Member Exclusive   //   March 21, 2024

Amazon Briefing: As competitors up their retail marketing game, Amazon maintains a low profile at industry conferences

This is the latest installment of the Amazon Briefing, a weekly Modern Retail+ column about the ever-changing Amazon ecosystem. More from the series →

At an industry conference of 10,000-plus people, Amazon had what some described as a muted presence on the advertising front.

Shoptalk was held in Las Vegas earlier this week, with retailers, brands and vendors descending on Las Vegas to make deals and pitch services. Unsurprisingly, one of the most prominent topics was retail media and where to invest marketing dollars. But Amazon, for its part, wasn’t actively pitching this. Its booths focused on services like Buy With Prime and various fulfillment services. Sources noted that there weren’t many ad reps at the holding meetings. And while the company’s svp of ad products and technology, Colleen Aubrey, spoke onstage, her talk focused on explaining retail media campaigns as moving up from the bottom of the funnel. For example, she advocated for a “unified” customer experience that includes streaming TV, online video and purchases driven by sponsored products, calling out Poppi soda as an example.

“I am hearing less about Amazon’s products and services this year,” said Sarah Engel, president of January Consulting. What she is hearing about — or hearing others talking about — are the parts above retail media focused on more brand marketing elements, such as Prime Video and other connected TV offerings. “I’m almost hearing about them more as an entertainment [player] — the realities of what is possible [as] we continue to head toward cookie deprecation.”

This isn’t necessarily surprising. Retailers and brands are certainly aware of Amazon, and they likely aren’t going to suddenly stop spending money on it. “People’s [Amazon advertising] plans are established,” Engel said.

But this came as competitors made a more forceful attempt to show their advertising prowess. Walmart spoke about its shoppable video offerings, and had a large flashy booth pitching its advertising services, while other smaller players, like TikTok, also had a prominent booth presence and clearly attended Shoptalk to talk about Shop and the growth of its advertising platform.

And it follows in recent footsteps of other industry events. At NRF earlier this year, Amazon’s presence was largely focused on new services. As John Harmon, senior retail/technology analyst at Coresight, described Amazon’s apperance at NRF, “There was no — no cloud computing. It was all tech services.”

In many ways, this is Amazon’s industry event playbook. “It was as understated as it often is,” said Andrew Lipsman, an independent analyst at Media, Ads + Commerce. “The fact that they had a major executive onstage was more of a presence than they usually have. But for as much as it is large in the overall ecosystem, I think they often have an understated presence.”

The big shift is the other players trying to also take those ad dollars. “The [retail media players] at the next tier have started to flex that muscle over the last two years at the conferences,” Lipsman said. “Walmart Connect, Roundel have certainly picked up the pace in the last six months… You’re seeing a lot more of it and you’re seeing them come out to a lot more conferences.” Walmart, for example, had two booths — one for its marketplace the other for commerce technologies, that were front and center and buzzing with attendees and reps. Marketing executives from both Walmart and Target spoke onstage about multiple topics related to advertising, including shoppable video, loyalty and AI.

It’s indicative of the changing conversation around advertising — as well as the maturity of the players. The platforms just beginning to build out networks came to tell brands simply that they could buy advertising on their programs. But the bigger players focused on showcasing the fact that they can sell conversion-focused ads that still do brand storytelling.

In a session entitled “The Future of Retail Media,” Carrie Sweeney, vp of retail partnerships at Pinterest, described the conversations she’s hearing from other executives. “Retail media is going upper funnel,” she said. The platforms, she said, “needs to focus on how upper-funnel creative works… what is the right way to play there when we’ve been focused on lower funnel?”

This has certainly been a focus of Amazon as well — as it has increased its advertising offerings to new areas like TV and streaming platforms, it’s made a clear pitch that big brands can make splashy ad campaigns that work in concert with lower-funnel ad campaigns on its marketplace. But at Shoptalk, it was the competition audibly making this pitch about their growing platforms, not Amazon.

According to onlookers, there are probably two reasons for this. For one, Amazon already owns a vast majority of the retail media landscape. And when it comes to advertisers, it likely need not look at retail conferences but instead, try to reach other areas where it hopes to grow. For example, Amazon, in its continued bid to woo non-endemic advertisers, has been touting campaigns from car companies like Hyundai — perhaps we’ll see Amazon advertising making a more concerted advertising effort at automative conferences .

Still, it makes for an interesting perception for attendees, one that even agencies that have long worked with Amazon noticed.

“They are 75% of the retail media market, and you probably hear from their GM, Colleen Aubrey, less than almost any other retail media channel out there,” said Lipsman. It could be attributed to just how big the company is and the area it chooses to show up at.

Still, he went on, “this is kind of par for the course.”

Additional reporting from Melissa Daniels.

Amazon news to know

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  • MrBeast is coming to Amazon’s streaming platform via a deal with Amazon MGM Studios for a new reality competition show.
  • Over the last two years, Amazon reportedly put more employees on performance-improvement plans while the company was also undergoing rounds of layoffs.

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