2003 – 2023: How brands have changed in 20 years

June 27, 2023
B2B IPO Customer insights Brand design Brand delivery Brand strategy Marketing communications Rebranding

As we celebrate our 20th anniversary, we reflect on the most significant changes and their impact on brands, brand experience and brand building. It’s easy to forget just how much has changed in 20 years.

It’s easy to latch onto the tangible differences, isn’t it. The iPod – utterly revolutionary in its time – long extinct. The advent of social media. WiFi. Cryptocurency. The list is extensive and goes on.

All are examples of how our world has changed in 20 years. But to place specific focus on these is to miss some of the larger, intangible cultural and technological evolutions that have placed us here now, at this time.

How connectivity enabled the sharing culture

As marketers, we know traditional marketing is divided between push and pull strategies. Yet the 2000’s, with the internet settling as the pre-eminent international mechanism to connect and communicate, enabled a new cultural phenomenon: sharing.

Sharing is of course not new to the human experience, but the instant connectivity provided by the internet enabled disparate people with similar interests to connect, communicate and engage on those specific interests. Myspace accounts enabled those with similar interests to connect. YouTube was still the domain of personal uploads rather than corporates accounts, with fans uploading footage from last night’s gig to be enjoyed by fans across the globe.

In this, brands lagged behind. Users were creating their own spaces and content, disconnected from the marketing efforts of brands. It only took the next logical step – of placing these disparate groups in one, collective multi-space, Facebook – when brands began understanding that these new environments fulfilled the human need for connection, that they saw the opportunity.

The rise of the curated persona and user-generated marketing

Social media, from its very beginning, gave rise to a new phenomenon that brands had to content with: the self-publisher. From Myspace through Facebook, to professional spaces like LinkedIn, photographic spaces like, bloggers or the sharing of playlists on Spotify, users became content creators. They began curating an external view of themselves for others to engage in.

The power here was in the perception that these representations were authentic, and here brands were not far behind. Product placement in TV and movies was augmented by product placement on Instagram feeds and Facebook groups, and led to the evolution of that dreaded term: influencer. User-generated marketing was a gift to consumer brands, a cost-effective narrow-casting in an age of multi-channeling fragmentation.

Multi-channeling and the attention economy

In the late 90s with the launch of Foxtel in Australia, the grip of the 5 terrestrial TV stations was loosened. Thus started the gradual channel fragmentation across all areas of our brand engagement: TV, radio, online. The digital revolution coinciding with the beginning of print’s decline hastened the number of channels marketers now had to engage with. This splintering of channels resulted in greater efforts by marketers to get ever shrinking attention spans from target segments. The rise of “digital on” accelerated that need.

Brand user as brand ambassador

The digital revolution and the enabling of self-publishing also enabled another new century phenomenon – the evolution of vox populi. Whilst the dark side of this is embodied in Twitter, self-publishing gave ordinary people collective power to begin to shift not only public perception but perception of brands. Word of mouth on a collective, global scale.

People want to genuinely connect with brands they believe in. Shared values means that not only is a consumer purchasing a product or service, but they are engaging with it as part owner. They are vested personally.

Brands inherently understood this, as corporate social responsibility programs kicked off and sustainability became not a buzzword but a clear competitive differentiator. Whether authentically or begrudgingly done, brands evolved to match the needs and wants of their targets audiences. Large corporates lead the charge here, eager to demonstrate environmental credentials as well as a social conscience.

There is ALWAYS a new market

If the last 20 years have taught us anything is that there is always a new market, or at least a latent market, ready for activation. Much has been made of disrupting brands, but a different view would be that these brands activate a latent need in the market. Dissatisfaction with the state of taxis and the taxi industry is one classic example. As is the rise of Air BNB, itself an example of the sharing economy and culture, fulfilling a latent need that the infrastructure of the hotel industry could not conceive.

The rise of one market is often though at the expense of the other. At the turn of the millennium, video rental stores and CD stores were still prevalent. Not for long.

And so the race is on to find the next market, and the next, and the next.

The speed of change and marketing for planned obsolescence

It’s crazy to think about how many mobile phones or TVs you may have had in 20 years. And who could have predicted in the mid 2000’s that the iPod would be gone with the advent of the iPhone? The speed of technological change has further accelerated the need for marketers to engage audiences not just on the journey with a  single product or service, but a sequence of never-ending obsolescences. Planned obsolescence is built into the fabric of our marketed offer. Not just technology, but the fast fashion industry too, marketing cheap, disposable clothing.

Within NPD, marketers need to plan the sunrise, noontide and sunset of products and services, whilst maintaining customer loyalty and voluntary repeat purchase of the next iteration of exactly the same item.

The technology revolution

Across all the changes of the first two decades of the new century is the technology revolution. So extreme has been the change it is often referred to as the Third Industrial Revolution (behind the first two industrial revolutions and the scientific revolution). We could not have envisaged, at the beginning of the millennium, being able to tap with a phone or connect wirelessly anywhere on earth. But the visionary nature of the technology revolution has transformed our lives, and the opportunities and challenges open to marketers. Big data enables big decisions, yet also the microtargeting for your shopping list. The Internet of Things (IoT) will only accelerate this

The view forward: an unrelenting pace

We began this article with a reference to traditional push and pull marketing strategies. They haven’t gone away of course, just evolved.

In looking forward to at least the next few year if not more, we see two macro shifts as fundamental to how brands have evolved over the last 20 years:

1) shifts in behaviour coupled with

2) the technology revolution.

Both of these have played off each other, tried to outrun each other, and at times leapfrog each other. Undoubtably that dance will continue. Brands, that began the century playing catch up to these shifts are now running in front, using data to project future transformation and already calculate the obsolescence of products and services not even in the market yet.

The race with no destination continues.

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