In 1618, an aspiring alchemist in Constantinople named Avedis created his first copper alloy cymbals. In 2018, a few hundred products from his brand, Zildjian, one of the oldest companies in the world, are eligible for Amazon Prime shipping, just like Hanes underwear or Xerox copiers or Bounty paper towels or Chanel perfume or an Eames chair or Colgate toothpaste or a brand-new PopSocket for your phone.
There are vanishingly few types of consumer goods that you can’t buy, in some form, on Amazon. But it is missing plenty of brands. In 2009, the company started selling products under its own name. It soon moved beyond the first AmazonBasics — items including budget electronics and batteries — to a wider range of Amazon-branded products. This was followed by an explosion of company-owned brands, including dozens with Amazon-free names.
Lark & Ro sells women’s wear, Buttoned Down sells men’s dress shirts; Pike Street sells linens; Strathwood sells furniture. These brands are intended to stand on their own, sort of. They are associated with Amazon, and listed on the site’s dozens of different contexts as “Our Brand” or “by Amazon” or “An Amazon Brand.” (Some new brands are undercover but then blow their cover, as in “Amazon Brand – Solimo Pasta, Thin Spaghetti, 16oz.”)
A lot of these brands — most explicitly the Basics products and various household staples — appear to be straightforward margin plays. Others, clothing brands in particular, fill gaps left by companies that have steered clear of the platform altogether. Others, well, who’s to say?
In the nearly 10 years since AmazonBasics arrived, the company has manifested an alternative brand reality, one both far more comprehensive and yet less conspicuous than those of its brick-and-mortar predecessors. (A family could mostly sustain itself on Kirkland products, but it would be abundantly aware it was living in Costco’s world.) This effort is broadly understood to have been a success, generating up to $7.5 billion this year and potentially $25 billion by 2022, according to analysis by SunTrust Robinson Humphrey.
Amazon-affiliated brands are promoted in search results on the site and inflated by reviews from Amazon’s Vine program, in which users receive items in exchange for their feedback. And, compared to better known competitors, they tend to be priced aggressively. In creating its own brands Amazon is indeed like any other large store. But Amazon isn’t any other large store. It’s Amazon: the world-historical logistical experiment that happens to call itself a store. It has unlimited shelf space and a boss with an eye on global domination. It tends to try a lot of things at once.
And so while there are non-Amazon brands, and there are Amazon brands, there are also brands that live in the vast in-between. Some are exclusive to Amazon, but not exclusively owned by Amazon. Basic Care, which markets a variety of over-the-counter medications, is only available on Amazon; on the product page for “Basic Care Night Time Cold & Flu, Cherry Flavor, 12 Fluid Ounce,” Amazon’s relationship to the product is not so obvious.
Especially if you compared it to a listing for one of Amazon’s own brands, Lark & Ro.
This arrangement, too, has decades of precedent in American retail: the trademark for Basic Care belongs to its manufacturer, Perrigo, which makes private-label products for Walmart, Kroger and others — brands that are exclusive to each store but that often do not bear the store’s name. Some start as exclusive; some become exclusive.
The Equate brand, for example, which is comparable to Basic Care, was once owned by Perrigo, and sold in multiple chains, but it is now owned by Walmart. (It is, however, possible to buy Equate products on Amazon, but only through third-party vendors — Amazon’s rough equivalent to eBay sellers. It is very difficult for any brand, even one that belongs to Amazon’s primary competitor, to fully escape Amazon.)
Anyone is free to create an in-between brand that is technically “exclusive” to Amazon, with or without Amazon’s help. Large private-label manufacturers do it, as they have for other retailers for decades. Smaller companies have made Amazon their only sales channel and adopted new brand names for the site. These varied arrangements are minimally risky for Amazon, and increasingly appealing, or at least urgent, for companies watching as Amazon consolidates power. Earlier this year, the company announced an “Accelerator” program inviting companies to “Join the Amazon Family of Brands,” and more recently a link joined the footer of Amazon’s website encouraging manufacturers to “Sell Under Private Brands.”
Starter, the venerable sportswear brand, lists products as “exclusive to Amazon.” Carter’s, which makes clothes for children, created a new label called Simple Joys just for the site. This can be useful to Amazon in a variety of ways. “Sometimes the role of a brand is to be a price point,” said Christopher Durham, the president of trade publication My Private Brand. “Or it might be to help elevate something else — brands they want to be known for.”
International companies also create made-for-Amazon brands in hopes of gaining more direct access to consumers in different markets, with a particular focus on the United States, though they sometimes suffer in translation. A search for “three piece suit” on Amazon returns a litany of budget brands like YFFUSHI, WULFUL and WEEN CHARM. Ungainly names aside, some of these labels have been positively reviewed, overcoming the considerable challenges of branding, and marketing, to an audience thousands of miles away, and sometimes relying on the Amazon seller marketplace and using the company to handle fulfillment — warehousing and shipping, basically.
The “WULFUL Men’s Suit Slim Fit One Button 3-Piece Suit Blazer Dress Business Wedding Party Jacket Vest & Pants,” for example, has been reviewed more than 170 times with an average rating of about four stars. “This suit in made in China,” the listing says, offering a guide for translating to U.S. sizes. The WULFUL name is trademarked to Hangzhou WuFei FuShi YouXian GongSi, out of Hangzhou, China. (“I thought that I was going a little bigger, based off the sizing chat,” wrote a satisfied reviewer. “However, when I received the product it fit a little snug. I did get lots of compliments on it, though!”)
Amazon Branding 101
The internet, at any given time, has dozens of suggestions for how to “make money from home” or abandon your career for “passive income.” Today, one of those suggestions is to create a private micro-label for Amazon. The financial tip site the Penny Hoarder published a guide to “finding generic products that are already selling well on Amazon” and “marketing them better than your competition.” Once you’ve found a product — say, a particular style of water bottle — and a manufacturer, the guide suggests that you get a logo made before revealing your new brand to the world, or at least to Amazon shoppers. (The guide was published in 2015 and has more than 390,000 views.)
What would distinguish these products from their equivalent WULFUL and YFFUSHI products, the thinking goes, is a more convincingly localized brand — a story, such as it is, tailored the market where it is meant to be sold. This is the tale of retail globalization, in miniature, told in the style of self-help. A distant manufacturer makes the product. You, the upstart importer — or massive domestic brand — rebrand it for your countrymen, and bring it to market.
As you scroll through the results for “three piece suit,” you’ll eventually encounter a brand called Austin Mill. Austin Mill, like WULFUL, sells extremely affordable suits, as well as other men’s apparel. But its name is at least vaguely consonant with a slice of American-style men’s wear branding in 2018. The product descriptions are more carefully edited, and sizes are listed by measurement, not as foreign conversions. Crucially, Austin Mill has a logo.
This logo was created on a site called 99designs, where users can post jobs for artists with fixed bounties. A “logo contest” listing for “AUSTIN MILL: Mens Suiting” offered $299 for a design, offering a few attached photos, and other logos, for guidance. Clients can use sliders to further specify their preferences.
The Austin Mill contest got 251 submissions; the one that won, by the user BAROKATANFIRRIZKI_88, now represents the brand.
Austin Mill’s trademark is registered to Hangzhou YiShiHong E-Commerce Co., Ltd, also out of Hangzhou. But the 99designs contest was posted by a user named “harpferg,” who may be Harper Ferguson, listed on LinkedIn as “Marketing Manager, PL Apparel at Amazon Fashion,” but Amazon declined to comment, so, once again, who’s to say?
Since February, harpferg has posted 70 contests on 99designs, many of which produced logos for clothing brands exclusively available on Amazon, as identified by TJI Research, a retail analysis firm. These include Lumberfield, which sells outdoor gear, and Runyon Athletics, which sells exercise clothes.
A designer in Bulgaria named Ralitsa Hand created the winning logo for Brooke Mille, a casual women’s apparel brand on Amazon. She said there was no hint that the company might have been involved. “Usually the client writes some basic info in the brief in order to give directions for the designers,” Ms. Hand said. “I had no contact with the client.” (The sliders indicated the following: more “Feminine” than “Masculine;” more “Organic” than “Geometric.”)
The user BIPARDO won the contest for another women’s clothing brand called Beautiful Nomad, whose product pages are refined and furnished with professional photography. The listings do not, as of now, explicitly mention that the brand is exclusive to Amazon, or associated with Amazon at all. There are clues, however: The product page includes a box with “More like this from Our Brands” that lists other Beautiful Nomad products. The brand sometimes shows up in searches under an “Our Brand” header.
Likewise, restricting results to “Our Brands” and then searching for specific product names can direct users to Beautiful Nomad. Clicking through to “Women’s Apparel” in Amazon’s “Explore Our Brands” page, however, yields 10 curated pages of products, featuring its house brands and some better-known exclusive brands, but not Brooke Mille, or others like it.
An eagle-eyed discount suit shopper might notice, while browsing the WULFUL listing, an “Our Brands” box that promotes products by none other than Austin Mill.
What Isn’t Amazon?
There are other signs of Amazon’s guidance. Like its own brands, these no-man’s brands have been seeded with reviews from Amazon’s Vine program; in many cases, they have no other reviews. One Brooke Mille reviewer, who was granted anonymity so as not to lose access to the program, which is tightly policed by Amazon, described Brooke Mille as “one of those under the radar Amazon Brands.”
“Some are without a doubt Amazon brands,” he said, “while others require a little research to discover that fact. Sometimes that fact is emphasized and other times it is downplayed.”
Unfamiliar with a new brand of socks he’d been sent, a different Vine reviewer named Sanpete did some searching, found the logo contests, made the Amazon connection and shrugged. “Kosy Komfort appears to be a new brand,” he wrote in his review. “Good deal on that logo.”
He added: “They’re very nice socks, comfortable indeed.”
Brooke Mille did not respond to a message sent through Amazon. Amazon declined to comment, but emphasized, as it does in some places on its site, that “Our Brands” include both Amazon-owned and “exclusive” brands.
If there’s a mystery here, it’s just which of the many plausible and reasonable explanations are at work.
“I think Amazon, number one, sees the value of having more SKUs,” said Mr. Durham, referring to distinct product listings. It would make sense for Amazon to offer a helping hand with branding, he suggested, particularly to companies struggling to break through from overseas. A glut of new brands could produce helpful data: In which categories is Amazon branding a liability? Or a help? (Do noodles taste better when you think of them as internet spaghetti? Would you rather not think of Jeff Bezos when you’re applying baby oil?) There are other possibilities, too. In October, eBay sent a cease-and-desist letter to Amazon accusing it of using its internal messaging system to poach sellers from the auction platform; offering guidance with marketing might sweeten such an approach. And among the services advertised in the new “Accelerator” program: “Brands will receive a suite of marketing support executed by our Amazon merchandising team.” (CNBC first reported the existence of the accelerator program in October. The last logo contest was posted two months ago.)
Consumers are used to seeing private label brands — or packer’s labels, or store brands, or house brands, or reanimated ghost brands — in stores even if we don’t quite understand what they are or where they come from. Some brands are labeled “for Target,” while others just don’t seem to exist anywhere else, and so we make our assumptions, or don’t think of them at all, and keep shopping. As is often the case with Amazon, what seem like strange or inexplicable new behaviors are often old retail strategies unfolding on the internet, quickly, and in plainer view. Brooke Mille is no more a lie than any other brand: It’s just newer and faster and more online. And it has a lot more company.
John Herrman covers tech and media for the Times Magazine, and was one of the first three recipients of The Times’s David Carr Fellowship. Previously, he was a reporter for the Business section. @jwherrman
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