How Kimberly-Clark navigates a digital ecosystem where every ad platform is a walled garden

Deprecation of third-party cookies is a topic that has loomed large over Advertising Week, as marketers grapple with the sunsetting of a widely adopted tactic for engaging consumers online. Kimberly-Clark Corp., the owner of household brands like Huggies, Cottonelle and Kleenex, is investing in new ways to wrest more control over first-party data in response, a process that executives said is complicated and will require the organization to act more independently than it has in the past.

“It’s such a pivotal time for CPGs right now. CPGs are starting to double [down] on the importance of owning the consumer relationship,” Josh Blacksmith, senior director of global consumer relationships and engagement at Kimberly-Clark, said during a livestreamed conference session with Salesforce on Monday. “If we were to leave this, in perpetuity, in the hands of our retail partners, they’re sort of focused on the next transaction.”

It’s a seismic industry shift that is in some ways constricting the ad market, as the digital sector — now the dominant one by ad spend in the U.S. — sees its biggest players shore up their already-outsized strengths. Such changes could have a particularly sharp impact on the packaged goods category, which has historically depended on external partners as data sources and is also contending with a radical move toward e-commerce and direct-to-consumer services.

Adding another layer of complexity to the mix is the push by retailers to set up their own digital advertising businesses to rival the likes of Google, Facebook and especially Amazon. Walmart has quickly built out a marketing platform, adding an omnichannel analytics suite last summer, while other companies, including Target and Kroger, have similar offerings. Advertising Week, all-virtual this year due to the pandemic, has several sessions led by Walmart Media Group and an entire discussion track sponsored by Roundel, Target’s media network.

“Essentially any platform we’re advertising on today is setting itself up as its own walled garden,” Blacksmith said, without naming specific brands. “It’s not just about the Facebooks and Googles of the world; it’s also about … our retail partners.

“We’re spending a significant amount of money because we believe that our frontline consumers are also shopping inside those experiences as well,” he added, calling out the company’s higher investments in areas like paid search.

Lofty goals

The death of third-party cookies, expedited by the introduction of data privacy laws like the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation and the California Consumer Privacy Act, will bring about some painful changes for marketers that have built their skill sets around the tactic. Not all of those changes will be bad, panelists said.

“It’s almost like now, without having an email address and owning the relationship, you can’t actually do the brand marketing you’ve started to build all the muscle around over the last decade,” Blacksmith said.

While the transitional period away from cookies is already bumpy, the bigger picture could serve to benefit marketers like Kimberly-Clark that are aiming to improve the efficiency and quality of their media.

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