Marketing is commonly believed to have progressed through five distinct phases of evolution since the beginning of time: the simple trade era, the production era, the sales era, the marketing department era and the marketing company era. This is the classical progression taught in business schools today to tomorrow’s marketing leaders. But is it an accurate and complete representation of the different eras of marketing? In my opinion, the answer is no.
The premise of this blog is that since post-World War II, marketing is evolving in twenty year cycles, more or less. Thus, while the classical five era progression is taught in business schools, seven distinct eras are apparent. Why is this important to marketers? It may not be. Or it may represent the difference between success and failure. Knowing the game and how it is played is a necessary and critical component of winning the game. Let’s review the five classical eras before making the case for the two new eras.
The first is known as the simple trade era, where everything available was made or harvested by hand and available in limited supply. Exploration (some contend exploitation) and trade in resources was the focus of the economic activity. Commodities ruled the day. Because we’re somewhat lazy as theorists, this era is described as having lasted from the beginning of time through the mid-19th century. The simple trade era was replaced by the production era at the time of the industrial revolution. Mass production increased the availability of product options in the marketplace. This is the era of the field of dreams business philosophy of “if you build it, they will come”, successful only because there were few alternative product options available. This marketing era lasted approximately 60 years from the 1860’s until the 1920’s.
The sales era (1920’s – 1940’s) followed the production era once pent-up consumer demand became saturated. No longer could businesses easily and readily sell everything they produced. Competition for market share increased. Companies had to work harder to sell their product to consumers. Commoditization emerged: products became commodities and price became the distinguishing competitive advantage. The archetype representing the end of this era is Willy Loman. The post-WW II economic boom fostered the emergence of the marketing department era where manufacturing firms realized that the sales orientation of the past was not resonating with consumers. New levels of affluence provided consumers with more power in the marketplace. Businesses consolidated marketing-related activities (advertising, sales, promotion, public relations, etc.) into a single department. In my opinion, this is the period of “the great awakening” in western business: the time when the realization that marketing is the reason that business exists emerged. This period lasted from the 1940’s through the 1960’s and is typified by my favorite brand repositioning phrase: new, improved and lemon-scented.
The marketing company era emerged once the premise of the marketing concept became widely accepted. The marketing concept, in brief, contends that businesses exist to address customer needs. That is, the customer is the focus of our business endeavors. No longer was marketing compartmentalized – it became the goal of the business. All employees became part of the marketing effort, either directly or indirectly, and the customer became king. In the classical theory of marketing evolution, this is the final phase. It began in the 1960’s and is still in play.
But is it? Obviously not. In an article entitled “Marketing: Historical Perspectives”, a sixth era is identified: the relationship marketing era. The goal is to build a long-term, mutually beneficial, relationship with the customer. The focus changed to lifetime customer value and customer loyalty. Peppers and Rogers ushered in this era with their 1993 book “The One-to-One Future: Building Relationships One Customer at a Time” (disclosure: Martha Rogers was my advertising professor). Customer relationship management (CRM) and data-mining became the buzzwords in marketing. Getting all systems in sync to capture information about each customer’s behavior is still, at best, a work in progress. The key to building relationships is trust, thus its importance as the central tenet of relationship marketing. Clearly the relationship marketing era exists and is in play today, from the 1990’s to 2010. But is it the end of the evolutionary process?
In April 2009, Forrester released “The Future of the Social Web” in which they identified the five eras of the social web. As with each previous change in marketing eras, this report serves to announce the paradigm shift from the relationship marketing era to what is identified here as the social/mobile marketing era. It subsumes the knowledge and theories of its predecessor era, as did each before, but focuses on real-time connections and social exchanges based on relationships driven by the consumers (permission-based or opt-in relationships). In this era, businesses are connected 24/7 to current, future and potential consumers in real-time. Communication and exchange of information is a critical success factor. But much like the predecessor eras, trust and maintaining a positive image are just as important.
From a marketing standpoint, two lessons are apparent. First, in the past the diffusion of innovation in marketing was unidirectional, from the academy (business schools) to business. Marketing theory drove business implementation of marketing practices. Today, this is no longer the case. Business schools lag businesses in the adoption and implementation of best practices in marketing to the point where current marketing education is out of touch with reality. A new game has developed and we’re barely aware that it exists. Thus, lesson one is to get your marketing education via sources from outside of traditional business schools. And second, as we transition from the relationship marketing era to the social/mobile marketing era, opportunities exist to grab market share, or share of voice, in the new era. Lesson two is that the time is now.