Cliché — or, if you prefer, motto or metaphor — can drive so much of life, for good and bad.
“Early bird gets the worm” sparks pre-dawn workouts and sunrise college-prep classes in high school (encouraging hard work even as evidence mounts that both practices could bring more harm than good). The image of dominoes falling shaped U.S. Cold War policy (historians still debate the utility of that). “Giving 110 percent” is mathematically impossible, yet can build overtime morale and inspire pseudo-Herculean efforts among people willing to dig deep for that extra bit of effort.
But if any cliché defines this early phase of the digital era, it just might be calling a business or entrepreneurial proposal the “Amazon of” or “Uber of” this or that. Those clichés not only continue to survive, but also thrive among those who do business and cover payments and commerce — just read pitches, press releases, mission statement and headlines if you don’t believe us.
But are they really useful?
Pretty much anyone can recount how Amazon grew from a relatively modest online seller of books into a retail (and web services and now logistical) behemoth, with the company’s reach most recently extending into mainstream grocery and healthcare. Now there is an “Amazon of the Middle East” and at least a few perceived or emerging “Amazon of banking” entities, and at least one would-be “Amazon of genetics” and “Amazon of cannabis.” The use of such phrases/clichés obviously reflect ambitions to not only serve a wide variety of consumer segments, but also to tie customers into an ecosystem that gives them fewer reasons to ever step outside of it to use the services of competitors.
The cliché even works backwards in time, given how, during its ongoing demise, Sears has been described as the “Amazon of its day.”
Uber, in fact, has deployed that phrase for its own purposes as it looks beyond its core ride-hailing offering to more food deliveries, as well as scooters and other areas. “We want to be the Amazon of transportation," Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi said earlier this year. Part of that vision includes Uber’s recently launched Mode Switch feature, “an in-app tool that lets people see what modes of transportation the company offers in that location: cars, bikes or scooters. From there, riders can select what mode they want to use.”
Now, of course, there are various would-be Ubers (or, more rarely, Lyfts), including services that focus on transportation for children, gas delivery, ambulances and — yes, this again — cannabis. Being an “Uber of” something or another is, in general, an attempt to place a company as a major disruptor that offers significant choice among providers and solid, reliable distribution or delivery — presumably, with payments as seamlessly woven into the background as when using Uber or Lyft.
Clichés, of course, can serve as compliments and even a form of praise, and if you look beyond the marketing hype, that’s what much of this comes down to — praise for business models that have not only disrupted, but have worked to remove friction from payments and commerce, to be able to solve platform problems and work past challenges, and to apply innovation in ways that not only succeed, but lead to market dominance.
Using those clichés, it seems, can also encourage more such innovation — more movement toward seamless payments and sophisticated commerce.
But those clichés carry with them high standards and expectations. Most organizations will not be able to meet those standards — and there’s good reason to think that not all of them should even try.
Despite the intentions of those phrases — based either on good-hearted intentions or cynical marketing hype, or a mix of both – they persist.
In fact, "it’s the Uber of …" comes in at No. 23 in a recent list of the “30 Most Overused Workplace Expressions of 2018” from FitSmallBusiness.com. Topping the list at No. 1 is “let’s circle back,” and the Uber device stands between “put your feelers out” and “we’re working in silos.” According to the list, the Uber phrase is best translated as “we have no other logical way to explain our startup.”
More seriously, attaching such a cliché to a business or business idea may not be the smartest way to go about things — and could even turn off investors or others who could help a new business grow. “We don't need the ‘Uber’ of every possible thing. Most ideas like this shouldn't even make it out of a brainstorming session,” recounts a recent analysis from Inc.
The harsh reality is that no business is likely the Uber, or Amazon, of anything. Imitation is often said to be the sincerest form of flattery – one that according to Bloomberg, at least in Amazon’s case, “increases with the company’s market value and profile.” And cliché functions as shorthand, and can often provide positive results if not taken too far. But the reliance on Uber and Amazon as easy marketing shorthand is likely to cause a good deal of chuckling among future historians of the digital economy, since most of them could very well end up being the Uber or Amazon of nothing.