It used to be that marketing was a one-way street on a simple country road.
Businesses would take out ads on the radio, TV, or newspaper, showing mass audiences how awesome and fun their lives would be if only they had some product (or better yet, they'd just show the product itself held by a sexy woman, doctor, or rosy-cheecked child and call it a job well done). They could say whatever they thought would make you buy it, and it usually worked.
Research or oversight to ensure products did as promised was minimal, competition was scarce, and if you were dissatisfied with what you purchased there was really no way to provide feedback in a relevant way.
Crappy brands had it made.
Fast forward to present day and things are a bit more... complicated. We've gone from country road to information highway to a multi-dimensional, time-and-space-bending virtual reality since the internet reached critical mass in the first few years of this century.
Immense competition, quality standards, and social media have revolutionized how people interact with brands. Now there are websites to tell a story, there are analytics to show what's working and what isn't, there's e-commerce so you can get whatever you want, whenever you want it, and if you don't like it, you can not only return it but write a terrible review and damage that brand's reputation.
The power has shifted to the masses.
It is no longer adequate to simply describe the benefits of a product, show it being used, or even get fancy endorsements from celebrities or professionals in the field. If the product, message, or presentation sucks, most consumers will see right through the hype and sales will suffer.
These days, marketers and brands must engage with potential customers, nurture them, cultivate a relationship, incorporate their feedback, and pull them towards something truly great rather than push them towards poorly-made junk.
With a dynamic like that you'd better believe the products and producers themselves have had to step it up. Few things are just things now. The best things offer a feeling of transformation, health and happiness, a better world, a more fulfilling life. They create an entire world around their products and make you want to be at the center of it all because it will actually make you a better person.
The key is not simply creating something you (the creator) think is great and then investing a whole lot of money into stuffing it down the throats of consumers, but developing a customer-centric idea that fulfills a need, putting it out there to test the waters, launching and learning, and continually improving based on real-time feedback from the actual people who use it.
Google does it, so does Apple, Facebook, PayPal, even Subway, Starbucks, and McDonald's. Countless more are getting on the bandwagon and realizing that the younger generation stepping into financial power has a new set of standards and expectations.
The ironic thing is that while most consumers feel uneasy knowing that companies are constantly storing our personal information with every keystroke so they can sell us things, we've also internalized these practices to the effect of being annoyed when we are promoted something clearly in conflict with our preferences.
I mean, if you're a health-conscious foodie and see an ad for KFC on Facebook you're more likely to feel violated, gross, and annoyed at Facebook for subjecting you to such an obvious lack of insight than if you were to see an ad for a yoga retreat or a new chia-coconut kombucha drink. Am I right?
Change may be slow for companies that have been around for a long time and have a hard time making shifts in their business model, but new companies are taking off and succeeding quickly by using these practices, just look at Kickstarter, Twitter, Toms, and all the countless artisinal food labels having breakout sales because they're smart about using Instagram!
Furthermore, there is greater specialization. Gone are the days when companies made "great clothes" or "sturdy backpacks" now if you're looking for black sweaty yoga leggings with butterfly patterns there's a business for that, if you're into patent leather tech accessories you can find it on Etsy, if you want Fair Trade raw dark chocolate with superfoods there's a biz for that too. It would have been unheard of to cater to such a niche market years ago but now the internet has united consumers and businesses who sell one-specialized-thing-but-it's-the-best-that-thing out there have flourished.
Since the dawn of the internet, both marketing practices and the customers themselves have changed and we're not going back. Personally, I like it. It is a more authentic, fun, creative, and effective way to sell things that people genuinely want or need.