As the saying goes, “The customer is always right in matters of taste.” And in the world of marketing and advertising, that philosophy is always relevant. But how have audience tastes changed with time?
Both marketing and advertising have changed significantly over the years together with technology and society. That’s certainly something we’re all used to as we strive to stay on top of trends to have the most impact, chasing after the next viral phenomenon.
But no matter how great a visionary leads a creative team, our work is always done, first and foremost, for an audience of real people living in the real world, and people change with the times they live in. Here are some of the changes audiences have went through over the years, and how they have influenced the trends in advertising.
Informational To Emotional
With every technological leap from the radio to the internet, the tastes of audiences have changed accordingly, leading to the shifts in advertising approaches.
With information being widely available at a moment’s notice, audiences have become more sophisticated and discerning in their preferences. In other words, they have a better idea of what products and approaches they like, and are more likely to see
One such change in audiences is their move from informational to emotional advertising. Advertising in the old days was primarily focused on providing direct information about a product or service. However, over time, audiences preferences grew more personal. To adjust, advertisers shifted their tone to meet these demands and stand out from competitors. That is how we got marketing aimed at creating emotional connections with consumers, most notably through storytelling and relatable content.
A fine example of this can be found in the inimitable Coca-Cola brand. In the 1950s, Coca-Cola launched its “It’s the Real Thing” campaign, focusing on the product’s taste and ingredients to sell it as a refreshing and satisfying beverage.
Now, we fast forward to their modern “Share a Coke” campaign. Instead of focusing on the features and qualities of coke by stressing that it was a great drink, it instead personalised bottles with people’s names on them. Consumers who were eager to look for bottles with either their names or those of their friends, and this highlighted that customers very much engaged with brands that appealed to their emotions and formed a connection over something as simple yet meaningful as a name.
Traditional to Digital
Another undeniable change that came with technology was the preferred format going from traditional to digital.
The definitions of what was a “traditional” medium has always shifted with each advancement, such as going from print to radio. And in the digital age of today, with the rise of the internet and social media, people prefer to get their ads from websites instead of newspapers and televisions. Today, it’s a standard method in any advertising agency’s toolkit to be fluent in digital marketing, and we buy ad space on digital platforms like Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram.
Countless examples of traditional advertising exist, and one such campaign from a major brand was Volkswagen’s “Think Small” ad from the 1960s. Aside from crafting their advertising to promote the Volkswagen Beetle’s size and affordability, it primarily ran in big-name magazines like Time and Life. And of course, we all grew up with advertising on radio stations and between television programmes.
Then when the internet continued to develop and advertising grew more agile, audience tastes made the jump along with consumers creating new communities and connections online. Besides selecting platforms with a large number of user traffic, digital ads can get a substantial boosts because audience tastes now include a desire to be part of the conversation online. For example, Nike’s “Dream Crazy” campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick launched on social media platforms like Instagram and Twitter, generating a lot of buzz by tapping into trending conversations of the day surrounding social justice and civil rights.
Push to Pull
This might come as a surprise to some, but audience tastes have actually shifted from “push” to “pull.” In the past, advertising was often viewed as intrusive and interruptive, with brands reaching out and “pushing” their messages onto consumers.
But now, the trend in advertising is inbound marketing, creating content made to engage and “pull” audiences to homepages and online stores. In other words: We now make content that our customers want to consume, instead of the sort which makes them change the channel. Wouldn’t you like it if a client liked your advertising so much they looked for more of it?
We can most easily recognise outbound marketing as the sort we grew up with and witnessed throughout the 1990s. With the heyday of TV networks, infomercials were a widely spread and popularly remembered form of “pushy” advertising. Many of these long-form commercials aired on late-night TV and sold products like exercise equipment and kitchen gadgets directly to consumers. You can just picture those experts demonstrating the products and beseeching viewers to call the number on the screen.
Now, however, audiences much prefer inbound marketing. An example of this is Hubspot’s “Inbound Marketing” campaign, which in fact coined the term in the first place. The company created a series of blog posts, e-books, and webinars providing valuable information to its target audience of marketers and business owners. Instead of pushing their brand onto the audience, they chose to provide content that their audience would find valuable, and their customers proved hungry for more. This established Hubspot as a thought leader in the industry and attracted new customers to the brand.
Product-focused to Customer-focused
From these trends above, it makes sense that the overall shift in consumer tastes have taken them and advertising from product-focused to customer-focused.
As the move from informational to emotional marketing shows, tastes in advertising have changed to be more personal. Before, ads could be expected to focus solely on the features and benefits of the product or service. The time of informational marketing meant that ads focused on products.
However, today’s consumers are looking for more personal and emotional engagement from brands that align with their values, resulting in ads prioritising the customer. Instead of speaking about products, we shifted to speak to customers.
This can be seen in the contrast between Pepsi’s “Pepsi Challenge” campaign from the 1980s and Patagonia’s “Don’t Buy This Jacket” campaign. In the “Pepsi Challenge” Pepsi’s taste was compared to Coca-Cola and positioned as the superior product, allowing Pepsi to leave a memorable impression on consumers.
On the other hand, the “Don’t Buy This Jacket” campaign, as the name suggests, instead engaged customers in a conversation about environmental awareness and encouraging them to think about the impact of their purchases. This targeted the audience instead of pitching the product, and highlighted Patagonia’s commitment to sustainability in a way which felt authentic to customers who would continue to engage with the brand.
Mass to Niche
Finally, the change in audience tastes has moved advertising from mass to niche appeal. While reaching a large number of people is always desirable for any ad, things have changed because of the rise of media channels.
Consumers are able to gather into specific groups more efficiently than ever, which has led brands to realise that targeting these niche groups with personalised messages can be highly effective. So instead of attempting to reach as broad an audience as possible through multiple platforms, we are now tailoring our approach to directly reach the audiences who are most likely to be receptive.
This change can be observed in Marlboro’s “Marlboro Man” campaign in the 1950s. This campaign represented classic mass advertising techniques. It made use of billboards and magazine ads, and it promoted Marlboro cigarettes as a symbol of rugged masculinity and outdoor adventure, reaching as large a male audience as possible with a generally masculine message.
By contrast, the Dollar Shave Club’s “Our Blades are F***ing Great” campaign neatly represents the effectiveness of niche advertising. This campaign targeted young men frustrated with the high cost of razors, offering them a more affordable, subscription-based solution. By using a tone and offering a product the target audience deeply resonated with instead of reaching for a broader male demographic, the campaign went viral even beyond them, and helped to establish Dollar Shave Club as a major player in the men’s grooming market.
So in conclusion, the changes in customer tastes have most definitely had an effect on advertising. We have evolved from product-focused messages plastered on traditional channels for a broad audience to more personal, authentic, and custom-tailored campaigns that seek emotional connections with customers. Where we once had television infomercials selling products, now we have digital campaigns selling conversations with consumers.
But no matter the era and no matter how much marketing may evolve, the heart of our profession remains the same: seeking the best way to reach an audience and get our message to stick with them.