How Far Can Amazon Push Their Brand: From Diapers to Corporate Web Services?

We’re passionate about human-centered design, but we’re also sticklers about brand discipline, so our office starts buzzing with discussion when innovation leaders extend into new territories.  Amazon Web Services’ recent introduction of WorkMail is a perfect example.  Rhetorical questions start to fly.  Was it a good move?  Will it work?  What does it say about the brand?  These questions are partly Monday morning quarterbacking, but we also see these cases as invaluable data points—what can we learn from such instances that could inform the kinds of business problems we tackle?  

We begin to formulate our take on the service offering by asking ourselves questions through our lens of design-thinking.  Is the innovation truly design-driven insofar as it places a priority on people (users) rather than business demands?  Does it align with the company’s core reason for being?  Or, as Simon Sinek puts it, does it fit with the brand’s “why”?  For us, it’s not really so much about which features are offered and whether consumers would be sold on them; it’s more about whether the whole venture is truly human-centered and authentic to the brand, as our belief is that these considerations are what will drive success over the long run.

On the surface, the introduction of WorkMail seems like a hefty departure from Amazon’s core competency of fast, inexpensive shipping of everyday items. While Amazon has long been dominant in the cloud computing infrastructure, this is their first foray into consumer-facing computing. The staid player in the world of corporate e-mail, Microsoft Outlook, feels like a behemoth for Amazon to go up against. Despite this challenge, WorkMail’s promise to innovate past some of the aggravations inherent in Microsoft Office gives it the potential to become a dominant player in the market.

For most corporations, Microsoft Outlook is a given. Its ability to organize e-mails, provide highly customized settings and options, and share calendars with colleagues makes it a mainstay. That said, employees continue to grumble about a plethora of features, which don’t add value, but rather lead to an overwhelming experience and frequent system errors. On the personal side of e-mail, most employees use Gmail, which is also trying to move into the corporate space. However, its lack of organization and shared calendars as well as security challenges (NSA-related and other) make it unlikely to fully capture the enterprise client. Dropbox and other cloud-based startups have made impressive entries into enterprise e-mail, having introduced useful new features such as the ability to re-filter e-mails based on the time you’d like them to reappear your inbox. Cloud-based hosting and storage limit the memory drag on users’ devices as well as the likelihood of system errors which cause the frequent computer restarts for which Microsoft is known. However, is a large enterprise really ready to trust a lesser-known brand to sit on top of their e-mail client? Perhaps not.

This is why Amazon’s WorkMail could be the perfect candidate to evolve enterprise e-mail from a user perspective. Amazon’s ability to consistently empathize with its customers’ needs and come up with user-focused solutions portends that they will be able to successfully transition from delivering diapers to corporate web services. At least for now, Amazon is hitting the low-hanging fruit of improving and integrating with the existing interface of Outlook and not asking corporate clients to swap out one e-mail client for another. Offering a low price of just $4/month, encrypted data and cloud storage with the peace of mind of the powerful Amazon brand could be a no brainer for enterprise users. In the future, Amazon may offer users the opportunity to swap out their more robust e-mail client for Outlook. This will require a bigger leap of faith by consumers, but if Amazon does well with this initial endeavor, we may all be using WorkMail and saying goodbye to hitting Ctrl + Alt + Delete as part of our daily e-mail routine.

Some Lessons From Amazon On Product Evolution and Innovation:

Think about points of frustration and difficulty in your customer's everyday lives. What can you do to solve these challenges? These may be incremental improvements on existing products, but they will be quickly adopted and seen as a meaningful change.

Amazon is leveraging their heritage in understanding how to deliver highly individualized experiences, seamless product delivery, and attractive pricing. By keeping this value proposition at the forefront, its customers trust them to make a larger leap into the product or service they are newly offering.

Uber, Apple, and Google…once the underdogs have become the dominant players and transformed industries. Consumer-facing technology products are ripe for evolution and often revolution. Understanding and responding to consumer pain points can lead to a quick and powerful shift in the marketplace. 

With these lessons in mind, WorkMail seems highly design-driven.  So, while there are sure to be the pessimists out there, we’re not inclined to bet against Amazon just yet!