a strep case that was resolved so well and so quickly.

FDR Jr was released a few days after Christmas.

He would later marry Ethel (the first of his five wives), be decorated for his service in WWII and go onto serve three terms in Congress.

However, what he also did was prove that celebrity could sell (if even his mother couldn’t).

The headlines in The New York Times and other prominent newspapers, the story of his recovery, and the role of the new wonder, heralded the start of the era of antibacterial chemotherapy in the United States and the success for Prontosil

And the moral of this story is …Celebrity sells (well sometimes)