June 10, 2022
Windows & Mirrors
by Steve Susi

There are window companies and there are mirror companies.

Which one do you work for? If you’re not sure, Google Chrome’s phase-out of third-party cookies (3PCs)—shortly after Apple did so across its operating systems and Safari—will soon help you see the light. Or reflection. 

As the tech giant announced in March 2021, 3PCs have “…led to an erosion of trust: In fact, 72% of people feel that almost all of what they do online is being tracked by advertisers, technology firms or other companies, and 81% say that the potential risks they face because of data collection outweigh the benefits, according to a study by Pew Research Center.”

For brands of every size relying upon Google Analytics, it was a stark eviction notice that data-driven companies are slaves to software, and regulations like GDPR and CCPA are strangling tracking technologies as, over the years, many actors either abused these data or left them unprotected. As my mom told us as kids, “This is why we can’t have nice things.”

Tonight We’re Gonna First-Party Like It’s 1999

As we learned at Amazon (and as Google mentioned above), customer trust is mission critical. Customer Obsession is far and away the most important of the Amazon Leadership Principles, and nothing good happens for long without it.

But in the void of third-party data, with obsolete segments in your CDP and myriad other core capabilities paralyzed, what’s a brand to do? In a strange twist, we find ourselves looking back to the late-90s, when first- and zero-party data were pretty much all we had. Trust, content relevance, and contextual targeting were the only avenues to customer loyalty. You couldn’t buy it—you had to earn it with quality. DoubleClick hadn’t hit its stride yet, and behavioral didn’t exist at scale, so all we could do was deeply understand our customer and give them what they wanted.

Clean Your Windows, Break the Mirrors

As I wrote in my 2019 category best-seller Brand Currency, I describe how Amazon’s attention to the Voice of the Customer was a wake-up call:

At Amazon, everyone is your customer, not just the millions of shoppers, viewers, listeners, and readers visiting its various domains. Your manager is your customer, as are your external clients. The account execs and project managers are customers too. If you find yourself, as a corporate employee, visiting a customer service or fulfillment center, those personnel are your customers for as long as you’re in the building. The entire culture is one of modest servitude. Colleagues’ and clients’ feedback is captured as the Voice of the Customer (VOC), a component of most reporting narratives written every day and performance reviews each semester. VOCs typically provide the final section of these documents ahead of the appendix as a humanistic sign-off before the reader dives into metrics.
Does your company listen this intently to the customer? To be perfectly honest, I’ve never seen another organization come close. After years of VOCs, it appeared to me that there are “mirror companies” and “window companies.” Status quo organizations look into mirrors for where to go next, while the remaining few look out the window at the customer. Mirrors are self-important; windows are humble.

Of course, Amazon isn’t the only example of customer-centricity. From Nordstrom over a century ago to Patagonia, Starbucks, and Coursera today, more and more brands have embraced the window while their looking-glass competitors litter the roadside. The mirror syndrome spreads so ubiquitously, so gradually, that most brand owners don’t feel the symptoms until it’s too late.

Windows and mirrors are merely metaphors for culture, and cultures come from the top. What’s yours like? At Amazon, the Leadership Principles, goals, and programs—to which we were stringently held with first-party data to be collected, cleaned, and shared—all tracked back to the customer, their privacy, satisfaction, and trust. Every one of them. And any company can do it.

Now I’m proud to work at KANE, a window company. The only mirrors here are in the bathroom.