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Jeff’s Parting Gift: The Value of Conflict

My daughters and I just finished reading Jeff Bezos’s final letter to shareholders as CEO of Amazon. Not for fun. We’re a weird family, but we’re not that weird. Neither of my girls would pick a shareholder letter as leisure reading material. No, I assigned it after one daughter suggested that everyone should stop buying things from Amazon because, “they treat people like robots and all they care about is making more money for Jeff,” and the other countered with, “they’re the only ones who get things here fast, the world would have collapsed during COVID without them, and most of my birthday presents get shipped here from Amazon.” To be clear, I wasn’t trying to end that argument. Conflict is a good thing. I was trying to feed the discussion by having them read the letter.

There’s a whole lot of interesting stuff to unpack and argue about in Jeff’s letter—from whether Amazon ultimately creates more value than it consumes, to whether the company is a good employer that treats its workers humanely, to whether it’s doing enough to protect the environment. Believe me, my daughters will be “discussing” all of that for days. There was one thing they surprised me by agreeing on, though.

“That last point he decided to talk about in his last letter ever is a total gift to you and your company, Dad,” the anti-Jeff agitator told me.

“Yeah, you guys should send him a thank you and an Amazon gift card for using such a good metaphor to illustrate your conflict thing,” the pro-Amazon one noted. So, I reread his conclusion with that in mind.

The last section of Jeff’s letter is built around a fundamental biology lesson from the book, The Blind Watchmaker, by Richard Dawkins. It is a reminder that staying alive is a constant effort; it doesn’t just happen, it’s a fight. (Here is the entire quote that Jeff cites.) Jeff takes that lesson from biology and explains that it’s an important metaphor for how he has tried to manage Amazon and how he hopes the company will continue to be managed in the future. Living—not just the not-being-dead part, but all of the active, emotional, meaningful stuff that goes into it—requires constant struggle. If we stop struggling, we get absorbed into the background noise of the universe, literally, as a dead body cooling to room temperature, or metaphorically, as a unique individual fading into the mass of normalcy. That’s why conflict is what draws us into a story and connects us to the storyteller. We all know, on a deep, subconscious level, that life is a never-ending struggle which we need to embrace in order to thrive. Good stories are lessons in how to do exactly that. As a result, good stories are a powerful point of connection around our shared humanity. When we recognize that someone shares a conflict with us, we recognize ourselves in them. That is true whether we’re talking about a storyteller or a brand.

Reminding Amazon shareholders that being fully alive and being unique require constant struggle is Jeff reminding everyone of the power of conflict and story to both differentiate us from and connect us with our fellow humans. Regardless of where people come down on any of the other issues about Amazon, that felt like a gift to me. I also couldn’t help but appreciate the satisfying circularity inherent in Jeff’s public story. Amazon and Jeff first came to my attention through books. Amazon was, before the all-encompassing enterprise it’s become, the world’s biggest bookstore. So, it only seemed fitting that Jeff should mark his farewell as CEO by recommending another awesome book.

“Dad’s getting choked up about a branding thing again,” the pro-Amazon one noted as they watched me finish the letter.

“Idiot,” the anti-Amazon one said, fondly.

 

A note from David… I first met Jeff Bezos at the TED conference almost 20 years ago. He introduced himself after a talk I gave about “Conflict as a Source of Energy.” That’s why I was particularly delighted when my partner Jim sent me these notes on a conversation he had with his daughters about Jeff’s final shareholder letter. 

I certainly take no credit for the way Jeff Bezos embraced conflict as he steered the growth of Amazon. Jeff seemed to understand this principle quite clearly before he encountered us. What is delightful to me is the evidence that enthusiastically embracing conflict—which is the essence of story—has been central to the success of one world’s most valuable brands. 

“Character gets to the heart of what good storytelling is all about. They’ve helped Wendy’s focus on what makes us unique, different and special and that’s helped us to get people’s attention, keep their interest and keep the business growing. We compete with much larger brands, but by being overt about how we want to attack those differences, we’ve been able to have a lot of tension and conflict in the story that we are telling. That allows us to keep the story fresh and to fuel it. The more we do that the more positive attention we get as a brand and the more the brand continues to grow, which, in turn, builds our confidence in our storytelling and keeps the courage level high.”

—Kurt  Kane, President U.S. & Chief Commercial Officer, Wendy’s Corporation

“I’ve been through Character’s story framework process four times in my career, and it has always added extraordinary value. It was a central piece of Walmart’s rebranding effort in 2006, as we sought a new articulation of our brand narrative and our purpose. It’s an equally powerful tool for us now, as Walmart defines its place in a rapidly transforming retail environment. And we are currently using it to do the same for Sam’s Club.”

—Tony Rogers, Chief Marketing Officer, Walmart

“Since articulating our story framework, Gallo has had its best year. We’re up 10% and we’re outpacing the category. From a creative standpoint it’s been great because we’re all in alignment. Now that we have the articulation of our story, our social media, our partnerships, our programs, our packaging—it all makes sense.”

—Stephanie Gallo, Chief Marketing Officer, E&J Gallo Winery