Making the Case: Is eBay worthy of Cult Brand status?

I first started using eBay when I was in graduate school. Being a hopelessly price-conscious student, I was always looking for the best deal. Alas, I found my way to eBay. After winning my first auction, I was hooked.

The thrill of winning an auction is like hitting the jackpot. You place your bid, hawkishly watch the official eBay clock, and monitor the other bidders every move. Even after getting embroiled in a bidding war and losing by a mere 50 cents, you walk away from your computer and silently remark, “Good game.”

What I love most about my eBay experience is the absolute accountability buyers and sellers have for their actions. With their simple rating system, you leave positive, neutral, or negative feedback, depending on the transaction. If a seller promotes false advertising or doesn’t follow through with their promises, they are rated accordingly. This gives buyers the power to decide whether or not to patronize a seller. Customer service is built in, and it upholds the gold standard to consumerism.

But does my love for eBay substantiate its spot as a Cult Brand? Or is it merely a powerful, iconic brand? Let’s see …

The Golden Rule of Courage: In 1995, Omidyar launched eBay in an experiment to see how “equal access to information and opportunities would affect the efficiency of a marketplace.” He envisioned an online market that allowed real people to compete head-to-head with big corporations. Omidyar, disturbed about the potential takeover of big businesses, stated “I wanted to give the power of the market back to individuals.” Through his revolutionary vision, Omidyar successfully tackled the corporations and did exactly what he intended to do—he leveled the playing field and helped ordinary folks like you and me control the marketplace.

The Golden Rule of Fun: The proverb, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” echoes throughout the portals of eBay. If you’ve ever held a garage sale, tag sale, or rummage sale, you experientially know the joys of getting rid of your “trash” and being able to make money in the process. If you’ve ever been to one of these sales, you also know the thrills of finding that certain “treasure” you’ve always been looking for. It’s the high of the hunt and the pleasure of the purge that makes buying and selling more than a mere transaction.

The Golden Rule of Openness: Prior to eBay, auction houses conjured up associations to elite organizations such as Christie’s and Sotheby’s, showcasing items that were only accessible to the top echelons of wealth. eBay brought the auction house to the people’s doorstep and gave them a community that was different, approachable, and inclusive. If you’re looking to sell your Goonies lunchbox, your Prada handbag, your vintage Bulova watch, your Star Wars collectibles, or even your house, post it on eBay. There’s an eager buyer out there somewhere. Whether you’re an individual buyer or seller, a small business, or an enterprise—whether you want to shop for the fun of it or harness eBay as your primary source of income—the eBay community welcomes you with open arms.

The Golden Rule of Freedom: eBay, by overturning traditional commerce, gave power back to the consumers who determined what price they were willing to pay. Not only did eBay promote personal freedom for its community of buyers, it did the same for its community of sellers. Can you think of another company that has influenced hundreds of thousands of people to create their own businesses? eBay inspires this process by offering free online courses through the eBay University Learning Center where members learn about the art of buying and selling. The entrepreneurial spirit reigns supreme at eBay, where the phrase “becoming your own boss” is not just paid lip service, but a sweet reality.

The Golden Rules of Contribution: Since the beginning, eBay members have embraced a powerful spirit of camaraderie. The eBay Community hub is the online forum where members join “neighborhoods” to connect, find experienced mentors, share their best practices, or just socialize. Whether you’re a dog lover, a coffee connoisseur, a jewelry collector, or a motorcycle maven, eBay connects you to like-minded folks who share similar passions.

Most importantly, philanthropy has always been an instrumental part of eBay since its inception. In 1998, eBay Foundation was established to support the economic and social enterprises of local communities. Staying true to their mission, the Foundation has provided $2 million in grants each year to sustain charitable giving and volunteer efforts around the world.

The Golden Rule of Human Needs: Listening to the Choir: Former CEO Margaret Whitman stated, “The best ideas and the best feedback come from our community of users.” Ten times a year, eBay invites buyers and sellers to the corporate headquarters in San Jose to take part in their “Voices” program. It’s the ultimate forum where members voice their likes and dislikes about their eBay experiences, and are actually heard, sometimes with the CEO’s own ears. These marathon focus groups often last two days and nights, and contact with Voices members continues even after the program’s end.

A recent effect was the revised rating system, which established that buyers can no longer receive negative or neutral feedback from sellers. This allows buyers to have more freedom in providing honest and accurate feedback without fear of retribution. This unilateral feature has undoubtedly made some sellers nervous, given the occasional scam artist and remorseful buyer. However, the new rating system appears to be raising the bar for customer service and pressing sellers to provide the best possible online shopping experience.

A final thought to ponder: There are more than 150 million people around the world who trust virtual strangers with every eBay transaction. Trust is the driving force, the essential ingredient that makes eBay work so effectively. Without it, the entire system would collapse. Abraham Lincoln once said, “The people when rightly and fully trusted will return the trust.” Thirteen years after Omidyar’s modest experiment, eBay has proved time and time again that the reciprocity of trust is at the heart of its virtual community.

Happy Bidding, and remember, you found it on eBay!

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