The Gist

  • 1990s insights. Embrace emerging channels to secure first-mover advantages and stay ahead of competitors.
  • 2000s lessons. Leverage personal data from social media and online platforms to tailor marketing efforts and meet customer preferences.
  • 2010s takeaways. Prioritize direct communication and authentic brand personality on social media channels to create strong customer connections.
  • 2020s adaptation. Anticipate user preferences and evolving market dynamics to drive retention and success through innovative marketing strategies.

New media channels have always forced the advertising industry to adapt, but their proliferation since the ’90s has been uniquely disruptive. In that time, technological advancements granted better access to audiences and target markets, encouraging brands to use more niche, loyalty-building tactics.

With each passing decade came a lesson (or two) that still applies today. Here’s what you can learn from the last four decades of marketing:

The 1990s: Always Scout for New Marketing Trends

The mass adoption of the internet made it possible for companies to sell and market their products and services directly to users. Amazon is often the first company to come to mind, but eBay,, 1-800-Flowers and Netflix (before its shift to streaming) all secured first-mover advantages in their respective areas. Being in the right place at the right time, coupled with a willingness to venture into uncharted territories, was a big part of their initial success.

However, it wasn’t just the internet that changed the marketing landscape. An increasing number of brands used celebrities, sports figures and cartoon characters to drive sales in all forms of media. Think Cindy Crawford and Pepsi, Michael Jordan and Gatorade, Bart Simpson and Butterfinger, Fabio and I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter, and pretty much everyone in the “Got Milk?” campaign. If brands aren’t keeping an eye out for emerging marketing trends, they will lag behind the competition.

Related Article: Top Marketing Trends You Should Watch in 2023

The 2000s: Use Data to Learn About Ideal Customers

Despite the dot-com bubble burst, the 2000s did usher in a new type of company — one that banked on the need for social and professional connections. LinkedIn, Myspace, Facebook and Twitter blazed onto the scene and heralded the age of personal data. Because so many people shared details about their lives online, these websites became treasure troves of information.

Brands that used social media, cookie and search engine data could tailor their outreach efforts to very specific audiences. Consequently, the industry moved away from mass marketing and toward targeted marketing. It became much easier to understand the habits, behaviors and preferences of ideal users. And while third-party cookies might soon become things of the past, their contributions to targeted marketing shaped user expectations today, where personalized recommendations from brands are the norm.

Related Article: What Social Media Trends to Expect for 2023

Learning Opportunities

The 2010s: Meet Customers Where They Are

By the 2010s, brands and agencies alike had fine-tuned their online marketing techniques. Then Pinterest, Twitch, Instagram, Vine and other image-based social media channels upended the marketing industry yet again. People spent more time online, particularly on social channels. Naturally, brands followed suit. They marketed where their users were, they learned even more about their audiences using the additional data provided by these channels, and they adopted North Star metrics to best measure the value users experienced from their products.

Social media allowed brands to communicate directly with audiences and also presented opportunities for companies to establish more distinct brand personalities. For instance, Red Bull solidified its adrenaline-fueled status with the viral “Space Dive” video. Coca-Cola prompted a social media frenzy with its “Share a Coke” campaign, which led hundreds of thousands of social media users to share pictures of their names on bottles. Apple took social media marketing to the next level with its extremely popular “Shot on iPhone” campaign, which promoted the brand with user-generated Instagram content.

The 2020s: Re-implement Old Lessons

In the current decade, it’s become essential to understand and anticipate future users. Existing users are no longer guaranteed to stick around. With the ever-expanding number of subscription-based products, retention has become just as vital to success as growth. Companies should pay close attention to what’s happening in their markets to ensure they’re targeting people with the right product at the right time on the right channel for the right price.

This is easier said than done considering how user preferences continue to change. Some people prefer experiences to material objects. Others prefer utility over ownership. And because people can now lease almost anything, there will be an impact on pricing strategies, acquisition channels, sales appeals and product lines. This has all led to a total market that comprises multiple submarkets. The “how” has replaced the “who” and “where” as the backbone of contemporary marketing efforts.

While marketing goals have always been moving targets, the key to success remains the same: innovation. Marketers must sometimes reinvent the wheel when tried-and-true methods falter. As people change, so too do marketing methods. If companies aren’t thinking about what comes next or learning lessons from what came before, they’re already behind.

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