Why Brands Should Shift Their Focus From Data to Identity

Fusing marketing science and art to drive customer engagement

Smart marketers are taking control of the data conversation.
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It might be sunny in July, but winter is finally here. I’m not talking about the Season 7 premiere of HBO’s Game of Thrones (although I was one of the 16.1 million total viewers).

Winter is here for marketing.

Steven Wolfe Pereira
Headshot: Alex Fine

The data points have been around us for a while. “Data is the new oil” was a headline story in the Economist in May 2017. Wall Street certainly thinks data is valuable and has been voting with its dollars, making Apple, Google (Alphabet), Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook the top five most-valued companies on the planet with a combined market capitalization of $3 trillion. Data is the “great game” now.

Naturally, marketers are worried. They fear they don’t have the data (or enough of it) that they need to compete. Lots of industry chatter is framed as “us versus them,” where marketers are pitted against the big five tech companies.

With so much focus on programmatic, myopic targeting and short-term goals, marketers have not reaped the true rewards of data-driven marketing. Indeed, the ANA has highlighted the significant challenges facing the industry from driving growth and business performance to an unmanageably complex digital media supply chain to inadequate measurement and metrics.

In a connected world, we will all have more data than we know what to do with. It’s time to shift the conversation from data to identity.

While these are serious industry challenges, I look at the situation differently: This is the golden age of marketing. And it’s time for marketers to band together and go on the offense. Smart marketers are taking control of the data conversation. They are demanding from the ecosystem that they get to own their data—from the walled gardens to digital publishers to TV networks. Data is an asset they know they need to have on their companies’ balance sheets.

They also know they need to combine science with art. During the Forbes CMO roundtable in Cannes last month, HP’s chief marketing and communications officer Antonio Lucio shared how there has never been a more important time to be a marketer than today. But it can’t be transactional; it must be aspirational.

What has changed, though, is how marketers will do this. It’s time to move the conversation past just data. In a connected world, we will all have more data than we know what to do with. It’s time to shift the conversation from data to identity. When thinking about an identity-based approach, here are four things to consider:

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Cookies aren’t people

While the ad tech industry talks about billions of cookies, there are only approximately 245 million adults in the U.S. Just because you have a cookie or an email address and you are trying to link them through probabilistic or deterministic methods, this does not mean you have holistic, trusted identity. In fact, since most online data elements are not tied to the real, offline world, they rarely give you the full picture of your customer.

Give offline some love

CPG marketers pioneered the consumer insights field and did it the old-fashioned way. They met with people and visited their homes, their families, their neighborhoods. As great as online is, there is untapped value in real understanding of consumers using real-world, offline data elements. About 94 percent of CPG sales still happen offline.

Trust but verify

While many vendors say they have data, how good is the data? Scoring data sources and the quality of data linkages is critical to ensure you have the freshest, most accurate data set. Identity is not static, with over 75 million people changing their phone carriers every year, 45 million changing their phone numbers, 60 million people moving and over 2 million people legally changing their name. In fact, Neustar research has found that more than 60 percent of data is out of date in less than two years.

Resolve our issues

While vendors tout the size and scale of their data, what most people don’t focus on is entity resolution. That’s the identity science of connecting people, places and things. How many emails do you have? How many spellings of your name exist? How many addresses have you had over the years? Tying all of these different data elements and resolving it into a single, holistic view of a consumer requires entity resolution that combines both online and offline data sources. And, of course, this all needs to be done in a privacy-secure way.

This story first appeared in the July 24, 2017, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.