Scott Olrich, president of Responsys, spun a tale at his company’s user conference two weeks ago that’s worth retelling: marketing’s move to the Relationship Era.

The land before marketing

Before marketing, or what Olrich likes to call “The Customer Era”, business was highly personalized. The consumer bought her bread at the corner bakery where they knew her name and what she liked (pumpernickel, not sourdough). 

More than bread, she got a relationship, and that was very, very good.

The campaign era

As good as that relationship was, however, the consumer craved goods at lower prices and a larger selection. (This is how we arrived at the abomination that is the triple grande iced peppermint soy mocha with no whip—order that and the barista should forget your name).

That desire begat marketing and, according to Olrich, The Campaign Era: anonymous, mass campaigns across various channels—TV, outdoor advertising, and radio. The consumer had an unlimited choice of goods priced at lower costs, but now she had to figure out what she wanted and where to find it.

Her dilemma gave marketers a reason to exist.

Seen in the best light, their actions helped consumers understand why one product was the better alternative. (Think the great Coke vs Pepsi commercials.) 

But, said Olrich:

There was one message, one market, and scale was across the world. Marketers wanted to reach every household in the nation and, eventually, the globe.

Smart marketers, however, began to question this approach. Why, said Olrich, were we marketing to similarities? Why not differences? These questions gave rise to catalogs, like Land’s End and Williams-Sonoma.

Rather than targeting everyone, the catalogs sliced the retailer’s audience into smaller groups that might actually be interested in the brand. Huzzah for segmentation!

The relationship era

In the backdrop of these changes, the internet was developing, ready to usher marketers into The Relationship Era. In this new age, marketers and consumers both get what they want.

Marketers get the scale, reach, and frequency they need in order to drive transactions and sales while still cultivating relationships with the consumer.

On the flipside, consumers can choose from an ever-expanding range of goods and, hell, an ever-expanding range of low costs, if the Amazonian marketplace continues to grow.

And, like the marketer, the consumer can nurture relationships with brands by opting into newsletters, seeking brands on Twitter for customer service needs, or sharing a brand’s online coupon with friends on Facebook.

Tracking these changes in approach is important because they help marketers understand their own evolution. Some brands like luxury cobbler No. 6 are still very much in The Customer Era—indeed, they owe their success to the cult-like following that their clogs have created.

It’ll be interesting to see what happens when the brand launches its new, more digitally savvy site in a few weeks, skipping The Campaign Era altogether. 

Other brands have moved into The Relationship Era more quickly while still retaining elements of The Campaign Era—Coke, for example. The brand giant continues to conduct massive campaigns in channels like outdoor advertising but has also hit home runs in social, with more than 67m likes on Facebook and 3m plus views on YouTube. 

It’s less, then, perhaps that brands must move into The Relationship Era, but that they understand where in the continuum their marketing lives and what they sacrifice by staying in one mode or moving too slowly in another.