What Becomes of Brand Identity in a World of Changing IDs?

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Branding is in the eye of the beholder. Or, as Al Ries and Jack Trout’s classic marketing text Positioning, the Battle for your Mind puts it, a brand’s positioning is the space it occupies in the mind of the prospect. Decades of the world’s best marketing leaders and agency pros have rallied around this definition. If it’s true, what happens to measuring brand identity and positioning with the dramatic shift in one of the best attribution tools marketers have ever known?

Google’s most recent update to its plans to sunset third-party cookies has marketers finally saying goodbye at some point in late 2023. That same year, American adults are expected to spend more than 8 hours a day with digital media, accounting for 64% of their total time spent with media. While there will be a competitive market of replacement identifiers, it’s unclear just how much scale these new IDs will offer. This creates a conundrum beyond ad targeting: How can brand marketers reliably track how their brands are resonating with those targets and whether they’re winning or losing traction without a clear, scalable attribution method? 

The evolution of brand identity measurement

As someone who spent the first 15 years of my career in the Manhattan-based global agency world, followed by 12 more years hiring and managing said agencies, this branding conundrum actually keeps me awake at night. If you’re reading this article, chances are you’re responsible for your own brand’s identity and face the same challenges. Fortunately, there is opportunity for brands that seize on the idea that privacy is a good thing because smart brand marketers can do hard things in service of privacy that benefit their consumer relationships and the greater ecosystem.

Company leaders expect that marketers will track the perception of their brands from the perspective of their customers. Beyond measurable goals and KPIs tied to revenue, there remains an expectation that marketers are accountable for their brand’s value over time. It may not be much fun, going forward, to attempt to measure marketing’s worth without the ability to, dare I say, “track” the perceptions and values your brand’s customers ascribe to you.  

It bears remembering how brand identity was measured from the earliest days: Primary research, including focus groups (where we watched behind mirrors!), 1-on-1s (no denying whom you’re interviewing), and benchmark studies across a consistent, named user base, to see our progress against those defined (and often compensated, and perhaps biased due to said compensation) individuals.  

Cookies, and their ability to collect behavioral signals, forever altered the way that marketers measured the impact of their messages and attributed success across channels. Time-consuming research, panels, and focus groups were no longer the sole source of truth. In the earliest iterations, advertisers could understand if showing a display ad led to a conversion. Today, identifiers can help determine if a consumer exposed to a targeted CTV ad ultimately makes an online purchase. 

The loss of the industry’s default identifier in the last and largest web browser by market share creates a new paradigm, one that extends beyond and significantly influences the balance of the marketing mix. Both the concept of brand identity and the way that advertisers measure its progress are surely in need of a reboot. Let’s call the new era Brand Identity’s Three Degrees.

Brand identity’s three degrees

First degree: In the pre-cookie era, marketers relied on a named user base. The move to cookies introduced anonymity by default, but the upcoming transition, which will rely in some part on email-derived identifiers, brings us back closer to named user bases. In the very near future, marketers are likely looking at two pools of consumers: authenticated users and those who choose not to opt-in to these identifiers. The former will offer precision but lack scale, while the latter will account for most of the internet population, at the cost of measurement capabilities.

Digital research tools like online surveys, social media polls, and the famed Net Promoter will remain to offer feedback on how brands are performing. Meanwhile, we’ve lost one degree of knowledge at scale while also losing some of the anonymity offered by the cookie. 

Our second degree of brand identity gets lost once our digital research tools offer not just anonymity, but a marked decline in the number of trackable users. Now, not only are the tools reaching respondents who do not opt-in to IDs, but we’re not even sure they’re surveying the individuals that make sense for our brands.  Smaller user-based audiences pose greater threats to understanding “what” a brand’s identity is with customers, and that, in turn, makes the “why” that much more elusive.   

Third degree: Government policy, global guidelines, regulatory rules — Not even Big Tech gets an escape hatch. With Google’s recent announcement that the retirement of cookies is now delayed until late 2023, it might seem like there’s a reprieve. Meanwhile, privacy preservation and policy pushes on. So if your brand needs to know its position and progress with a defined audience, once the scale of that audience declines, the work to understand why will be even more challenging.  

The ultimate question about brand identity

This raises the ultimate question for brand marketers today — do we even need to know exactly who is assigning our brand its value? Did we ever? If there are enough of the right customers, influencers, and advocates, does knowing their name, rank, and serial number give us measurement confidence? Or is it sufficient, and perhaps even more authentic, to just see evidence that there are enough of them, that they fit a brand’s defined profile, and that progress is measurable? 

My vote goes to the latter and with pride for privacy. There’s no dodging KPIs and no secret sauce. Just a leveling up of the marketing discipline that’s re-shaped for a privacy-centric world.

Patti Boyle is SVP, Head of Marketing, at Dstillery.