Most of all, the acquisitions gave Walmart the customer data it needs to go toe-to-toe with Amazon, the world's most customer-centric retailer. For years Amazon flourished while Walmart floundered, not because the Jeff Bezos-helmed juggernaut offers more or better products than Walmart but because inherent in its business model is the ability to literally know its customers as individuals it can identify on a 1:1 basis within its ecosystem. Armed with identity, Amazon exploits every bit of information customers leave behind to develop new product lines and services that fewer and fewer consumers can live without: As of fall 2017, its Prime premium loyalty program totals an estimated 90 million subscribers, up 25 million in just one year.
All of which left Walmart with little choice but to build out its own identity asset. Landing digital natives such as Jet and Bonobos and integrating their respective troves of first-party customer insight turbocharged that effort and suggested new avenues of exploration. Walmart now poses a real threat to Amazon's business, thanks to its dramatic strides in omnichannel retail (for example, a partnership with Google making Walmart products available via the Google Express shopping service and through Google's voice-activated devices) as well as a burgeoning digital advertising platform and other compelling data-driven initiatives.
Heading into 2018, look for brands of all shapes and sizes to follow the Walmart blueprint and reinvent themselves as identity companies, complete with bold new offerings and increased brand resonance. The threat isn't just coming from Amazon, after all—it's coming from any number of Silicon Valley upstarts that achieved runaway success by translating voluminous first-party customer data into products and services that improve people's lives and suggest new, better ways to live them.
Legacy brands can buy identity (for example, Unilever, which snatched up subscription-based personal grooming company Dollar Shave Club for $1 billion); they can invest in identity (e.g., General Motors, which poured $500 million into ride-sharing startup Lyft to better understand and serve a new generation of drivers and passengers); or they can build their own identity asset on the years and years of customer data they've already accumulated. Whichever path brands pursue, maintaining the status quo is not an option if they want to stick around past the year ahead.
Identity's impact on 2018 won't be limited to brand reinvention, however. In fact, identity is shaping up as the competitive battleground on which brand relevance will be won or lost.
In the coming months:
- Brands will seize control of their customer data—and take control of their future. Customer data graphs that businesses own (rather than rent) will empower them to deliver laser-targeted ads, personalize brand sites for 1:1 engagements, accurately measure marketing performance and close the loop on attribution.
- Brands will learn to share. More companies will band together in strategic alliances to forge powerful, mutually beneficial data assets, sharing their respective first-party insights to scale and strengthen identity graphs.
- First-party data will yank retail back from the brink of collapse. Retailers will capitalize on the promise of first-party data with unprecedented focus and fervor in 2018, and not a moment too soon: This strategic weapon is their best bet for survival in a marketplace turned topsy-turvy by digital disruption.
- Segmentation will give way to targeting a demographic of one. Marketers will introduce next-generation services and solutions to customize consumer interactions on a micro-level—and as a result, they'll capture even deeper, richer data insights to enable increasingly nuanced engagement with every subsequent interaction.
Brands that embrace identity and explore its full potential will crush it in 2018. Those that don't will get flattened. It's that simple.