The Three Stages of Marketing

By Lora Kratchounova, Scratch Marketing + Media

Modern digital marketing is about establishing brand authority. It’s based on trust, expertise, reputation, community recognition and engagement.

Of course, those were all factors that went into marketing in prior eras, as well  —  but that doesn’t mean marketing is the same as it ever was. Placed in the proper context, it will become clear how these principles brought us to the era of Marketing the Future. Let’s examine exactly how we got to this era and just how different it is from those that preceded it  —  Marketing the Past and Marketing the Present.

Before 1980: Marketing the Past

Though we become farther removed from this era with each passing year, it still informs so much about marketing today. Certainly, the decade or so after World War II can be looked at as the Golden Age of Marketing, tied inextricably with the midcentury modern movement in the arts and architecture and still recalled with fondness. Consider how it is glorified in the AMC television series “Mad Men”  —  who hasn’t watched that and longed for an Eames chair?

But not all the influences of this era are good ones. Its messaging relied heavily on advertising and was rooted in nostalgia  —  it was, quite literally, marketing the past: You’ll always be that rugged Marlboro Man, always enjoy the Big Mac, always drive an Oldsmobile just as your parents did. The promise of these brands was that if you liked what you saw, tasted, or experienced in the past, the product would consistently deliver the same for you in the future. And if you used the product, you would be just like that person featured in the ads  —  just as rugged, handsome and happy.

Consumers were led to believe that these experiences would be infinitely repeatable, that these things would never change. But things did change, naturally, starting with the generations that succeeded the Baby Boomers. The language of nostalgia lost its resonance. The brands that trade on their past image today  —  think of McDonalds and its trademark golden arches  —  have to contend with viral information that questions the validity of that very image  —  now think of “Super Size Me” or “Food, Inc.”

1980s and 1990s: Marketing the Present

If you wanted to sum the next era of marketing in a single word (and we do), that word would be “more.”

Buoyed by better jobs, greater income, and advanced manufacturing and distribution capabilities, consumerism became the norm and marketing followed its lead. More stuff, more deals, more functions  —  we were even told that less was more (with an emphasis on the “more,” of course). Companies that produced products wanted their horns blown long and loud. An extreme example was when Hewlett Packard’s president personally wrote the copy for a full-page newspaper ad, which consisted entirely of an expansive list of features in their latest servers.

Advertisers and marketers thought they were delivering information to consumers, but what they were instead delivering was information overload. Humans aren’t equipped to process more than a handful of information at a time. Give people too many choices and their decisions become arbitrary, not informed. Less, it turns out, really is more.

And less is better, as we learned in the succeeding decades.

2000 and Beyond: Marketing the Future

With the turn of the millennium came a reset from product overload. The marketing industry had absorbed the lessons of the past eras and knew that consumers do not  —  they will not —  consider products in a vacuum. They want to know what the product can do today as well as how the brand will innovate for tomorrow, in the context of competing products and with an eye toward the next generation coming down the pipe. And the internet empowered them to get that information independently of manufacturers and advertising.

Today’s customers won’t stand for simply being told they have to buy something; instead, they prefer to guide their own education about products so they can make informed buying decisions on their own terms.

Building trust and brand loyalty, which often has little to do with the present or even the past, is what works in this era. Consider some of the most highly regarded brands of today: Google, Amazon, Pinterest, Facebook, Twitter  —  not a single one of these existed 25 years ago. Yet they dominate entire markets and wield indisputable clout with consumers.

Buyers have forged a new contract: They will selectively trust brands they believe will deliver for the future. Marketers striving to help companies win over the minds (and wallets) of those consumers must respond with a toolset that is intrinsically based on trust.

Welcome to the Future

Modern marketers need to understand how Marketing the Past and Marketing the Present worked, but not so they can emulate them. Understanding how each preceding era worked and how we got to where we are today will give digital marketers a good grasp on the principles that govern Marketing the Future and help them create meaningful connections with their customers and markets.

You can learn more about your marketing future at

Back to blog