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Why understanding the history of marketing matters today

In today's digitized marketing world, where clicks and pixels are the metrics of success and AI is a growing concern, is it worth looking back at the fundamentals and history of marketing?

7 min read

MarketingMarketing Strategy

Why understanding the history of marketing matters today, by Frank Belzer

Gerd Altmann / Pixabay

I have been reading a lot of research lately. I’m not bragging. I am merely explaining my circumstances (maybe even complaining). I am developing a dissertation for my Ph.D., and I now have a stack of printed (yes, old school is the way to go with this type of project) peer-reviewed articles close to a foot high. 

My focus is on changes in consumer behavior, habits and wants over the last five years or, said another way, since before the COVID-19 pandemic, and how those changes affect marketing efforts.

All of the reading is interesting, of course. However, I frequently stumble across research that is particularly interesting for one reason or another – often articles that may not help my dissertation but instead result in an article like this one. I came across an article published in marketing theory by professors and researchers at the University of York in the United Kingdom. The theme of the study was “Rethinking ‘marketing as applied economics’” (Tadajewski et al., 2022). It focuses on the history of marketing and goes back to its roots, which is why it resonated with me. 

It prompted me to ask: Have we forgotten the basics?

The psychology of marketing and how consumers process messaging and content has fallen by the wayside in many organizations and, sadly, even in many marketing agencies. Professor Tadajewski goes so far as to say that we have started to practice “the subjugation of psychical research” as a discipline.

Ironically, as I’ve observed, marketing has been moving away from actual consumer insights and research. The prevalence of more and more digital interactions and less human involvement creates a situation in which analyzing and understanding the psyche of the marketplace is more important than ever. We need to recognize that waning component when we examine the current marketing landscape.

Are we too focused on digital?

One of the biggest problems in our vertical also is one of our greatest assets. The advent of digital marketing has provided tools and platforms for measurement that many of us never imagined. We can track and attribute success or failure to every click and every pixel. We have dashboards that measure customer responses in real time, and we have Google Analytics. Let’s not even get started on what Hubspot, Tablea and Domo can do for your reporting and tracking.

All of that is great. However, we must acknowledge that it can quickly become the focus when we have so many tools and so much information. One could start tracking a consumer journey but limit that journey only to the trackable areas.

That customer journey began long before and continues well beyond the software we may use to monitor our website. These tools track the attribution of our activities, but the reality is that quite often, there is a different root cause, so something gets undeserved credit. We can start to think of these measurements of KPIs as representing people, which sounds personal, but they never are indicative of the entire consumer and therefore shed far less light than we would like their persona to provide.

Part of the problem is that many of us using this marketing technology never had to earn it. As Dr. Malcolm in Jurassic Park stated, in some respects, we have stood on the shoulders of others who did the work. Now, though, many who use marketing technology do not fully understand the history of marketing. You may think that is unimportant; you may feel this is not a pragmatic concern but let me explain why it is vital. 

Using a tool or new technology without understanding its purpose is usually dangerous. Some modern marketers may feel that older types of marketing did not work, and new marketing (that has digital tracking) does work. This fallacy is invalid; some of the greatest brands and most robust campaigns were developed before digital marketing existed! 

This belief can lead to a feeling of elitism that shuts the marketer’s eyes to opportunities outside the digital realm. That is bad as practice and an inferior way to think and brainstorm. No truly creative campaign that hits the consumer’s psyche will be built on metrics alone.

The research paper describes some unique marketing attributes that often were the foundation of campaigns in the past by saying it “is indebted to metaphysical, psychical and psychological research which provided the conditions of possibility for theorizing marketplace interactions.” This free discussion about reaching the mark with the consumers has sadly become a lost art. Too often today, the strategic conversation and discussions around a conference room whiteboard quickly degrade to digital tactics. Those tactics may be good choices – and I have often been a proponent of them – but not having the initial debate is a huge miss. 

Two significant opportunities exist, both involving backing up our marketing process.

Think person; not persona

The first is that we need to think more about the actual consumer and less about the personas we built. Often these are concepts of our wishful thinking and imagination. We must conduct more interviews and focus groups before we create a campaign or a strategic plan. I guarantee you will find disparities between what real consumers tell you and what you learn from your digital data. I have seen this happen repeatedly. I would frequently receive reports from digital scientists that drew conclusions that contradicted what we knew from speech analytics at the call center or consumer intercepts. They were partially correct, but only partially. They acted as if they were infallible, which is another dangerous component of the current circumstance we find ourselves in.

Consumer advocacy

Second, we must accept that the most extraordinary and profitable forms of marketing that exist and have ever existed are not digital. That is consumer advocacy or word of mouth. One real customer bragging to others about your product, service or experience is often not measurable. It is not usually included in your attribution calculations either. This reality should provide a level set because any business upgrading its net promoter score into a consumer advocacy campaign will see better results. For that to happen, we need to recognize and consider the psyche of our consumers far more than we currently do.

Remember Atkinson’s words

In Dr. Tadajewski’s research, cited earlier, he referenced the writings of William Walker Atkinson, who, speaking of how consumers respond to marketing, stated, “What, in short, begins as subjective thought is realized in objective form as the tradable and saleable items in the marketplace. It is at once hyper-individualistic, presenting the agent as occupying the place of a ‘creator’ in the ‘center’ of their ‘miniature universe.'” 

Although that quote sounds like something a digital marketing analyst might say, Atkinson completed his work in 1911! Yes, even in 1911, we recognized that consumer needs and wants were pivotal, and we must make consumers feel like we are listening to them like they are the center of the universe.

Moreover, we still need to see every consumer as an individual, and when those things occur in the proper sequence and with the right tone, transactions or business can occur.

Digital marketing is an excellent thing in so many ways. It makes our job easier and helps us over-deliver to consumers. However, we need to be careful of situations where the tail starts wagging the dog, when the tools start setting the strategy, and when we start turning consumers into pixels and IP addresses. 


Frank Belzer is the chief sales and marketing officer at ICON Park in Orlando, and prior to that he was senior vice president of sales for Universal Parks and Resorts. His expertise and experience include developing domestic and international sales and marketing strategies, mentoring trade partner relationships and improving international business results. He is a board member of Experience Kissimmee, and a past board member and advisor to the Grand Canyon Resort Corporation and past board member of Visit Florida.

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