Move Fast and Break up Big Tech

“Move fast and break things” said Mark Zuckerberg to his employees and executives in the early days of Facebook. “Unless you are breaking stuff, you’re not moving fast enough”. That wasn’t just the motto that adorned the walls of their offices at 1 Hacker Way, and it’s a mantra that characterised the early years of Big Tech.

The astronomic rise of Big Tech over the last 15 years has been dominated by a very small number of brands that pretty much define our experiences on the world wide web. Google, Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Alibaba own much of what we associate with the internet — searching for information, buying stuff online and connecting with friends anywhere.

As Scott Galloway regularly quips, “investing in unregulated monopolies pays off”. ‘Growth at all costs’ has led to unprecedented value creation for these brands and their shareholders; now valued at over 10 trillion dollars together — around four times the GDP of the United Kingdom.

However, after the latest bumper earning’s season during the pandemic, there are signs that the world is starting to tire of things that are too ‘big’ — whether it’s tech, data or egos. Last year, antitrust regulators took aim simultaneously at Facebook, Google, Apple and Amazon, in the biggest antitrust case since the nineties. Since then, a series of other high-profile cases have continued the momentum: Europe vs Big Tech, Epic Games vs Apple, Frances Haugen vs Facebook and the China crackdown to name a few.

Antitrust is getting a surprising amount of airtime. Maybe it’s because people are finally fed up with the lack of accountability of these enormous organisations, amidst a laundry list of scandals that would make even the Lehman Brothers blush. Or maybe it’s because of just how much money some senior executives earned in the pandemic.

Either way, regulation is likely to be slow and limited. But how brands react to the current public scrutiny is worthy of notice. As Marty Neumeier says, a brand is “not what you say it is; it’s what they say it is.” And it’s fair to say they are not happy. How these companies react to the ongoing pressure and the changes they make themselves may well be more impactful than the legislation itself in the long term.

While the wheels of regulation turn in the foreground, the world is changing in the background. By 2030 Gen Z will be the largest and most influential consumer base. They value trust and transparency, a value not always exuded by these brands, and will vote with their wallets as well as their attention.

Blockchain is also coming. Blockchain is peer-to-peer, meaning you can trade with each other without an organisation facilitating the transfer. Sending money won’t require a bank, contacting a friend won’t require uploading your data to the servers of a Facebook or Snapchat. A new generation of apps are coming where trust is effectively removed from the equation. No longer could a social media giant enact experiments or share our data without our knowing.

Up to now utility, convenience and familiarity have largely dictated consumer behaviour online. However, in this emerging new world, trust may well become a key factor determining consumer behaviour and will therefore have to become a fundamental value for successful brands.

Some companies have already internalised this. Apple’s recognised that privacy could be an advantageous brand position and Amazon recently announced wage increases and payment of college tuition fees for their 750,000 employees.

According to Accenture, 62% of consumers want companies to take a stand on social issues and 66% of consumers think transparency is one of a brand’s most attractive qualities.

In a generation of more conscious consumers with more choice and fewer brand loyalties, brand purpose is the next competitive advantage.

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