There’s a lot of talk about the customer experience in marketing.
While companies are trying to improve and constantly be on top of the customer experience, it’s easy to overlook its history and focus on what’s happening in consumer culture right now.
There’s nothing wrong with focusing on the present. But at a time when companies are seeing a revolutionary shift in the way customers buy products and services, it’s important to take a look at how all this came about.
Hopefully, we can give you a peak into the forces that impacted customer experience in America after World War II.
This story starts with A Consumer’s Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption by Pulitzer Prize finalist Lizabeth Cohen, who describes post-World War II suburbia as “the landscape of mass consumption.”
She argues that consumption and citizenship are not separate ideas; they are directly linked. After World War II, a shift occurred in America’s politics, economy, and culture, affecting social factors like consumer behavior and expectations from the government.
In post-war America, highways sprouted up, creating commercial routes. What had once been vegetable fields now became suburbs. Shopping malls flourished, and when families watched TV at night, advertisements told them exactly what to buy.
Even Life Magazine argued for “a health and decency standard for everyone,” which meant that every American should have a roof over their head, with consumer goods in their house. Cohen writes, “As each family refurbished its hearth after a decade and a half of depression and war, the expanded consumer demand would stoke the fires of production, creating new jobs and, in turn, new markets.”
Scholars, not marketing executives, also began to advance the field of marketing. In the 1950’s, researchers examined motivating factors for consumers’ purchase decisions. These factors evolved into the 60’s, changing the way marketers did marketing. Advertising expenditures tripled between World War II and 1959.
Cohen uncovers two studies published in the 1950s in the Journal of Marketing. Both examined specific areas where men played a more significant role than women in financial decisions and household purchases. For example, men played a large role in grocery shopping and deciding on which car to buy.
Because families stayed at home and watched TV, they also stopped going out to eat. So restaurants had to come up with a creative way to bring in customers: carry-out, or as we call it now, take-out.
The 1950s also saw roadside diners grow everywhere. The roadside diner triggered the rising popularity of well-known foods like hamburgers, pizza, milkshakes, and burritos. Curiously enough, this new category of food — “fast food” — was created by the rise of the automobile, according to Fast Food: Roadside Restaurants in the Automobile Age.
With the move to the suburbs, families needed cars, and with a booming post-war economy, more people than ever were able to afford cars.
At a time when companies feared that product competition would slow down profits, manufacturers redesigned automobiles constantly to make sure demand kept rising.
By the middle of the 1950s, automobiles were advertised more than packaged goods and cigarettes.
Vance Packard makes a case in his 1959 book, The Status Seekers, that mass consumption caused Americans to be more class-conscious in the previous decades rather than eliminating the very clear class status before the 1940s. This meant Americans relied heavily on consumer goods as status symbols and constantly felt the need to upgrade.
Consumer spending increased by 60 percent in the five years following World War II, according to Consumer Society in American History: A Reader. Americans purchased goods for their homes, and their move to the suburbs impacted consumer behavior on a large scale.
What does this mean?
The beginning of our modern consumer culture occurred during the early twentieth century. What’s important to understand — if you’re a marketer upset or apprehensive about the rise of online customer feedback — is that marketers had to change how they approached marketing more than once in our modern consumer culture history.
One of the many differences between customers during postwar America and customers today is technology. Customers are on their smartphones and can exit out of advertising. In the decades following World War II, consumers were watching commercials during their TV shows, while now they can fast-forward or watch their shows on streaming services where commercials do not exist (at least in the traditional sense).
With information at their fingertips, customers today will listen to advertising that’s not traditional — like online videos with a good story or forms of educational content. They’ll listen to other customers’ recommendations, they’ll read an article about your company, or they’ll find your business and decide for themselves whether or not they can trust you. We’ve all come a long way.