Jeff Bezos' Fashion Flex
Not Boring #3: A Serious Strategic Analysis of a Fashion Show Show
Hi Friends 👋🏻,
Happy Monday! Hope you all had a great “weekend.” But if you didn’t, I get it. It’s hard to enjoy the weekends these days…
…because all you want to do is get to Monday morning and read Not Boring!
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Now let’s get to it.
Jeff Bezos’ Fashion Flex
If there’s one great thing about the quarantine, and I’m not saying there is, but IF there is, it’s this: you can be forgiven for almost anything.
Ate pizza for breakfast? Cool.
Didn’t even look at a pair of pants all day? Totally fine.
Showed up to a work meeting with Wood as your Zoom background? It happens.
Against that backdrop, I hope you’ll forgive me this: I have become obsessed with Amazon’s Project Runway copycat, Making the Cut.
This isn’t my first foray into fashion show shows. For years, I’ve half-watched Project Runway with Puja, and I even half-enjoyed Netflix’s straight copycat, Next in Fashion.
But neither Project Runway nor Next in Fashion has spoken to me like Making the Cut has. Which is crazy, because it’s not even “good.” Rotten Tomatoes gives it a 60% (compared with a whopping 97% for Runway and a respectable 85% for Next). Puja doesn’t enjoy watching it. And I’m not a fashion guy.
Despite all that, Making the Cut hooked me from minute one of episode one because it isn’t a fashion show show (a show featuring fashion show competitions), really.
Making the Cut is Amazon putting its muscle on display and dressing it up in fashionable (but accessible) clothing. It’s really just two hours a week of Jeff Bezos flexing.
Fashion and Content-to-Commerce Comeback
This isn’t Amazon’s first bite at either the fashion or content-to-commerce apples. Thus far, it has struggled to sell fashion (distinct from clothing basics) and its content-to-commerce efforts, selling products within its content, have flopped.
QZ quipped that “Amazon sells tons of clothes but can’t sell fashion.”
Mashable was even more harsh about its content-to-commerce play, Amazon Live, saying, “Amazon’s QVC-style shopping channel is a monument to sadness.”
But trying things, failing, and evolving is one of the things that makes Amazon Amazon. Remember the Fire Phone? Total flop. But then they came out with the Echo, the leader in the smart speaker category, and the Fire Stick, the #1 streaming media player platform.
Similarly, Amazon Fashion and Amazon Live were just opening salvos.
Fashion is the largest online retail category and content-to-commerce is the holy grail for everyone from Snap to Instagram to Amazon. These are categories it needs to win.
So it learned and evolved, and it’s back with Making the Cut, its glitzy comeback attempt in both categories simultaneously. This time, Amazon is using its full bag of tricks.
Amazon Being Amazon, Three Ways
Three things stand out that highlight Amazon’s advantages over competitors and hint at where fashion, streaming, and content-to-commerce: Bringing a Money-and-Scale Gun to a Knife Fight, Advertising Amazon Itself, and Buy Right Now. Let’s go into each.
Bringing a Money-and-Scale Gun to a Knife Fight
“I’m so happy we’re together again!” Tim Gunn gushes to Heidi Klum. The Making the Cut co-hosts kick off their new show by referencing the one they used to host together and that they’re so brazenly ripping off with Amazon’s backing, Project Runway. When Klum and Gunn jumped to Amazon to develop their own show, they came in hot. According to Variety:
Amazon Studios had told Klum, Gunn and showrunner Sara Rea to think big. Klum had dreams of ‘Fashion Force One’ — an imagined 747 jet housing rows of sewing machines, so designers could work en route from one fashion capital to the next. She also wanted $1 million for the winner to fund his or her business.
“We went in to Amazon, and we asked for the world,” says Rea. “And they said yes and yes and yes.”
Making the Cut fits under four budgets at Amazon: marketing for Amazon Fashion, R&D for content-to-commerce, direct sales from in-show purchases, and Prime Video content. Since it can make the money back in so many ways, it can afford to fund higher production and prize costs itself, without relying on sponsors. This section from the Variety article explains the difference between an ad-supported model and Amazon’s content-to-commerce model perfectly, with just the right amount of shade.
The first 5 minutes of Episode 1 were designed to send one message to its audience and competitors: Amazon isn’t fucking around.
In the course of 2 minutes and 34 seconds, Heidi and Tim hit the designers with five big announcements:
The winner of the competition will create a collection that will be sold on Amazon.
The grand prize is $1 million dollars, which gives the winner enough capital to legitimately start a business and makes Bravo and Netflix look poor.
(For comparison: The winners of Project Runway get a total of $300,000 from two sponsors, Bluprint and the Pilot FriXion Erasable Gel Ink Pen (lol). The Next In Fashion winner gets $250,000 from Net-a-Porter. Amazon ponied up $1 million itself, because it can.)
While competitors film in LA and NYC, Making the Cut steps it up by taking the gang international, first to Paris and then to Tokyo.
The first fashion show will be held in front of the Eiffel Tower.
The winner of each fashion show will have one of their looks immediately available in the Making the Cut Store on Amazon. (More on this later)
Project Runway and Next in Fashion keep costs relatively low and rely on sponsors to fund their existence. Amazon comes out guns blazing, outspending Bravo and Netflix and paying for it all out of its own pocket.
Since Amazon funds itself, it is able to make a show that is entertaining enough while advertising the rest of its business.
Advertising Amazon Itself
While other fashion show shows are spending their time advertising their partners, Amazon uses Making the Cut’s two weekly hours to advertise Amazon.
Amazon wants you to walk away from Making the Cut knowing five things:
Amazon is customer obsessed.
Amazon has four company values, the first of which is Customer Obsession. That comes through loud and clear on Making the Cut. For each episode’s competition, the designers must design both a high-fashion look and an accessible look. This isn’t just about haute couture, they’re, like, obsessed with everyday customers.
Amazon is global.
As mentioned above, while other fashion show shows stay domestic, Making the Cut goes global. Point-in-case, when the designers arrive in Tokyo, they head straight to Amazon Fashion’s Tokyo Studio, a large, gorgeously designed building that Amazon owns, because Amazon is a global brand.
Amazon is a technology company.
In that same Tokyo Studio, Making the Cut put on the most tech-forward fashion show in the history of fashion show shows.
For the Tokyo show, each of the designers chose an immersive digital background to go with their look (seen above, although it’s much crisper in non-GIF form). They even hologrammed the digital fashion avatar, Noonoouri, into the event, and she wore the winning look on her social media pages. All of which Amazon can do, because Amazon is a tech company.
Amazon enables entrepreneurs, specifically fashion entrepreneurs, to build successful businesses.
Making the Cut puts more emphasis on building a fashion business than any of the other fashion show shows. The judges don’t just care about how you sew, in fact, they give you seamstresses to do the sewing for you. They care about how the looks work together, who the customer is, how much grit and fight the designers show, and whether they, as personalities, have what it takes to become a fashion brand. Whichever one has all of those elements, in addition to the best designs, will receive $1 million, a legitimate amount of seed capital to build a business, and a featured collection on Amazon.
Through Making the Cut, Amazon wants to show other fashion entrepreneurs that Amazon Fashion is the best place to build their business.
On Amazon, you can buy things instantly.
Nothing is more of an advertisement for Amazon than showing off its ability to sell you things and deliver them to you, right now. This is a big one, so let’s dedicate a whole section to it.
Buy Right Now
Amazon is using Making the Cut to introduce contextualized content-to-commerce.
Each episode’s winner gets a very Amazon prize: their look is immediately for sale on Amazon. And it really is immediate. Since you’re watching on Prime, either on your computer or on your TV, you can hit one button on your keyboard or remote, buy the look, and come right back to the show in one more click. No one but Amazon can do this. They own both a streaming service and the world’s largest e-commerce platform, and with this show, they’ve tightly integrated the two.
That’s not to say the others don’t try. Bravo’s Project Runway relaunch sells select winning looks through Nineteenth Amendment, and Netflix’s Next in Fashion does the same with Net-a-Porter. But it has not gone smoothly. According to one media exec I spoke to, shop-the-look has traditionally faced a few challenges.
First, the decision to sell has to start from production. The content needs to lend itself to commerce, which is hard to do if you’re trying to plug commerce into a show like Game of Thrones, and much easier to do when the show is all about designing new items expressly to be sold.
Second, the audience needs to expect that it’s going to be sold to, because people value authenticity. There is no mistaking that Making the Cut is there to sell.
Lastly, people don’t want to be interrupted. Bravo has to send people to the Nineteenth Amendment website; Amazon displays an unobtrusive link at the right moment. They’ve already done this with an IMDB integration that lets viewers learn more about the actors they’re watching, and they’re applying the same interface to commerce.
Amazon is the only player in content or e-commerce perfectly suited to seamlessly integrate the two because it is the only company that owns both at meaningful scale. Watching Making the Cut feels like glimpsing into the future, where Amazon “takes inspiration” from popular shows and makes its own, nakedly commercial versions.
Imagine watching Amazon’s Top Chef rip-off in a year and being able to order all of the ingredients via the Alexa in your remote (remember, they bought Whole Foods and crushed Blue Apron’s stock when they announced that they would be doing meal kits).
HGTV should be watching its back as well. This strategy would work perfectly with an interior design show like Property Brothers or Flip or Flop. Amazon has been building up its own furniture brands for nearly five years. You can bet that it will use content to show customers what their home could look like if they just click that button right there.
As it learns and improves and evolves, Amazon can apply this same strategy across all of its product categories. Fitness, beauty, music, AWS, electronics. I, for one, can’t wait to watch Smart Plug Superheroes.
Many have praised Netflix for using algorithms to understand what people want to watch and then creating shows based on that understanding. Amazon is positioned to take that a step further by understanding what people want to watch and what they want to buy to create programming that fulfills both desires.
Amazon’s New Flywheel
Amazon’s strategy can be captured in a flywheel, the set of actions a company takes that build off of each other and gain momentum to create accumulating value.
In 1957, Walt Disney hand-drew this vision of his company’s flywheel.
It was eerily prescient. Jason Kottke sums up and modernizes the image: “movies drive merchandise sales and theme park visits, which in turn drives interest for sequels and spin-offs, rinse, repeat, reboot.”
Amazon is no stranger to flywheels. Its e-commerce flywheel is a classic; it makes up three of the top five Google image results for “business flywheel.”
With Making the Cut, Amazon is hinting at a new flywheel that is the spiritual descendent of Disney’s 1957 drawing (although I’m not quite the artist Disney was).
Amazon is able to turn e-commerce sales into bigger budgets, which means that they can produce more engaging shows integrated with seamless technology. Better content and technology should mean more eyeballs and higher conversion. That means more data on what works, on both the content and commerce sides, which means more targeted content. More targeted content means more sales. “Rinse, repeat, reboot.” Over time, the flywheel creates an accumulating advantage that is nearly impossible to compete with.
What does it all mean?
I've always thought of Amazon Prime Video as a loss-leader to attract people to Prime. Prime members pay $119 per year and spend almost twice as much as non-Prime members. If Amazon needs to spend a few billion on content to attract new Prime members and retain existing ones, so be it.
I was wrong.
Watching Making the Cut made me realize that Bezos isn’t willing to just throw away money on anything in the long-term. This is the same guy who used a door as a desk to save money. He has bigger ambitions for Prime Video than I had previously appreciated.
When Amazon acquired Whole Foods, Ben Thompson introduced the idea that Amazon’s strategy is to be its own first-and-best customer. It builds up expertise on itself before selling the product to the world. It did it in e-commerce, where it built its own store before opening up a marketplace. It did it in the cloud, where it built servers for itself before selling AWS as a product to companies.
Making the Cut shows that it’s going to do the same thing in streaming, turning the long-tail Prime content into a product placement and one-click shopping bonanza for itself first and then for other companies.
This will be Amazon’s niche in the streaming wars. Apple and HBO will own highly produced, Netflix will own “something to watch for everyone, all the time,” and Amazon will own commercialized.
If it is successful, it will change the TV advertising market in the same way that it is beginning to change the online advertising market. More and more customers are skipping the Google search and going directly to Amazon, and with the right combination of quality content and easy purchasing, they may do the same with the shows they watch.
Amazon’s vision “is to be earth's most customer-centric company; to build a place where people can come to find and discover anything they might want to buy online.”
Making the Cut is a warning shot that “online” has a broad definition at Amazon. It’s just a fashion show show, and sure it will help Amazon sell more clothes, but it’s also a preview of the way that we’ll all be entertaining ourselves and buying everything one day in the not-too-distant future.
I could be wrong about all of this. Customers may not watch or they might not buy. Amazon has failed here before. But do you want to bet against Jeff Bezos?
Editor’s Note: Not Boring has reached out to Mr. Bezos for comment, but for some reason, he has been unresponsive.
Links & Listens
🗽 A Tale of Tough Cities | Alexander Cox | Li Jin’s Newsletter
People tend to overreact in a crisis. We look at our current situation and project forward. For example, if dense cities are the worst place to be during a pandemic, we project that people are going to move out of cities en masse.
Cox’s guest post in Li Jin’s newsletter dispels that notion by looking back in history and showing that cities always bounce back. Even New Orleans, which is built below sea level and therefore structurally dangerous, has recovered to 90% of its pre-Katrina population.
This is one of the most excellent pieces I have read in the past month, and as someone who wants to stay in New York City, it gave me a lot of hope.
💪 The Ultimate COVID Job Resource Stack | Patricia Mou
Last week, I shared Candor’s Hiring Freeze doc. That’s just one of the 80 resources that Mou compiled into this Google Sheet. This sheet, shared in Mou’s Weekly Wellness Links Round-up, is the place to go if you’re looking for work, need to hire, or just want to see what’s going on out there.
🎰 Deciding What Game to Play | Amrit Singh
In the coming months, thousands of people will be weighing whether to find a new job or start something themselves. If you’re one of those people, Singh’s guide is a must-read. It will help you think through what type of company you specifically are best-suited to start, and thinking through it will give you perspective on whether starting a company is right for you in the first place.
I hate to brag, but I’ve become somewhat of an expert at Virtual Zoom Backgrounds. Got Your Back is a collection of artistic Zoom backgrounds made by some of the world’s best designers, illustrators, animators, photographers, and artists.
It’s also a great way to discover new artists. I’m a Merijn Hos fan now.
Chamath Palihapitiya on CNBC
This one caused quite a stir on the internet this week. Palihapitiya, a billionaire himself, argues that we should let companies fail, that employees and pensions will generally be safe in a structured bankruptcy, and that his fellow billionaires who invested in them deserve to be wiped out.
Well-argued point, but as a newly-minted “fashion guy,” I can’t help but ask - what is that jacket?
Amazon’s not the only one with great content. This week, Not Boring has two things that I’d love for you to join and one link to a wealth of knowledge.
On Tuesday at 6:30pm, Not Boring member Saadiya Mutawakil will be presenting Beauty in the Breadcrumbs, an exploration of some "human truths" behind why we're drawn to the things on our screens. What wisdom do movies and TV hold? Find out by signing up here.
Social (Distancing) Studies starts tonight. It’s going to be a fun way to get some accountability and guidance to practice code, no-code, writing, music, languages, and more. At the end, we’ll cap it off with a Talent Show. If you sign up with a friend, 50% of each of your fee will go to a COVID-related charity.
Not Boring members write some of my favorite newsletters and blogs. I’m not just saying that. I’ve been reading some of them since long before Not Boring launched. So I compiled all of them in one place for easy discoverability. Check them out at Not Boring Member Newsletters & Blogs.
Steepening the Curve
We’re on the march to 1,000 subscribers, and thanks to so many of you spreading the word, we’re making great progress. Three weeks ago, when I asked you to share, we were at 473 subscribers after 45 weeks of me writing this thing. 21 days later, there are 645 of us - we’ve added 36% more friends to our ranks in a really short time. Thank you! I even made this fancy dashboard to track our progress, and I’ll share it here each week.
Watching this group grow is my favorite quarantine pastime (after Making the Cut). Let’s keep it going - if you know someone who would enjoy reading Not Boring:
And if you’re reading this because someone forwarded it to you or you clicked a link on Twitter, 1) welcome!, 2) thanks for making it that far, and 3) you can subscribe here to make every Monday morning Not Boring.
Stay safe, stay sane, and thanks for reading,