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Brand Marketing Evolution: A History of Print Content

Reading Time: 7 minutes

Modern culture is full of strange and wonderful contradictions. We simultaneously glorify all things “vintage” (hello, hipsters) while at the same time largely ignoring the historical context surrounding them.

There are a few groups of people who’ve invested time into exploring why things of the past still have a hold on our imagination today—sociologists, psychologists, writers, and filmmakers, to name a few—but marketers are sadly not on the list. We rarely take time to look in the rearview mirror to assess where we’ve been and how that might impact where we’re going.

This is a huge oversight on our part because (1) marketing is nothing if not a reflection of the society we’re marketing to, and (2) the underlying motivators that drive people to read, visit, engage, and buy haven’t changed much, if at all, over the course of history. For both of these reasons, it’s essential that we understand our collective marketing roots and the evolution of marketing over time as both technology and society have progressed.

If you’re a brand marketer, I invite you to join me on a journey through time and space—one that explores the historical roots of print content, the shift of print marketing into the digital realm, and the gradual metamorphosis of static digital content into interactive content.

Let’s start by exploring the birthplace of brand marketing, print.

Marketing in a Time Before Brands

Soon after the invention of the printing press by Gutenberg in the early 1400s, people began to leverage print as a marketing medium. From the first print ad in 1472—a flyer nailed to the door of a church advertising a book of prayers—to the classified-style text ads that ran in early newspapers like Relation in Germany (begun in 1605), early marketing was very much a one-way conversation directed to individuals, from individuals. Brands didn’t exist, and businesses weren’t leveraging print marketing in a systematic way because (a) distribution of print was still dicey, and (b) their potential customer base was in close enough proximity for word-of-mouth to still be effective, given the relative lack of market saturation.

Consumer goods started to be featured in publications in the late 1600s. Most notably, the French gazette Mercure Galant began to incorporate features on fashion and luxury goods starting in 1678, aligning with the court of Louis XIV and the style trends that were spreading throughout Europe at the time. This type of product-focused editorial coverage paved the way for brand marketing in later years.

Mercure Galant Fashion Plate

Mercure Galant fashion plate from the 1780s. (Source: Irene Brination)

The Industrial Revolution Sets the Stage for Brands

Brands as we know them today couldn’t have come into existence without the mass production innovations that happened between 1760 – 1840 during the Industrial Revolution. With a new foundation of mechanized, repeatable processes, consumer goods manufacturers were able to scale in a big way, and consequently expand their customer base in a big way as well. This led to the first real wave of brand print advertising in the 1880s.

Brand Marketing Trends: 1880s – 1900s

Looking at the copy of early brand ads is super interesting. In terms of trends, the 3 consistent things we see are:

1. Clear pricing: Brands were clearly hoping to win new customers with a price play.

Vintage Baking Soda Ad 1880s

GEO. C. Hanford baking powder ad, 1880s. (Source: Jay Paull)

2. Focus on quality: The prevalence of money-back guarantees and touting better quality than unnamed competitors and “imitators” is common during this era, and no wonder—it was during this time that consumers began to see the negative downsides of mass production (e.g., crappier outputs).

Dr Warner's Corset Ad 1880s

Dr. Warner’s Coraline Corsets ad, 1880s (Source: Jay Paull)

3. Content marketing: Brands understood early on that giving away valuable content for free can help drive more sales. Brands like Deere, Michelin, and Jello developed magazines, guides, and recipe books to help indirectly market their products.

Vintage Content Marketing Ads

Early content marketing examples from the 1900s. (Source: Content Marketing Institute)

Brand Marketing Trends: 1910s – 1920s

In the 1910s and 20s, brand marketing continued to focus on the theme of quality and authenticity. However, the landscape was beginning to change such that brands began to gain recognition in their own right. For example, this Kellogg’s Corn Flakes ad from the 1910s features a “genuine signature” from corporate mogul H.K. Kellogg, indicating that the Kellogg name had become recognizable to consumers.

Corn Flakes Ad 1920s

Kellogg’s Corn Flakes ad from the 1910s. (Source: Attic Paper)

The concept of luxury brands also began to emerge during this time, with marketing copy focused on exclusivity, classiness, and larger price points. Take this National car ad from 1914, for instance:

National Car Ad 1920s

National car ad from the 1920s. (Source: Chuck’s Toyland)

Brand Marketing Trends: 1930s-1940s

Fueled by the mass media revolution, brand marketing really began to hit its stride in the 1930s and 40s. A number of concepts we still use today were introduced into marketing content during this era, including:

1. Social proof: Using customer quotes to prove the trustworthiness of a brand.

Camel Cigarettes Ad

Camel Cigarettes Ad from the 1940s. (Source: My Birdie)

2. Celebrity endorsements: The golden age of cinema produced a whole new type of celebrity—the Hollywood starlet. Brands quickly learned that capitalizing on the name and approval of a celebrity could help them sell merchandise to the masses.

Vintage face cream ad

Lux Toilet Soap ad, 1930s. (Source: Fashion Cloud)

3. Value-focused messaging: During World War II, economy and value became big selling points for consumers, and brands began to incorporate this type of messaging into their marketing materials.

Vintage Baby Ruth Ad

Baby Ruth Ad, 1940s. (Source: Unknown)

After 1942, when all eligible men were drafted to serve in the war and women began to take a larger role in the workforce, the 3 key themes that carried through brand marketing in were:

1. Convenience: Packaged foods, easier to use appliances, and other products were touted for their convenience. This Campbell’s Soup ad exemplifies “quick and easy” messaging.

Campbell's Soup Ad

Campbell’s Soup Ad, 1940s. (Source: Vintage Browser)

2. Patriotism: Many brands capitalized on the war effort and national pride in their marketing efforts—particularly Coca Cola, as shown here.

1940s Coca Cola Ad

Coca-Cola ad from the 1940s. (Source: Top Design Mag)

3. Feature-focused marketing: Piggy-backing on the value trend from the 1930s, feature-focused marketing became more popular in the 1940s as consumers became more discerning about what they were purchasing. Given that women held the majority of purchasing power and decisions for most households, this shift could only happen in tandem with women joining the workforce. Brands’ target buyers now had a better understanding of consumer goods they may not have known much about before (such as cars, machinery, and appliances), which meant that they could incorporate more “technical” details in marketing copy.

Ford Ad 1940s

Ford Motors ad from the 1940s. (Source: Ad Branch)

Brand Marketing Trends: 1950s

The economic uptick during and after WWII coupled with an increasing savviness among consumers created new challenges for brands. Simply telling people about their products or services was no longer good enough. They now had to create a distinct identity that their audience would connect with and choose over their competitors. This type of positioning has much more in common with brand marketing today.

Brands tended to tackle the problem of identity from a few different angles. 4 of the common ones were:

1. Sports celebrity endorsements: With baseball a new national pastime in the U.S., American brands began to leverage superstars like Mickey Mantle to give themselves cache. Kodak uses Mickey’s good reputation to sell their cameras in this ad.

Kodak Mickey Mantle Ad

Kodak Company ad from the 1950s. (Source: Reign Mag)

2. Emotional messaging: Instead of selling consumers on the factual aspects of products, brands began to tap into psychology to deliver emotional messages. This Nabisco billboard delivers a double whammy: the “good taste” headline appeals to consumers’ pride, and “golden glow” appeals to their desire for happiness. (Although personally, I find this guy a bit creepy….)

Nabisco Billboard 1950s

Nabisco Premium Saltines billboard from the 1950s. (Source: Corbis)

3. Selling experiences instead of just commodities: When you sell a commodity that has no competitive differentiation (for example, gasoline), your brand has to find creative ways to add value to its offering. For example, in this billboard, Shell highlights their excellent service to set themselves apart from their competitors.

Shell Oil Billboard 1950s

Shell Oil billboard from the 1950s. (Source: Barrett Jackson)

4. Long-form advertorial content: As a way to showcase brand personalities and provide a more narrative story behind products, advertorial content began to take off in the 1950s. Just look at this gem on a hair growth serum:

Advertorial 1950s

Hair growth advertorial from the 1950s. (Source: Tom Fishburne)

The Bottom Line

Brand marketing has evolved through the ages as printing technology and formats have changed, but the trends that emerged in the print world still largely apply to marketers creating content today.

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