This largely ceremonial wrist-slapping of the leaders of Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple was also an exercise in the ties between CEO and brand image.
On Wednesday, Apple CEO Tim Cook, Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos all testified before Congress, as lawmakers investigate if and how these companies stifle competition and harm consumers.
The CEOs appeared via video conferencing (Antitrust: Brought to you by Cisco Webex!) before the committee, which was split down party lines in what themes they focused the bulk of their questions.
Democrats aimed at monopoly power and the anti-competitive nature of these companies’ practices, while Republican members primarily asked about how the platforms run by these firms stifle and harbour bias against conservative voices and viewpoints.
To be clear, it was mostly an absolute dumpster fire.
Although there will be reams of copy spilled about the ins, outs, and what-have-yous around the specificity of the questioning, the technological ignorance of any lawmakers, and the obfuscation and jargon-happy spiels of the CEOs, this largely ceremonial wrist-slapping was also an exercise in brand image. As these CEOs ran through their opening statements, then navigated the obstacle course of the inquiry, the very act itself was a reflection of these brands.
Each CEO (and company) has a unique relationship with the public. Part of that is in how we use their respective products, and part is how they do the same—namely in data collection and use—on us.
Each CEO released their opening statements the night before, anticipating all the ways they and their companies would be scrutinized. In the Q&A portion, you’d be forgiven for not knowing each executive has an army of PR and business analysts behind them, or that each got to where they are by being fanatically driven and detail-oriented.
All four routinely used answers like, I’m not sure of the details of that specific rule/incident/policy, or we’ll have to look more into that and get back to you. It was the New Economy version of parents coming home after a weekend away and asking their teens about the unsanctioned house party. “I see the toilet tank is full of vodka, but I’m not sure how it got there. I can assure you this isn’t our policy, and we’ll look into it and get back to your office.”
Although one day of hearings isn’t going to be dispositive, the more consumer opinion of Big Tech and its leaders turns from admiration to trepidation, the more possible it is that there will be a heightened demand to regulate them in a meaningful way. So who’s up and who’s down after Wednesday? Here’s our ranking of each CEOs performance and how it reflected on their brand, from best to Zuckerberg. . . . I mean worst.
JEFF BEZOS, AMAZON
This wasn’t a masterful performance, but this being his first time appearing before Congress, Bezos did a great job not coming off as the richest man on the planet-style Bond villain. He went in hard on his family origin story in his opening statement, showing his humble roots.
“My dad’s name is Miguel. He adopted me when I was 4 years old. He was 16 when he came to the United States from Cuba as part of Operation Pedro Pan, shortly after Castro took over. My dad arrived in America alone. His parents felt he’d be safer here.
His mom imagined America would be cold, so she made him a jacket sewn entirely out of cleaning cloths, the only material they had on hand. We still have that jacket; it hangs in my parents’ dining room.”
He also had the most realistically lived-in video background, a warm wood built-in bookcase scattered with various trinkets such as small vases, a few books, and a trophy-type sculpture. More importantly, he mastered the pained concern look of an uncle who isn’t mad that you stole his car, he’s just glad you’re okay.
He used this look to duck and weave successfully, like when Rep. Pramila Jayapal asked him point blank if Amazon uses any specific seller data when creating its own private brand product, he said, “I can’t answer that question yes or no, what I can tell you is . . . .”
Bezos was like Amazon itself: You know that most of the time he’s carrying himself like he’s walking his terrifying robot dog, looking like he’s auditioning for yet another Terminator reboot. But he’s capable of softening those edges and luring us in by being so damn convenient. Like when he appeared in Amazon’s 2018 Super Bowl ad, this was Jeff Bezos The Human not doing anything to diminish his company’s benevolent overlord vibe. He even ate some snacks.
TIM COOK, APPLE
A huge portion of criticism and questioning aimed at Cook was around the fairness of rules governing Apple’s App Store. Cook anticipated this and addressed it in his opening remarks, saying, “In the more than a decade since the App Store debuted, we have never raised the commission or added a single fee.
In fact, we have reduced them for subscriptions and exempted additional categories of apps. The App Store evolved with the times, and every change we have made has been in the direction of providing a better experience for our users and a compelling business opportunity for developers.”
If you listened closely enough, you could almost hear the slow-building piano score. Cook, along with Alphabet’s Pichai, benefits from not being the founder, and consequently the lightning rod for all his company’s downsides. When people think of Apple leadership, most still see the mock-necked silhouette of Steve Jobs, which affords Cook a level of cover—but also the brand itself.
In terms of privacy and data misuse, many everyday customers wouldn’t put Apple in the same category as Facebook, Google, or Amazon, and he deftly pointed those differences out at every opportunity with lines like, “Motivated by the mission to put things into the world that enrich people’s lives, and believing deeply that the way we do that is by making the best not the most, Apple has produced many revolutionary products . . . .” and “We don’t have a dominant share in any market or in any product category where we do business.”
Although even professional Apple blogger John Gruber poked holes in the disingenuousness of these arguments, this was the same avuncular Uncle Tim that brings us a new iPhone every fall, though with the gravity turned up and the enthusiasm turned down.
The biggest off-brand thing here was his choice of background, which appeared to be a cubicle buried somewhere in a mid-level accounting firm rather than the sort of curved aluminium or matte black glass wall that any Apple consumer would have expected.
SUNDAR PICHAI, ALPHABET
Pichai faced more than double the number of questions as Apple’s Cook, with Democrat members drilling away at the company’s “walled garden” and asking in a variety of ways how it keeps users within those walls to benefit more from ad dollars, while Republicans asked about bias search results against conservative media outlets and the company pulling out of a Pentagon project.
For what it’s worth, his office background was the most dynamic, landing somewhere between Zen Exec and an Ikea showroom.
Much like Amazon, Alphabet benefits from the benevolent overlord complex, wherein we’re so entranced by the price (free), relative quality, and ubiquity of Google products and services, it’s afforded a massive benefit of the doubt—or just willful ignorance of its sheer dominance.
Pichai, who like Apple’s Cook, benefits from not being the company founder (although taking a moment here to wonder how this would have gone with co-founder and former CEO Larry Page is rather delicious).
But Cook has been the face of Apple for almost nine years, while Pichai, who became CEO of Google in 2015 and CEO of parent company Alphabet less than a year ago, also benefited from being the least high-profile of all the witnesses.
Combine that with his patient demeanour, coupled with many boilerplate exec answers that were clearly aimed at being just boring enough to not draw too much sound-bite attention, and Pichai didn’t inspire the kind of exodus that would lead to a Duck Duck Go server crash. Mission accomplished.
MARK ZUCKERBERG, FACEBOOK
Zuck came in with the most baggage, between the ongoing ad boycott drawing attention to his platform’s hateful content and misinformation, and recent viral jokes around his sunscreen regimen. Together, Facebook and its CEO’s brand image may be at an all-time low. We’re a long way from The Social Network inspiring a wave of young people to move to Silicon Valley and start a tech company to be just like Zuck.
Perhaps as a nod to all the criticism against Facebook for damaging democracy by not doing enough to control misinformation, Zuckerberg burst out of the gate by playing the patriotism angle, saying, “Facebook is a proudly American company. We believe in values—democracy, competition, inclusion, and free expression—that the American economy was built on . . . .
Facebook is a successful company now, but we got there the American way: We started with nothing and provided better products that people find valuable. As I understand our laws, companies aren’t bad just because they are big.”
His shiplap video background that would make Joanna Gaines proud only reminded viewers of his usual wooden delivery. Facebook is mired in such a brand-image bog at the moment, even if Zuckerberg brought some of his Sweet Baby Ray’s BBQ ribs energy to the hearing, it probably wouldn’t have helped.