History of the Customer: The Evolution of Marketing to the American Consumer

American Consumer

Ahh yes, the American Consumer. Turn on any 24/7 news program and wait five minutes. You’re bound to hear a reporter, political pundit, or marketing guru bring them up.

As with all aspects of society, the American Consumer has evolved from their early days of choosing between which two types of oats they were going to feed their horses, to the modern consumer who now chooses between 100’s of fair-trade, all natural, thyme-flavored oat options. Alongside their evolution comes the evolution of the brand and specifically, how to market to the new ideation of the American Consumer.

For brands that can’t pivot quickly enough, the evolving American Consumer can mean catastrophe; for those that can speak to the modern American Consumer, it can mean big opportunities.

So, who “is” the American Consumer? Right now, the recipe for the body of the American Consumer is:

  • 1 part aging Baby Boomer (who in the next 5 years will add more than 1 million consumers per year to the 65+ demo)
  • 1 dash Generation X
  • 1 sprinkle Millennial – for taste

Sure, there’s Gen Z and the Silent Generation, but the above three age groups represent the bulk of the buying power in America.

Each generation has their own quirks and preferred marketing approaches, but the consumer habits of all three generations have been greatly impacted by the rise of two dominant forms of communication:

  1. The Internet
  2. Social Media

No two technologies have had a greater impact in how the American Consumer functions as a buying force. By understanding this force, brands can better understand how to market to the modern American Consumer. Today, we’ll look at ways marketing to the American Consumer has shifted from then (1940 – 1990) to now.

Marketing A Product

Product marketing focused on the features of the product: what new gadgetry had been installed since the last version, how their product differs technically from their competitors or the unique aspects of their product. It was all about the product. If people thought the product was the best out there, brands assumed they would buy it.

The American Consumer doesn’t want to hear how your product is different and frankly, they don’t care. What they want to know is how your product is going to solve their problem, how much work it’ll take and will it get the job done the first time. The American Consumer wants solutions.

Consumer Motivation

We’ve all heard the phrase, “Keeping up with the Joneses”, the competition of out-buying your neighbor to show status and wealth. In the 80’s this morphed into “bigger is better.” For both philosophies, these drivers were based on materialism. Whoever got the most stuff won.

The American Consumer of today is more apt to invest in experiences. Millennials may have started the trend, but Generation X-ers are also following suit. To successfully market to the new American Consumer, brands need to focus on more than just the physical characteristics of the product.

Product Research

Consumers researched costly purchases, like cars or household appliances, but research sources were limited. Consumers would turn to Consumer Reports, third party audits and editorial reviews in periodicals to sift through what products would best fit their needs.

Research is now omnipresent. No longer reserved for larger purchases, 33% of surveyed consumers say that they regularly browse blogs and social media before committing to a purchase. They want to get real-life feedback on the product from other users rather than from the brand’s ads.

How Brands Talk to Consumers

Historically, most brands would turn to a PR firm or quarterly report to share their important messages with the American Consumer. The PR team would take the corporation’s words, drop them in an article, put in a quote or two, and work with a team of editors to have the message syndicated in the desired media. If brands weren’t using press releases, they’d turn to paid advertising (more on that in a minute). Regardless of the method, the result was the same. Brands were monologuing to the American Consumer.

The monologue has been replaced by a dialogue. For the first time, brands are having two-way conversations with the entirety of the American Consumer (not just over-the-counter conversations with the occasional customer). Whole businesses, technologies, and platforms have been built to better facilitate this two-way communication. This practice is now so much a part of the buying experience that the expectation of the American Consumer is for brands to actively engage with them on a one-to-one basis.


Back then it was fairly easy for brands to engage in a bit of cloak-and-dagger if need be. It was incredibly difficult for the American Consumer to follow up with all the claims a brand would make. They simply had to take the word of the brand that the newest model on the shelf was indeed the best on the market. Of course, there were still regulations regarding labeling and advertising to protect the consumer, but there was a level of trust and good faith being given by the American Consumer.

Transparency is king! As with two-way communication, brands are now expected to be more transparent in how their product works and the problems it solves. The American Consumer is simply not going to let a brand get away with putting an inferior product or experience on the shelf. Twitter feeds will be flooded, Instagram shots taken, and unfavorable reviews given. The American Consumer expects honest transparency from their brands.

Paid Advertising and Marketing

Expensive television and radio ads pushed the American consumer to brands that had the largest advertising budget – and it worked! Advertising was the engine that drove most marketing machines. From coast-to-coast, lifts in sales were attributed to in-market ads. Brands invested heavily in media: TV, radio, print, outdoor, and a host of other terrestrial channels.

Radio and television gave way to digital banner ads and video ads, but ROI from these mediums is now starting to falter. Digital marketing costs are rising 5x faster than inflation. The American Consumer is more apt at “tuning out” ads, either directly through ad-blockers or through subconscious ad blindness. Consumers saying “no” to paid advertising is thought to have cost publishers $22B in 2015.


Referral Marketing

A powerful method of marketing, though to a small social network. The potential consumer typically only had a handful of friends and family that they could actively solicit referrals from. That network included:

  • Face-to-face interactions with neighbors and colleagues
  • Telephone calls to friends and family
  • Celebrity endorsements from a trusted source

A range of possibilities, but a finite range at best.

The rise of digital media and social networking has greatly expanded American Consumer’s social network. We’ve found that the average person is connected to 500 friends on their social networks. Instead of asking each of these friends and family members for a recommendation individually, the American Consumer can crowd-source recommendations by shooting out a quick Facebook post and soliciting opinions from their entire network. On top of their personal networks, the American Consumer also turns to peer-to-peer review sites like Yelp and Google to research a potential buying decision.

Bottom Line: the American Consumer no longer fully trusts what brands say. It takes third-party sources to back up a brand’s claims in order to get the modern American Consumer to believe those claims. In fact, Nielson states that 83% of global consumers “completely or somewhat trust the recommendations of friends and family”. For the B2B consumer, it’s even stronger: 91% of B2B buyers are influenced by word-of-mouth recommendations.

Brands should be actively creating opportunities to encourage third party referrals through advocacy marketing (like a SocialToaster program) and other marketing tactics (i.e. review solicitation, influencer marketing, etc).

So What Does the American Consumer Want?

When we look through the data and the buying habits of the modern American Consumer it becomes clear:

  1. They want a brand’s claims about their products to be honest and transparent
  2. They expect a brand to engage with them in two-way conversation
  3. They are skeptical of paid advertising claims (if they even see the ad)
  4. They research almost every purchase
  5. They trust 3rd party recommendations over all other forms of marketing

One thing is clear: the American Consumer of today is not the same Consumer of 25 years ago (or even of 10 years ago). To be successful. brands need to adapt their marketing strategies to meet the needs and expectations of the modern consumer.

Ready to get started? We can help! Reach out to SocialToaster to learn more about how advocacy marketing can help you reach today’s American Consumer.


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