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Amazon HQ2 v. NYC is a lesson on the importance of transparency

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A branding expert unpacks how Amazon canceling its New York headquarters impacts the company and city’s image.

After Local Opposition, Amazon Cancels Plans For Major Campus In New York Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

As soon as Amazon canceled plans to build a New York City headquarters, speculation about ripple effects abounded. Was it a triumph for local activists and tech industry failure? A victory against corporate welfare? A loss of jobs and economic growth?

Reactions were swift, and who “won” or “lost” in this breakup depends on who you ask. It’s all about perception, and amid all of this spin there’s an argument to be made that the only real winner is transparency.

Perception was a dominant theme throughout the HQ2 search process, as cities competed with one another to show just how valuable they could be to Amazon on a variety of fronts: their openness to innovation, their quality of life, their robust infrastructure, their unrivaled culture. The pageantry included logos, offers to build universities, and promising special task forces. Essentially, cities were amplifying their brand.

The image of a company or place is valuable. According to Geoff Cook, a partner at the strategy and branding studio Base, Amazon and New York’s images were tarnished because the whole process was shrouded in secrecy.

“With all the brands we work with, we talk about the need for transparency in today’s world,” Cook says. “Because media has become so prevalent and widespread, people see through everything. So, if we think about Amazon or New York City as brand, neither acted with full transparency. In today’s world that’s not acceptable—and certainly not in a public process. And with transparency comes trust.”

The entire HQ2 saga has been opaque, with some suggestions that the search was a ploy to collect data on cities. Local governments and protestors are challenging the secrecy involved in this type of decision making. The New York City Council is seeking to bar NDAs in future development deals. Many local leaders—like comptroller Scott Stringer, public advocate candidate Melissa Mark Viverito, and City Council speaker Cory Johnson—have expressed a need for more transparency and public involvement in corporate negotiations moving forward.

“Since the outset of this HQ2 process, the Amazon brand has acted like an entitled bully,” Cook says. “If there’s one thing that New York City won’t put up with it’s a bully. … We go to the other side of the coin and how did New York City act? [The opposition] acted arrogantly, basically saying to one of the world’s largest companies, ‘We don’t want you.’”

Meanwhile Google took an entirely different approach for its new $1 billion headquarters in the city. It didn’t turn its headquarters development into a competition and balk when things got tough. From an outsider’s perspective, it acted more like a partner during its planning process, which might augur the future of more successful and sustainable growth for private companies and the city.

“It’ll be interesting to see if these companies say, ‘I’m going to follow the lead of Google and follow the leads of companies that have been successful,’ or ‘No it’s too big of a headache, we’ll choose somewhere else,’” Cook says. “That’s where the New York City brand has potentially been damaged.”

New York has always been an attractive place to do business and the formula to do it successfully in the future will likely involve transparency from all parties.

“The world has changed and people today want companies to have a conscience and to be good partners—both economically and socially—to the cities or towns they’re going into,” Cook says. “Companies coming into New York City should follow the macro trend of working together to build a greater good as a partner.”