Imagine you were born in 1910. Over the course of your lifetime, you’d witness the rise of radio; the emergence and dominance of TV; the birth of computers and the internet; and even the first appearance of mobile devices. Print, which had been the only mass communication channel for a solid 5 centuries, would turn into the foundation supporting a variety of new digital media channels in the 20th century. These new channels paved the way for radical advances in information exchange, commerce, storytelling—and yes, marketing.
In this article, I’d like to take you through a brief history of brand marketing as it transitioned from print to digital over the past 115 years. Along the way, we’ll examine some of the brand marketing trends we saw in print and explore how they continue to play out in the digital space.
Let’s set the wayback machine to 1921, where our digital story begins.
1921: Radio Sets the Stage for Digital Brand Marketing
For about 40 years, brand marketers had been working with just a single channel to reach their audience: print. But all that changed in the 1920s when radio began to take off. While radio had been used for non-commercial purposes at the turn of the century, the first brand marketing spot didn’t hit the radio airwaves until 1921. WEAF of New York is credited with airing the first paid radio commercial for an apartment complex owned by the Queensboro Corporation.
Imagine the excitement of brands over radio marketing. No longer were their messages limited to a single city or even a single state: They could now reach a national or even international audience.
Brands were quick to come up with new and creative ways to tell consumers about their products using radio. For example, in the 1930s, P&G began to run radio soap operas for their Duz & Oxydol products. This mix of advertising and content was a huge success—and it’s a strategy that still remains relevant to our content marketing efforts today.
1941: Brand Marketing Comes to Life with Television
While radio captivated the imaginations of consumers worldwide, it was television that truly began to revolutionize digital marketing for brands. The first paid television ad ran in the United States in 1941 for Bulova watches. Here it is for your viewing pleasure.
It’s a far cry from 21st century advertising, but Bulova does tap into a marketing trend that continues today: Positioning its brand as a “national” preference or standard. This is still a common brand play of the U.S. automotive industry—take this Ford campaign from 2014, for instance:
In the U.K., the first TV ad didn’t air until 1955. The commercial for Gibbs SR Toothpaste is more sophisticated than the Bulova ad in terms of messaging—it taps into expert opinions, experiential words like “tingling fresh”, metaphors, and repetition of branding throughout. It also utilized more sophisticated production, including a musical background track, product action shots, and b-roll footage.
As television grew up, marketing grew up with it. Brands began to tap into the storytelling elements that made for good film and TV shows: humor, character development, and an arc that carries the viewer through a setup, conflict, and resolution. These 1960’s commercials illustrate these three principles nicely.
1978: Computers Pave the Way for Email Marketing
Radio and television brand marketing reigned supreme for a solid 6 decades before computers began to come into professional use, but it didn’t take long for early adopters to start using computers for marketing purposes. The first (unsolicited) marketing email was sent in 1978 to a mailing list of 400 people within the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network advertising a new line of DECYSTEM-20 computers. And so email spam was born.
(Source: Ad Pushup)
The first wave of email marketing shared a lot in common with advertorials or lengthier print ads, but brands soon discovered that the etiquette rules around email were very different than any mass media channel they’d used for marketing in the past. Brands had to find a more personalized way to get their message across to the right people. Out of this need, the email service providers (ESPs), list management services, and marketing automation platforms we all know and love/hate came to be.
1994: Internet Advertising Takes off with Banner Ads
Just like the newspapers, magazines, and catalogs that preceded them, consumer-facing websites drew readers that brand marketers wanted to reach. It only took a few years for other internet-based marketing channels to emerge. In 1994, just a few years after email marketing began to thrive, banner ads began to eat up any and all digital white space. Here’s the first banner ad in all its glory.
While banner ads had some things in common with their print predecessors, they represented a game-changing revolution in brand marketing. For the first time ever, marketers could start to directly measure whether their advertising efforts were working. With new analytics at their disposal, brand marketers began to look for ways to optimize their efforts. Unfortunately for digital advertising, one of the first innovations developed to solve the problem of poor ad clickthrough rates was the notorious pop-up ad, created in 1997.
(Source: The Verge)
Around the same time, Doubleclick Ad Network was launched to help traffic and serve banner ads across the web, expanding the reach of brand marketers in a significant way.
1994: Websites Become the New Content Hubs for Brands
In order for brands to effectively market their products and services in the brave new world wide web, they needed somewhere to drive their audience to engage with brand content. It makes sense, then, that the first brand websites began popping up in tandem with banner ads in the mid 1990s. As a classic example, here’s Pizza Hut’s version 1.0 website from 1994:
Let’s take a moment and give thanks that web design and copywriting have progressed since then.
These early websites tended to focus on function as opposed to form (or content), but as digital content creators and coders became more savvy, brand websites evolved into mid-funnel marketing machines with clear architecture, product information, case studies, and news. Check out Microsoft’s site circa 2000:
(Source: Wayback Machine)
In tandem with creating more robust websites, brands also began leveraging blogs to provide a more conversational type of content for their customers and prospects. Microsoft launched their blog in 2000, with Macromedia and P&G following close behind in 2002.
Brands learned over time that having a website full of interesting, relevant, well-organized content was vital to their marketing efforts—and we’re still trying to dial in that magic mix of information and architecture today.
2000: SEM and Social Marketing Diversify Online Advertising
Search engines existed well before Google (remember Xcite, AltaVista, and Netscape?), but Google was the first one who really figured out how to make search a dedicated marketing channel for brands. In 2000, they launched their paid search program, allowing brands to advertise against search keywords to gain exposure and reach online. Today, search engine marketing makes of the majority of Google’s revenue, driving $59 billion in revenue last year.
With SEM, marketers were challenged to get their point across as succinctly as possible and really hone in on their brand value propositions. Search marketing also forced brands to dig deeper into understanding how their customers talk about their product—not simply how they as a company talk about their product. Marketing started to become a conversation instead of a one-way communication outlet.
Not long after search engine marketing took off, social media emerged as another new channel by which brands could now reach consumers. In 2004, TheFacebook (as it was called back in the day) ran its first banner ad.
From these humble beginning, social networks have grown into some of the most advanced advertising networks on the web. WIth their wealth of user data, they’ve allowed brands to carefully target, write, and serve ads to their audiences. It’s no wonder than social advertising is now a more than $17 billion industry, with social ad spend comprising about 12% of most brands’ annual marketing budgets.
Today: Digital’s Impact on Print Brand Marketing
Between radio, television, email, banner ads, SEM, social ads, websites, blogs, and other types of digital marketing channels, where does that leave print? Have brands abandoned their roots in print marketing altogether?
Yes, print advertising revenue from newspapers and magazines is down. Yes, many print publications have closed shop or evolved into digital-only outlets. But many brands are still spending substantial portions of their marketing budgets on print marketing activities, most notably direct mail.
Anyone with a mailbox can attest to the undiminished volume of catalogs, postcards, and letters from brands of all industries and sizes. Retailers in particular have continued to invest in print catalogs, lookbooks, and magazines, even while offering many of the same assets online.
(Source: Phase 8)
So what does this mean? Are brands stuck in old ways of doing things? Are consumers not ready for a fully online brand experience? Is there something special about print that digital just can’t emulate?
My personal take is this: Brands have been doing print marketing for over 130 years, and the mechanics of print marketing haven’t changed drastically. Brands have been running radio ads for almost a century, and they’ve been creating TV commercials for almost 75 years. Consumers are comfortable with these types of formats, and marketers have had years to figure out how to use them effectively.
Web-based marketing channels, on the other hand, are still relatively new, and they’re changing all the time. Both consumers and brands are constantly having to learn new ways of communicating using new technology. On top of that, brands are facing more competition than ever from other content online. News sites, blogs, forums, social networks, YouTube, memes—the list of non-branded content people interact with on the web is endless.
These realities have conspired to make it very difficult for brands to gain and keep their audience’s attention online, even though we as a society are spending more and more of our waking hours consuming online content. Digital marketing is trying to outpace consumer boredom and distraction, but it can’t quite keep up.
I’m not trying to bum you out. In fact, I’m here to tell you that there’s still hope for brands creating web-based content, because digital isn’t the end of the story. I’ve been keeping a card in my back pocket this whole time, and it has the potential to save brands from dying a slow and silent death in the din of virtual noise. What is this killer card? Stay tuned to find out next week.