Someone asked me today, “what’s the one thing that you’re most excited about in marketing”. A bit of a curveball, and after fighting off that inherent urge in every marketer in 2023 to just shout “AI” I said with confidence that I genuinely think the most exciting thing that’s coming up the gradual erosion of cookie data.

I’m not a passionate advocate for consumer privacy, and I certainly don’t enjoy the now regular conversations about why the numbers my team are reporting are different to what our clients are seeing. But what I do think is that this change creates a massive opportunity for marketers and brand owners to rethink the way that we are reaching consumers.

The past 20 years in marketing has been largely dominated by better and better tracking. By around 2015, the old adage of “half my advertising spend is wasted; the trouble is, I don’t know which half” was essentially solved. Brands no longer needed to worry about delivering ads to the wrong people, and everything they spent on advertising was tracked perfectly.

Cookie tracking is already half gone

Those glory days are already starting to seem a distant memory as private browsing, GDPR, ad blocking, cookie clearing, multi-device shopping and various iterations of iOS have started to erode how accurately we can track. Google are planning to stop cookies from operating in their Chrome browser from mid next year, many countries around the world are rolling out their own privacy regulations, consumers are becoming more likely to use some form of their own privacy control. This isn’t something that’s going to happen, we’re already there. Most people don’t realise, but even now Google and Meta heavily estimate the conversions that they’re reporting to you in their ad platforms.

The same goes for audience targeting, which is becoming harder for major platforms to do as people’s online activity becomes more disguised. Running an ad that says “Small blue shoes, 90% off for men in London” only works if you know with near certainty that you are targeting men in London who are currently in need of small blue shoes. The chances of someone else seeing this ad and coming back later to see what else is on offer are close to zero.

That’s what a lot of advertising has become. Highly targeted sales messages pushing all sorts of promotions, often promising the world to make a quick buck, often offering a promotion that doesn’t exist just to get a click. And unfortunately, in many cases it works, up to a point. We know from personal experience that a lot of honest businesses have struggled to keep up. We also know that the business graveyard is full of those who over-promised and under-delivered.

In a world where tracking doesn’t exist and targeting is broadcast only, the chance of landing a highly focused sales message to the right person at the right time is highly unlikely, so it forces brands to think differently. It means the focus has to be on making yourself stand out to an audience who is unlikely to buy now but might do later. It means telling a story and engaging with potential customers on a deeper level. It means a return to the advertising style of the past which sought to entertain and create memorable reasons to choose a particular brand for years to come.

A return to the good old days

We’re already starting to see some signs of this trend. Big brands use regular surveys to track their awareness, perception and recall. This data is starting to show a closer relationship between brand awareness and sales performance, and many big advertisers are already shifting budget towards long term brand advertising and away from direct response messaging. Smaller businesses will likely follow over the coming months, and the big question for every business owner right now should be less “what ads can I run to make more sales this week” and more “what ads can I run to ensure the long term health of my business”.

My Goodness, My Guiness. VW’s classic ‘Lemon’ ad. Share a Coke. Many people in marketing these days will be too young to know about such iconic campaigns. But they’ll certainly be aware of the brands behind them. That’s perhaps the point, good advertising done well creates more than just a trackable sale in a 30 day window, it creates brands that mean something to large numbers of people, are associated with positive feelings, and that stand the test of time.

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