Many brands, and the agencies that serve them, are now acutely aware of what the walled gardens have known all along: identity rules. With that said, financial services and healthcare companies and governments have a long history of strict practices when it comes to positively identifying people for the purposes of disbursing funds, making credit decisions, delivering medical care, and providing access to critical services and social programs. These are all good things for the people on the receiving end, but the outset role that identity played for most early adopters had been centered on managing financial risk or outcomes primarily for the organizations, with added value for the consumers involved. The need to verify creditworthiness for example, spurred the creation of credit bureaus, which by their nature have a need to apply identity. Many would argue that credit bureaus are good for people because they make sure you fairly get the credit you deserve. But this is not without downsides that range from bias and lack of transparency in algorithms to the risk of substantial data breaches. Financial Services as an industry contains several highly regulated business types and abound with scenarios where a high degree of precision is required to ensure the safety and security of a transaction, with the more popular tactics being knowledge-based questions, multi-factor authentication, or device fingerprinting or registration. But these processes are often cumbersome and taxing on the patience of the people they are designed to benefit. At the other end of the spectrum, there are less precise versions of identity being used as currency in almost all industries, including retail, entertainment, media, and advertising. These proxies for identity include things like cookies, email, device ID, mobile location, postal address, phone numbers, or some combination. 

In the still-unfolding digital future, this is changing right before our eyes. As more and more functions of daily life become digital and the devices we hold near have made their way into everything we do, the broader market has dictated that Identity will be a critical building block for future success of almost all industries. This has come in the form of data protection legislation, a call for transparency and accountability by advertisers, walled gardens and device manufacturers pulling up the bridges of their respective moats, and lest we forget, the ever-changing behaviors, attitudes, and preferences of people (remember them?). I think almost anyone in business today understands this at some level and appreciates the challenges ahead and the benefits they might reap if they get it right. But I would like to ask, assuming they get it right, what’s in it for the people? We’ve all seen the future where no one carries a wallet or keys and dresses in snazzy bodysuits as we zip around the galaxy, or the one with endless personalized advertising and real-time predictive policing (i.e. Minority Report) – pick your dystopia. And with smart phones, smart homes, virtual assistants, and an e-Government powerhouse like Estonia – some think we might already be there. There’s also the Chinese Social Credit System, which citizens report to love for the benefits of a good score, like shorter hospital and government wait times, and discounts on hotels, but a bad score has the ability to ruin someone’s life.

As brands and agencies are clamoring to provide “personalized” everything, I think as businesspeople we should step back and “seek first to understand” (Plato). I think most other reasonable people would agree that aside from good products and services at a fair price, we all would like less friction and better service from the brands we choose. This is another way of asking for a better customer experience. The truth is, we just want things the way we want them. Which is different than what she wants, or what they want. Many companies started to respond on this front by enabling people to “configure” the relationship through preference centers or app and device privacy settings, but this was, and is, a nightmare for the people given the diaspora of our data. There are numerous everyday things in our lives that could be smoother and more convenient if there were only a true, trusted, single source of identity, safe from tampering or exploitation by bad actors – that people controlled. Estonia provides 99 percent of government services online, including voting. Imagine no more long lines under fluorescent light at the Department of Motor Vehicles. What about filing your taxes or applying for benefits or the ever-present clipboard of forms at the doctor’s office? It should be as simple as a face or fingerprint, I say. This past year I boarded a couple of international flights using my face. You walk up, stop and face the camera, then walk on – same as any boarding pass, paper or digital, although not as seamless as I expect it to be in the future. These are all cases where a high level of precision is obviously required.

Sometimes a spouse, parent, or friend might, with some success, predict what you will do next – but how is a brand supposed to know? This is hard stuff. It starts by remembering that we, like the people we aim to serve, are people too. Data is binary, people are not. This begins with an intimate understanding of who they are, what they care about (and don’t), and how they want to interact with a brand. This is all predicated of course on your ability to correctly identify them. Chances to “engage” or “personalize” dot the path of any given customer journey, but choosing the appropriate opportunity and exhibiting restraint is key to success. Retailers and the brands whose goods are on the shelves, empowered by an ever-growing landscape of AdTech and Martech providers, have gone headfirst into various tactics to meet the changing behaviors of people. My grocery retailer has an app, and for the most part it is a very functional user experience. However, when I am standing at the register, I am a minimum of two clicks to get to my loyalty card contained within the app, then I have to switch to my Apple Wallet for contactless payment. Why not just allow me to add the loyalty card to my Apple Wallet or store my payment card in the app for use at the register? And considering a large portion of the population use debit and credit cards for groceries, why not just link the same card I use every time to my loyalty card and automatically “account” for my rewards? This would require a mashup of Identity that was essentially handled by the other players and boils down to orchestration for the Retailer. But this is when it starts to become more about creating a better customer experience, and this is where identity can shine. And suppress any non-organic produce ads. And remind me to buy milk.    

Identity is a spectrum and applying appropriate precision to support the use case is critical. Adopting a people-first approach to identity, then exhibiting empathy and restraint when it comes to your actions will produce the best results. And this applies to current topics in the news such as mobile location data sharing being used to track the corona virus, and in some cases notification when you may have come within 6 feet of someone exposed, to the decisions that brands must be made about changing creative and messaging and ad adjacency to COVID-19 stories. The companies that effectively harness the power of identity to power considered and contextual customer experience while balancing consumer preferences for control and privacy will win.