Brands Still Relying on Cookies This Holiday Season Are Lagging Behind | Industry Insights | All MKC Content | ANA

Brands Still Relying on Cookies This Holiday Season Are Lagging Behind


Google keeps pushing back its date for the so-called "cookie apocalypse." But if you're a retailer hoping to prosper in the 2022 holiday season, that doesn't matter one bit. If you're still relying on third-party cookies, you might be as doomed from a long-term perspective as the cookie itself.

Too many brands are taking Google's delay as an excuse to postpone their searches for third-party cookie alternatives, but it's a huge mistake. There's a real threat, particularly among retailers and retail brands, that cookie reliance could ruin the holiday magic. And when it does, make no mistake: Consumers will know exactly who's to blame. And they will hold a grudge.

Let's look at why the urgency to move away from cookies is greater than marketers might think — and how they can implement both immediate and long-term solutions that customers will appreciate this holiday season and beyond.

The Holiday Cookie Conundrum

Most marketers are aware of the challenges that third-party cookies have posed within the industry for years now. They're completely absent in an increasing number of digital environments, and their utility is fleeting and incomplete in those where they still apply.

But momentum is a powerful force, and it's not surprising that many people in the industry have decided to glean whatever value they can from cookies right up until their inevitable doomsday (which, if you haven't picked up on, is imminent). The big problem with this decision is that many marketers aren't considering the significant threat third-party cookies pose to everyday shoppers – especially during the holiday season.

Simply put: Cookies follow you around the web and track what a person is searching for and what they purchase. This means that anyone who shares a device or Wi-Fi connection with another person can start receiving ads that pop up and expose surprise gifts from their family member or friend.

Think about it: How often do you see ads with messages like "Since you bought this, you might like XYZ" or "Come back to your cart with XYZ item"? Now, imagine your child, partner, or mother who is the one receiving the ad that informs them that someone purchased an item on their holiday wish list. The element of surprise vanishes immediately.

Yes, many brands are slowly moving away from third-party cookies, but they're not doing it fast enough — and certainly not in time for the holidays. It's clear (increasingly so) that using third-party cookies matters in the eyes of consumers. Research has found that 84 percent of people now understand what cookies are and how they are used to track their online activity, while 7 out of 10 people say they don't like the idea of companies tracking them at all. That's right: 70 percent of folks don't want marketers to track them, and frankly, neither do I. 

In other words, consumers are already fed up with ads that feel invasive or eerily well-informed. That annoyance skyrockets when a brand ruins a holiday surprise because its ad exposes a purchase prematurely to a loved one.

Saving the Holidays — This Year and Beyond

If the retail brand you represent is still employing third-party cookies this holiday shopping season, consider this an emergency alert: You need to pivot quickly. Understandably, most brands can't migrate away from third-party cookies overnight.

Still, there are actions you can take immediately to stem the damage your tracking techniques are having on people's holiday and gifting experience. The most straightforward tactic would be to enable a seasonal pop-up that explains to shoppers how they can temporarily disable cookies on the site to ensure their activity is protected from prying eyes. By simply wording such a pop-up in a conversational, situation-aware tone, brands can position themselves as helpful holiday elves versus present-spoiling grinches.

But marketers can't stop there. Over the longer term — regardless of Google's timeline for third-party cookie deprecation in Chrome — brands need to be stepping away from cookies as a tracking tool altogether.

In implementing a long-term plan to pivot away from cookies, there is no silver bullet available for today's brands but there is a combination of approaches marketers can take not only to bridge the gap left by third-party cookies, but also to improve their reach, relevancy, and understanding of their audiences.

Most brands have received the message regarding the importance of prioritizing first-party data acquisition — and most certainly, this foundational approach to reclaiming control of a brand's consumer relationships can't be understated. But brands must also investigate, test, and implement additional solutions that are not third-party cookie-dependent, such as digital fingerprints and contextual advertising.

Digital advertisers don't need to know who their consumers are to serve them relevant ads. Period. It's well past time for companies to stop invasively stalking their shoppers via tactics like third-party cookies and adopt safer, more-targeted campaigns.

This holiday season, there's no time to waste. Brands must equip customers today with a way to protect their purchases from not-so-prying eyes—and then they need to get serious about doing better for the long haul. The time for grinches — and excuses — is over.

The views and opinions expressed are solely those of the contributor and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the ANA or imply endorsement from the ANA.

Phil Schraeder is the CEO at GumGum.