On Monday, Amazon commemorated its first official day as Whole Foods’s overlord with a special type of capitalistic verve. As customers entered the grocery store, they were greeted with display bins full of “farm fresh” Amazon Echoes for sale. Strolling through the aisles, shoppers passed colorful Amazon-branded tags that advertised price drops for items like spinach and almond butter. Most notably, the butchers of at least two locations enthusiastically sculpted both the company’s logo and an advertisement for its Prime subscription shipping service out of ground beef.
Amazon and its founder, Jeff Bezos, have plenty of reasons to celebrate. When the company announced its intended $13.7 billion acquisition of Whole Foods in June, its stock prices surged, briefly making Bezos the richest man in the world. At the same time, the value of competitors like Walmart and Blue Apron plummeted due to the fear that they would be no match against the obsessively efficient ecommerce company. All the while, memes of Bezos’s rise from a humble online bookseller to a notably swoll internet billionaire proliferated online. With the purchase of Whole Foods, he had undeniably become the most high-profile, powerful person in tech.
All the trappings of an unstoppable monopoly aside, Amazon’s Whole Foods rebranding was a forceful campaign to spread a message to consumers. Something along the lines of: Our presence in your local grocery store is the beginning of a convenient, more affordable shopping experience!! But, for anyone attuned to the company’s undeniably pervasive expansion, the lowercase-‘A’s scattered around the store held a darker implication: We have claimed yet another one of your mundane-yet-necessary physical spaces as a place to advertise our brand in whatever form we wish—even the dead animal carcasses you plan to cook for dinner!!
Amazon’s newfound ability to sling its brand in some 456 grocery stores around the world is not simply a perk of its Whole Foods acquisition, it’s a feature. The company’s slow and steady quest to infiltrate our most essential physical locations is part of its crafty genius. As a function of its mission statement—“to be Earth’s most customer-centric company for four primary customer sets: consumers, sellers, enterprises, and content creators”—Amazon has always heedlessly seized the opportunity to intertwine its advertising with its products. It’s by no means the first or only tech company to do so, but it can go further than most because of its unprecedented access to tangible spaces. As the company has built an empire upon mid-range e-readers and speedy subscription shipping services, it has also craftily pushed its way into consumers’ lives as an intimate in-person advertiser. And by so relentlessly occupying the physical territory that average humans cannot avoid—specifically, their homes and their mailboxes— it has managed to wiggle into our lives in ways that other digital media companies simply can’t.
The best examples of Amazon’s relentless advertising presence exist in its products. Approximately 80 million people subscribe to the company’s discounted, expedited shipping service. Every time one of those people receives toilet paper or dog food or some other hopelessly boring, slightly discounted item in the mail, the purchase arrives at the doorstep or building lobby neatly wrapped in branded tape. Amazon is conscious of the unique potential for exposure that comes along with sitting in the foyer of some 80 million households, and has transformed packing materials into mini billboards through the years. When it debuted its (incredibly unsuccessful) Fire Phone in 2014, the rims of its boxes were suddenly changed to display the gadget’s bright orange logo. In 2015, the company partnered with Universal Pictures to send out bright yellow, Minion-branded packaging to advertise the latest addition to the Despicable Me franchise. Since it began its annual Prime Day sale, the date has always been plastered on that little omnipresent strip of tape—a gentle nudge to catch those deals that reaches far beyond a Macy’s flyer.
Amazon’s brandable real estate goes far beyond disposable cardboard boxes. When left untouched, the lockscreens on the Kindle, Fire tablet, and Fire TVs default to frequently updated advertisements for ebooks or third-party companies like Lego. (The company describes these placement options as “singularly powerful ways for you to engage customers with your brand.”) Amazon Locker, the digital storage units that exist in post offices and modern apartment lobbies, have been spotted in the wild plastered with advertisements for Naked Juice. The company’s Dash buttons are the physical embodiment of in-home brand placement. Amazon even briefly allowed third-party apps to include sponsored audio on its $180 in-home assistant, the Echo. (After a brief trial, advertising is now limited to its music and news services—a sign that our ear space may still be sacred.)
Whoever made that ridiculous Amazon meat logo was probably just an enthusiastic butcher with some time to kill (and some very unique sculpting skills). But whatever its origins, that blob of dead cow is a suiting metaphor for this very powerful internet company’s next frontier. Since its founding, Amazon has slowly but surely carved out advertising space on our reading devices, tablets, smart TVs, cardboard boxes, mailboxes, and digital assistants. It was only a matter of time until it found some other everyday object to unceremoniously shape in its own image.