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The ‘cookie apocalypse’ will improve the future of marketing

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RAPP on how the death of the cookie could improve the relationship between brands and consumers

French astrologer Nostradamus predicted zombies for 2021. And there have been no end of marketing headlines about the cookie apocalypse this year. Coincidence? Of course it is... I think we can all calm down.

Anyone who knows me well will know that I’m a huge fan of the zombie apocalypse genre. So anything labeled ‘apocalypse’ is going to come under some scrutiny.

The Secret Cinema 28 Days Later event was genuinely exhilarating. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is a feminist delight from start to finish that even Austen would approve of. And don’t get me started on The Walking Dead. I’ve avidly followed all 11 seasons of the TV series and read the comics (yes, really). But like a pitch presentation titled TWD_10_finalfinalfinal, the last season will air later this year... and I can’t wait. I can’t wait for the cookie apocalypse either. It seems this year really is the year of the zombie.

Third-party cookies have been giving marketing a bad name for too long now. Consumers are still being chased around the internet by adverts for things they’ve actually bought. Customer experience is still rudely interrupted by ridiculous cookie consent buttons we now all just automatically click away with annoyance (anyone actually read one of those things lately?). And marketers continue to kid themselves that they are delivering personalized experiences based on a handful of tiny snippets of data combined with a hefty dose of linear assumption.

So when we enter the post-cookie era in 2022, marketing will change forever. And if – like any good survivor group – we’re sufficiently prepared, the future actually looks pretty good. There are some learnings from the zombie apocalypse world we can apply to our post-cookie marketing world. Here are five that provide hope and direction for marketers facing the so-called cookie apocalypse:

1. You need to team up with some geeks as well as some muscle

It’s always good to have someone who can fashion a generator/helicopter/flamethrower from some scrap metal on your team. In the post cookie-apocalypse world you need depth tech and data expertise. That means going further than adding some ‘digital natives’ to the marketing department. You’re going to want to team up with people who have spent years inventing and applying technology and analytical methods to thousands of marketing challenges before – especially first-party data experts, because that’s your new battleground now the third-party cookie data has gone.

2. You need to be a sharp enough shooter to achieve headshots every time

First-party data is how you do this in a post-cookie marketing world. Accurate, sophisticated targeting with first-party data will improve marketing effectiveness and ultimately efficiency, but just like zombie headshots, it isn’t a skill you acquire overnight. Start honing your skills now because valuable explicit data collection takes time – you can’t just come right out and ask for it from the get-go. And predictive and prescriptive modeling improves with every interaction, but it will take millions of interactions over time to really see the value. The sooner you start the sooner you benefit.

3. When running from zombies you only have to be faster than the slowest person

This applies to your personalized marketing sophistication too. Omni-channel automated mass personalization at scale is a bit like teenage sex: everybody is talking about it but hardly anyone is doing it. At least not properly. You don’t have to have mastered it all. You do have to be taking steps toward better marketing personalization and improving sophistication. Those who do will continually improve customer experiences and see commercial impact. Only those who don’t bother to keep up at all will end up as zombies themselves.

4. You need to have some traditional skills as they are the most valuable

PowerPoint presentations never helped anyone survive. The marketing profession needs to get back to basics: problem solving, real insight mining, creativity and commerciality. Let’s start valuing those things again before it’s too late. Spending millions on new marketing stacks will only be as good as the people who implement and operate them, and those people need old-fashioned marketing mindsets.

5. You need to be likable

In every post-apocalypse world people are drawn together to survive as a group. Brands need to find their people too. The short-term marketing activity that has pervaded over the last decade just about keeps the lights on, but doesn’t act as a beacon for like-minded consumers to find their way to you. A little less push and a little more pull with brand ideas that inspire and light up the dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin receptors in the brain are needed today more than ever.

The best thing about a good zombie show? It’s not the blood and guts, it’s not the weapons (although sometimes they are pretty awesome), it’s not even the triumph over adversity (very often there is more loss than triumph anyway). It’s the emotions. An apocalypse strips away the trappings of modern life such as mobile phones, microwaves, central heating, TVs and satnavs and leaves you with just people (and sometimes cars that often go on working for much longer than is actually realistic – fuel goes off in just a few months).

The zombies are simply a plot device to provide a common enemy, but the stories are all about people and relationships. It is the emotions that are important. How people deal with the shit the world throws at them individually and together. Good marketing too is about people and relationships – and the emotion that motivates us to care more about one brand over another.

Perhaps cookies are just the trappings of modern marketing that have been distracting us from the people and the relationships? Is the death of the cookie really just the death of lazy personalization? Could this be a new dawn for more meaningful relationships between brands and consumers? Anyone fancy teaming up to face it together?

Shiona McDougall, global chief strategy officer at RAPP.