Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos' annual shareholder letter, once an insightful must-read, has turned cautious and promotional as the company faces more scrutiny

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Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos' annual shareholder letter, once an insightful must-read, has turned cautious and promotional as the company faces more scrutiny

FILE PHOTO: Founder, Chairman, CEO and President of Amazon Jeff Bezos speaks during an event about Blue Origin's space exploration plans in Washington, U.S., May 9, 2019. REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne/File Photo

Reuters

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos.

  • Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos published his annual shareholder letter on Thursday.
  • Bezos's letter has become a must-read among business leaders for its ingenuity and thought-provoking advice.
  • This year's letter, however, mostly focused on Amazon's work in helping its employees and other businesses amid COVID-19 - a departure from previous years' letters that were full of inspiring anecdotes and business guidance.
  • Some people say Bezos' annual shareholder letter is losing its luster as the company is more cautious about what it says publicly in light of increased regulatory and press scrutiny.
  • Do you work at Amazon? Contact this reporter via encrypted messaging app Signal (+1 415 926 2066) or email (ekim@businessinsider.com).
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Jeff Bezos' annual shareholder letter was once considered a must-read in business circles for the unparalleled insights it gave into the Amazon CEO's leadership principles and long-term thinking.

Not so anymore.

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The highly regarded Amazon shareholder letter, published every year since it went public in 1997, seems to have lost its luster, now primarily being used to promote the company's work, carefully worded to minimize the growing regulatory scrutiny on Amazon, business leaders say.

For example, this year's letter, published on Thursday, reads more like a giant press release, with Bezos listing what Amazon has done so far to help its employees and other businesses amid COVID-19. Last year's letter was similarly defensive, mostly covering Amazon's role in growing small business owners on its marketplace.

The change is a departure from previous letters that were full of genuine anecdotes and thought-provoking business advice.

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"It's a really boring letter," said Paul Argenti, who teaches corporate communications at Dartmouth College, referring to this year's shareholder letter. "It shows Bezos has a bigger fish to fry."

Argenti said the change is a natural progression for Amazon, which has become one of the most powerful companies in the world, run by the richest man in the world. Only a handful of high-profile CEOs, like Berkshire Hathaway's Warren Buffett and JPMorgan's Jamie Dimon, still manage to write insightful shareholder letters, which shows the difficulty in keeping it as a distinctive part of company culture.

'Good' company

But more importantly, it's likely a reflection of Amazon's desire to stay out of unwanted press and regulatory scrutiny.

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The letter comes at a time when Amazon is facing an onslaught of challenges related to the coronavirus pandemic. Supply-chain lockdowns have caused massive shipment delays, while groups of employees and lawmakers are criticizing the company's weak safety measures for warehouse and delivery workers. On top of that, Amazon was already dealing with unprecedented regulatory pressure over its growing market power.

Anand Sanwal, CEO of financial research firm CB Insights, who wrote an analysis of every Amazon shareholder letter last year, said the watered-down language could help avoid unnecessary attention to its business practices, especially at a time when the company's every move is being scrutinized.

For example, Bezos wrote in 1998 about the importance of being "terrified" of customers to underscore the importance of providing good customer service, one of his key leadership principles. If he wrote the term "terrified of customers" today, the nuance behind it would be lost, instead leading to "inaccurate agenda-driven soundbite," Sanwal said.

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"Why bother writing something of business value, which will be received positively by a small minority of business and tech nerds, just to invite scrutiny and have 99.9% of the response be negative?" Anand told Business Insider.

The change in tone of the letter is particularly interesting, according to Sucharita Kodali, an analyst at Forrester Research. If prior letters had focused on Amazon's business acumen, this year's letter is more focused on its corporate benevolence, emphasizing the good things it's doing for the broader economy. That's likely because of the growing chorus of criticism over Amazon's treatment of workers and claims of antitrust, she said.

"The tone now is 'we are a company that does good' versus 'we are doing well as a company," Kodali said.

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'Optimistic' outlook

While this year's letter is disappointing compared to the previous ones, it still provides some interesting updates to Amazon's business, according to Andrew Murphy, an analyst at Loup Ventures.

Bezos said in the letter that he plans to eventually offer regular COVID-19 testing for all Amazon employees. He added his own time and thinking "continues to be focused on COVID-19 and how Amazon can help."

Murphy said the letter also confirms that coronavirus-related shopping demand remains high for Amazon, as Bezos compared it to the holiday season. More broadly, it shows Amazon has become an essential part of mainstream America, touching everyday lives not just through shopping, but also job creation and renewable energy, Murphy said.

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It's not the first time Bezos has used the letter to defend specific aspects of Amazon's business, according to Andrea Leigh, a former Amazon manager who's now VP of strategy at Ideoclick. In 2005, Bezos explained Amazon's push to offer lower prices at the expense of lower profits. The 2010 letter was used to defend Amazon's increased investment in its cloud business. Given the broadened shareholder-base, it only makes sense for Bezos to address specific issues through the annual letter, she said.

"Amazon's obviously become much more high-profile in recent years, so it would make sense that the letter is written with more PR value in mind," Leigh said.

Still, not all readers were disappointed by Bezos's letter. Parsa Saljoughian, a partner at venture investment firm IVP, said while this year's letter clearly reads "differently" than previous ones, it's the most meaningful of them all because it gives a look into Amazon's impact on the broader world.

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Saljoughian, who previously wrote a blog post about reading every Amazon shareholder letter, said he was particularly impressed by the way Bezos ended his letter this year.

Bezos asked shareholders to reflect on Theodor Seuss Geisel's quote, "When something bad happens you have three choices. You can either let it define you, let it destroy you, or you can let it strengthen you."

"I am very optimistic about which of these civilization is going to choose," Bezos wrote.

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