Eras of Marketing

My first degree was in history and I am always interested in how people classify history. Time is continuous, it just keeps on coming, yet human beings often find it hard to make sense when something is continuous. It is much easier to operate with items grouped in some ways.

Days have a clear cycle which means it is pretty obvious why people use them. When looking at longer periods one wants a suitable way of grouping. Decades/centuries are pretty arbitrary — there isn’t a massive difference between 1989 and 1990 compared to that between 1990 and 1991. Instead those studying history group into ages/periods etc… When learning these for the first time it is often tempting to imbue ages with great significance. In English history 1066 (the Norman Conquest of England) is a significant date but the date is less significant when looking at other countries and even in England many things didn’t change in 1066.  In school we learned that 1485 (the death of Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth) was the end of the medieval period but having a new ruling monarch, Henry Tudor, didn’t fundamentally alter England and Wales never mind mean much beyond those countries.

Approaching the history of marketing it would be easy if there were self-evident periods. There aren’t. Instead scholars have to try and make sense as best they can, to put structure on messy continuous scholarly time. Wilkie and Moore do this in their 4 eras of marketing. In a major task of reading the literature they manually synthesize the themes. (We could probably try to use some automated data analysis techniques if we did it now).

Wilkie and Moore talk about how at the turn of the twentieth century “the area that would become “marketing” was firmly ensconced within the field of economics” (Wilkie and Moore, 2003, page 116). They then highlight the way marketing — in their view — progressed.

After the “pre-marketing” period there was the first twenty years of the twentieth century, which represented “founding the field”. (Note the use of nice round numbers to make it easy for the reader). The next thirty years (1920-1950) was “formalizing the field” in which many of the professional associations and journals were founded. The next thirty years  (1950-1980) they describe as a paradigm shift. This was a boom time and they give details of the great increase in those studying business.  In this era two views appeared; a managerial view and a more behavioural and quantative science viewpoint. The final era is the last twenty years of the twentieth century, which saw a fragmentation into knowledge niches. They then consider where we were going (in 2003) including some concerns for the field.

Wilkie and Moore’s work is extensive and interesting. It is worth all marketers having a think about where the field is coming from and going to.

Read:  William Wilkie, & Elizabeth Moore (2003). Scholarly research in marketing: Exploring the “4 eras” of thought development. Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, 22(2), 116-146.