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A Kiwi working abroad at Amazon and Microsoft talks Amazon Go

  • Technology
  • August 15, 2019
  • Idealog
A Kiwi working abroad at Amazon and Microsoft talks Amazon Go


Businesses across the board are now laser focused on how to create the best possible customer experience, but how do companies big and small ensure they’re placing people first? At the CX Conference 2019, Microsoft global industry marketing director of retail and consumer goods Catherine Brands shared her unique New Zealand insights from working at Amazon and Microsoft, including what it was like to be one of the founding team members to launch Amazon Go.

Brands, the international keynote speaker who opened the Marketing Association’s CX Conference 2019, is a New Zealand native but has had a fairly luminous global career in marketing, moving between Australia, Europe and America. She’s spent 16 years working as a marketer around the world for some of the world’s biggest brands, including Lion Nathan, Maxxium, Westfield and Coca-Cola.

She took up a job in 2013 at behemoth tech company Amazon, where she spent five years working on consumer tech innovation projects, such as Amazon Go, the world’s first grocery store with no checkout.

Brands was then scouted by Microsoft to be its global industry marketing director for retail and consumer goods, a slight pivot from retail and FMCG. Her role entails helping businesses big and small on their digital transformation journey.

Along this career journey, Brands says her inspiration comes from her hometown: the bustling metropolis that is Masterton. It all begun with a job as a teenager at the local cinema, which was her first soirée into what cultivates a good customer experience.


Catherine Brands

“Being a naughty or moody teenager, I would test out different tactics of customer service with people to see what would work or didn’t work,” she says. “This is what made me fall in love with people. What I later learnt is what I love is the psychology of a consumer and what makes them think, feel and do. Now, there’s never been a more exciting time to be at the intersection of technology meeting industry.

“Consumers are now in the driving seat deciding when and how they want to shop. The consumer is now ready to buy 24 hours a day from any place – from the bus, to the bathroom, to bed. What it really means is the gap between wanting something and having something has been completely met.

"The old shopper journey was see it, like it, buy it – usually in a retail format. Now it’s come to the point where it’s like, ‘I didn’t realise I needed it, now I can’t live without it and I need it right now’ and it gets delivered to your door. It’s inspiration to acquisition instantly.”

One of the key influential figures in creating this expectation of instant delivery is of course, Brand’s former employer, Amazon. The company employs 650,000 people and delivered more than five million packages to Amazon Prime members alone in 2018. It also offers its customers same-day delivery within 30 minutes – an impressive feat by anyone's standards. 

The size and scale of Amazon's influence is gigantic, even more so when you consider statistics that show 77 percent of US millennials would rather give up alcohol than Amazon, while 44 percent would rather give up sex. But being employed by such a company also sounds like quite the experience.  

“You work really hard at Amazon, it’s kind of like dog years,” Brands said. “Five years felt like 35 years, but it kind of felt like five minutes as well.”

Amazon employees abide by 14 leadership principles. She says the first and most important leadership principle followed at Amazon is be customer obsessed.

“If you’re not customer obsessed, you’re competitor obsessed and you’re not thinking big enough and challenging yourself and being a follower, not a leader,” she says.

So, how did the Amazon Go store come about anyway? Brands says it resulted from Jeff Bezos gathering three people in a room and saying, ‘I went to the supermarket for the first time in 20 years and I had to stand in a line. That’s a ridiculous waste of time. Go solve it.’

“We spent four years working in a basement in a place I can’t disclose using all kinds of crazy technology with a bit of marketing mixed into the middle, which meant that you can scan your app, walk into a store and walk out,” Brands says.

Amazon is now considering a plan to open as many as 3000 Amazon stores by 2021, according to a Bloomberg report, meaning the futuristic stores could generate around US$4.5 billion in sales each year if the company aggressively rolls them out.

Brands says at the end of the day, the customer experience is all about the people in every case: even in business-to-business marketing.                                           

“The thing I passionately believe in is it’s not B2B, or B2C, it’s P2P. It’s all about people, so B2B marketing is typically boring. You feel like you have to throw the kitchen sink at people, you have to give them every single detail, it has to be written in tiny font with 1000 words on a page,” she says.

“At the end of the day, they’re people we’re marketing to and Microsoft has a lot to learn from that – we need to act more like consumer marketeers, we need to connect with businesses on a more personal level, we’re trying to enable business transformation in this really difficult journey, which is digital transformation.

We throw around words like AI, blockchain, IOT. These words meant nothing to me until nine months ago – or maybe two months ago. It’s really important for us to demystify this digital transformation.”

In terms of what New Zealand businesses do well – or what the next big CX trend will be to hit our shores – Brands says that this country is really good at marketing, but what we’re best at is being authentic to our core.

“There’s always room for the small guys. The fact you can buy a bottle of peanut butter made in some guy’s garage in Nelson – we’re really driving the whole getting back to basics economy. In the US, I look at the Amazon packages that arrive and the size of the boxes arriving with toothpaste in it, and I think, this isn’t what the world was meant to be like. At home, I walk into the supermarket and there’s all these brands I haven’t seen before and it’s this entrepreneurial spirit that New Zealanders are so good at. We’re so good at looking after the small guys and moving forward, but in a way that’s still innovative and fun.”

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