Today is Prime Day, 7/15/2015 – a date, you may notice, that is not at all made up of prime numbers. So, what makes tomorrow, the 15th of July, 2015, prime?
It’s the day before the 20th anniversary of Amazon’s first day in business. It’s called Prime Day in commemoration of Amazon Prime – a premium level of Amazon membership that people can buy for the price of a hundred dollars per year.
CNBC reports, “Walmart can match Amazon in terms of warehouse delivery, can match or beat Amazon on most prices, and will charge half the fee that Amazon customers now pay for Prime service—$50 a year. That’s why Bezos has announced a massive online shopping event on July 15 exclusively for its Prime members, which the company claims will rival Black Friday. Specifically, Amazon claims that Prime Day has “more deals than Black Friday” – an assertion that may be strictly true within Amazon, but doesn’t take into account the Black Friday deals available elsewhere.
To try to make Prime Day more than just a sale, Amazon has invested in a few efforts toward communal involvement. Amazon has commissioned “local” artists create pieces of art showing what “Prime Living” – the experience of having membership in Amazon Prime, involves.
Amazon Prime members are encouraged to contribute artistically as well, by sharing photographs illustrating what being a Prime member – #PrimeLiving – is all about.
Commercial holidays can take on aspects of authentic ritual, and Amazon’s solicitation of artistic imagery is a nod in this direction – an opportunity for symbolic recombination of powerful cultural memes to create visual epiphanies for participants. However, the Prime Day #PrimeLiving campaign fails to gain such coherence. The artists’ paintings tend toward the literal, showing people having fun next to boxes of things from Amazon.
The photographs from Amazon Prime members likewise fail to create a larger symbolic narrative. One Prime member shared a photograph, seen below of a book ordered from Amazon, with its pages folded to make a heart-shape of paper, next to a glass of milk and a bush of flowering hydrangeas.
The book makes sense, as Amazon started out as a bookseller, but what’s with the glass of milk and flowering bush? The #PrimeLiving contributor doesn’t explain.
Another #PrimeLiving contributor shares a photograph of a trip to the Columbus Zoo.
Then, there’s a #PrimeLiving photograph with a cute kitten.
Kittens are cute. Zoos are fun. What’s the connection between these things, though? What concept do they share in common? They offer no vision of what it’s like to be an Amazon customer, much less any insight into the meaning of Amazon Prime membership.
Effective symbolic recombination requires actual mixing of symbols, not just the listing of them, one after another. It also requires a context of meaning in which new combinations of familiar symbols can make sense. The Amazon #PrimeLiving campaign lacks these structures of coherence. They’re like the Amazon brand itself, which stands for nothing specific, but offers a huge range of barely organized stuff, lots and lots of it.
What’s more, the #PrimeLiving contest doesn’t offer its participants a closer relationship with Amazon as a reward for their symbolic offerings. It merely offers $10,000 in gift cards – to just one participant in every eligible nation. That’s a slim chance at a payoff, not an inspiration.
Rafi Mohammed at the Harvard Business Review offers this basic explanation for Prime Day: It’s a way for Amazon to get lots of new customers signed up to its Prime service. Amazon wants more customers to use Prime because customers who are signed up on Prime tend to buy more things through Amazon than Amazon’s other customers do. So, Amazon is betting that new Prime customers will increase
What Mohammed does not argue is that Amazon will improve the relationship Prime customers have with Amazon. Although Prime customers may buy more from Amazon, they aren’t strongly attached to the service, or to Amazon as a brand. This keeps Amazon in the business of discount sales – a commodity business that it will dominate only so long as it can squeeze the best prices out of its suppliers.
This approach work for Amazon right now, but it doesn’t elicit a strong emotional attachment, even among its most habitual buyers, and that makes Amazon vulnerable in the long term. When I asked a group of my college’s alumni about Prime Day, one of them explained, “I buy a ton of crap on Amazon. I would love the crap I buy tomorrow to be cheaper than normal. I’m vaguely aware of Prime Day, but not enough to research how it works ahead of time. It [If] it’s easy to find good deals on stuff I already want, I’ll take advantage. If I have to dig deep, visit the site during certain hours, or can only get discounts on curated goods that I don’t care about, then meh.”
One of the vulnerabilities of a commodity business is that it’s a game of mutual exploitation. Marketers and consumers try to work the system to out-cheap each other. Neither side is willing to put in the work necessary to create a more satisfying experience, and so, it’s easy for big competitors to come in and steal customers away with comparable deals. There’s no genuine loyalty built up over time with customers, so the minute that they think they’ll get something more cheaply elsewhere, they’ll leave, with nothing more than a “meh” in parting.
So, we see that other big retailers like Wal-Mart and Best Buy are elbowing in on Prime Day, offering their own limited-time online discounts. As with Amazon, there is no sense of meaning behind the sales. They’re economic offers, not cultural events.
Prime Day, Mohammed notes, isn’t really a holiday. It’s a “a self-interested homage to rock bottom prices”. That makes Prime Day different from Black Friday.
Black Friday ostensibly involves the pursuit of deals, but there’s much more to it than that. Unlike Prime Day, Black Friday is open to anyone who chooses to participate, and it centers around unusual practices that occur in the physical world.
Black Friday shoppers who camp out in lines all night aren’t really getting a good return on the investment of their time and effort. The pursuit of savings is a justification that gives permission to participate in the holiday. Black Friday includes strong elements of ritual, such as disorientation in time, separation from the ordinary, and violation of normal codes of behavior, and tests of worthiness in exchange for significant rewards.
On Black Friday, the pursuit of deals is a mask for a deeper cultural phenomenon. On Prime Day, there’s nothing behind that mask.
Amazon = stuff for sale.
Amazon Prime = stuff for sale with cheap shipping.
Amazon Prime Day = stuff for sale with cheap shipping at a discount.
This is not the kind of material from which lasting relationships are made.