How Marketing Shifts of the Past Two Decades are Shaping the Future
10 mins read

How Marketing Shifts of the Past Two Decades are Shaping the Future

 At the end of January, The Internationalist, the company I founded at the beginning of the 21st century to connect the people and ideas in international marketing, celebrated 20 years. While that’s a milestone for any independent venture, it also caused me to look at how marketing has evolved over the last two decades and perhaps where it might be headed. 

Commemorating 20 years also allows one to indulge in a little personal reflection. During that time, I have interviewed thousands of leading marketers in every corner of the world about what matters most to their brands and their professions. Hundreds of podcasts later, I’ve learned from agency executives, examined thousands of case studies, and still remember countless examples of great and sometimes not-so-great advertising. I explored changing thoughts about purpose through our Marketing Makes a World of Difference™ initiative. And, living up to our name, I’ve had the good fortune of visiting most of the world’s business capitals. I tried not to forget a face, a brand story, or a winning strategy. 

Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard said, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” And while I’m hardly interested in dwelling in the past, I have learned that experience and perspective are useful to understanding how the future is unfolding before us. 

So how has marketing changed in the 21st century? 

Many people will point to the trifecta of digital media, an overabundance of information, and the galloping pace of technology. If you’re older than 40, you may recall that a marketer would “launch a campaign,” and then wait weeks or even months before determining results. And “awareness” was the critical indicator. Now, we gauge specific definitions of success in “real time.” Research tells us that in today’s era of information and connectivity, we are exposed to 4,000 to 10,000 ad messages daily. (We only notice just less than 100.) 

Are reach and frequency now metrics of a bygone era as our attention fractures across media and devices at any moment? In the past, advertising worked hard to memorably inform people about products and services they may want in their lives. Now, anyone can find detailed information about anything they may like to buy— not only from the brand itself, but through other purchasers. 

While traditional media reigned supreme in the 20th century; digital and social media changed the game through the sharing and re-sharing of content and allowing advertising to scale quickly. Plus, browsing habits, content consumption, and online purchases began to inform the “customer journey.” Now Artificial intelligence and instant analytics will continue to track behaviors and find new ways to be relevant.

There’s no denying that technology’s pace is ever forward. Amid all this breathless, heady change, I’ve noticed two dramatic shifts in the past 20 years that speak loudly about business and the future. 

The first is the ROLE OF MARKETING itself.

Marketing leaders are now tasked with expanded responsibilities of extraordinary complexity and greater accountability. In addition to the current emphasis on corporate purpose, sustainable solutions, and the demands of ESG standards, today’s marketers must champion consumer trust, provide unparalleled brand experiences, lead data strategy, rally employees throughout the globe, continually demonstrate significant return on investment… and accomplish it all faster– as the speed of innovation matters as much today as innovation itself. As a result, marketing leadership is more business critical than ever before. And, in the wake of COVID’s disruption and uncertainty, marketers have gained in corporate influence as management has recognized their significance in both crisis response and longer-term actions.  

The CMO Survey— a venture by Deloitte, the American Marketing Association, and the Fuqua School of Business– reported in 2021 that 72.2% of companies saw the role of marketing increase in importance over the prior year. In 2022 that statistic was essentially consistent at almost 70%. Separately, McKinsey has reported that 78% of CEOs expect marketing leaders to drive growth. These statistics fundamentally shift the impact of marketing within the corporation. Not only do CMOs and marketing leaders now have a true seat within the C-Suite boardroom, but current reality requires them to use their new-found influence in ways that not only align with the CEO and CFO but drive business forward. 

The expectations of marketing outcomes are at an all-time high, especially from the top. In our post-digital age, management is now understanding that marketers are the individuals best able to gauge customers’ reasons for purchasing a product or service, which directly ties to creating brand value and driving company revenue. When companies take a limited view of marketing by restricting its function to just advertising or communications, they do a disservice to their business. 

Marketing has become a broad, strategic discipline that now plays a central role in all companies by guiding and helping to execute the most vital goals. One indicator of its importance is the number of CMOs who are now becoming top corporate leaders– Presidents and CEOs– as the nature of business changes and as marketing is recognized as essential to inspiring both innovation and positive transformation throughout any organization.   

The second shift centers around PURPOSE. 

While marketers generally have a strong understanding of the fundamentals of being purpose-driven, there has been increasing skepticism of not only “purpose washing,” but of purpose message fatigue. However, one cannot deny that in the last several years, we have witnessed a profound change in the connections between brands and society. Marketing, through purpose, is changing to reflect the increased responsibilities of business.

Society’s expectations of the expanded obligations of brands to their customers has changed dramatically amid today’s world of increased corporate citizenship. The ways in which an organization treats its stakeholders—be they local communities, suppliers, or employees—is now core to how the C-suite is judged. Our own Internationalist INSIGHTS Survey indicates that 85.7% of marketers worldwide now agree with the following statement: “Companies should serve not only their shareholders, but also deliver value to their customers, invest in employees, deal fairly with suppliers, and support the communities in which they operate.” This assertion clearly reflects the ideals of the Business Roundtable– the non-profit association of CEOs at leading US companies who work together to promote a prosperous economy. Several years ago, the group ushered in a new era in the very essence of business when they elevated stakeholder interests to the same level as shareholder interests.   

The Internationalist has long believed that we are beginning to see the humanization of business. We recognized the kernels of this when we started our Marketing Makes a World of Difference™ initiative a decade ago. Essentially, people will not transact with any company, product, or service unless its values resonate on a very human level– whether that translates to denying excess, advocating sustainability, ensuring jobs, or aiming to do some form of social good. People want to live with more meaning– rather than just more– and to feel they are part of making a difference in an incredibly stressful world. A clear purpose becomes more than an identity; it becomes a set of values that inspires those within the organization, while telegraphing its brand principles to the world—namely why it exists, what it can offer or solve, and how it interacts with and supports society. 

As values become a bigger driver for decision-making, consumers will choose brands that align with their ideals and standards while avoiding those that do not. Companies that lead with purpose and build around it can achieve continued loyalty, consistency, and relevance in the lives of consumers… through all situations and events. Marketers have a responsibility to be the voice of the customer. And, today, those customers want to know what a brand is doing to improve the world or make their life better.  Long-time marketing guru Philip Kotler has said that marketing has progressed through five stages since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution: The Production Era, The Product Era, The Selling Era, The Marketing Era, and The Holistic Era. I believe he is correct. And I’d like to explore which era just may be next… 

So, where do we go from here? 

Just as “purpose” is no longer simply a statement on a corporate website but the way a company or brand behaves, the definition of “marketing” is ever evolving to become broader and more significant, particularly as the Edelman Trust Barometer assures us that business is now viewed as the only global institution to be both competent and ethical. To maintain this trust, comes greater responsibility, and marketing will grow in importance to expand the creation of business value, as well as its transparency, while continuing to frame brand benefits and answer customer needs. 

I intend to use my experience and perspective to share insights from current work, personal observations, and interviews with industry leaders on how marketing continues to shift while helping the modern corporation navigate the future. I began this commentary with a quote for Kierkegaard. I close with the wisdom of Heraclitus, the ancient Greek philosopher who influenced Plato, Aristotle, and even Friedrich Nietzsche. He said, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” 

What a wonderful way of saying that perspective changes all! I hope to test the waters repeatedly and share those differences that matter most in this fascinating, ever-shifting profession—that’s now more significant than ever before.