Marketing Then and Now: The Evolution of the Customer Relationship

From the first marketplaces where farmers and craftsmen peddled their wares, to the line around the block for the newest iPhone, the buying and selling process has transformed around the entire globe. To illustrate just how this exchange has progressed over time, let’s travel back over the last few decades to see how new approaches and technologies have changed– for the better.

Susie Almaneih marketing

Post War and the advertising boom

With a new flood of industry, companies relied mostly on producing a good product and informing customers with brochures, catalogs, and periodical advertising.  In addition to the TV as a means of capturing public attention, an emphasis in salesmanship emerged and campaigns relied heavily on presenting trustworthy goods as a way to a more modern lifestyle.


As media became more sophisticated, companies began to look at longer-term strategies, but the method stayed pretty much the same: “outbound” marketing talked at customers.  Telemarketing, for example, took root, much to consumers’ chagrin in the 70s.


The notion of relationship marketing meant companies moved away from courting simple, one-off transactions and tried to cultivate more complex relationships with customers.  The concept of relationship marketing is still quite popular today.  Part of the reason for this development was cable TV emerging in the 1980s.  It represented an electronic, immediate way to track customer behaviors like with the Home Shopping Network (launched in 1982) and QVC (1986), as these channels sold discounted goods directly to viewers, who called in orders to telephone operators. 1

In tech, Apple distinguished itself as an innovator and a maker of tools that foster independent thinking, like the famous 1984 commercial that recreated Orwell’s dystopia.  Apple brought a few new ideas to the marketing table: empathy or deep understanding customer need, focus on creating one masterful product rather than dozens of mediocre ones, and impute, the idea that the presentation is an accurate and desirable rendering of the product.


The explosion of the Internet made it possible for companies to observe buyer behaviors with much more precision.  The buzzword of the 1990s was “integrated marketing,” a consistent message through a variety of media to cut through the noise of standard advertising and reach a specific demographic.

Companies such as Amazon and eBay were early players in e-commerce, which allowed marketers to sell products directly to consumers, as well as collect data about them.

Marketers looked toward alternative techniques such as database, interactive media, sales promotion, direct response, PR and viral marketing, and targeted methodology.


Search engines like Google, Yahoo!, and Microsoft’s Bing continued to shape the consumer experience.  In a thesis for Duke University Business School, authors Bradford Colton Lightcap and William Anthony Peek explain it this way: “Until the advent of the Internet, real-time analytics on advertising were scarce.  Advertisers often struggled to target specific demographics with audio or display ads run in widely circulated broadcasts or publications.  Furthermore, figuring out how effective an advertisement was proved difficult.  The Internet is poised to solve many of these problems via three key features: measurability, targeting, and interactivity/effectiveness.”3


Several factors contributed to a shift in attitude at the top when it comes to both the running of the business and the treatment of the customer.  The foundering of Enron, the Big 5 bailout, and the real estate crisis all created a zeitgeist of questioning the big business-as-usual mentality.  There was a big push to get domestic manufacturing back on track and small business and local production saw a surge.  During this era, women moved into the workforce in a big way, and brought a re-humanizing approach to marketing and branding.

The newer understanding is that customers want their needs met, but they also want to have an authentic exchange with the maker.

Moreover, the latest trends indicate that solution marketing is the big focus.  Problem solving is the main objective, particularly with technology-based offerings that drive customer engagement throughout the product lifecycle.

What this history demonstrates is that marketers really have the best of several worlds; they have all the tools to discover customer need and the ability to have a more level conversation with their target audience.  Interactivity has paradoxically made it easier for consumers to shop in their pajamas, but it has also served to develop the dynamic between consumer and company.

With that undeniable American individualism, investors are more open-minded about new visions and individual makers.  And even more promising, small companies no longer have to find ways to fund huge rollouts; they can build their own campaigns by doing it themselves or crowdsourcing.  This also provides testability that enables small companies to gain investment and growth because they have real-world case studies.

There is no one way to sell a product, but those who have success do so because they have applied the effective techniques of the past and integrated them into a more evolved relationship with their target consumer.