As we have already mentioned, developments in technology and the evolution
of marketing are inextricably intertwined. Technology has underpinned
major milestones in the history of marketing since its inception. The process
tends to go something like this:
1 New technology emerges and is initially the preserve of technologists
and early adopters.
2 The technology gains a firmer foothold in the market and starts to
become more popular, putting it on the marketing radar.
3 Innovative marketers jump in to explore ways that they can harness
the power of this emerging technology to connect with their target
4 The technology migrates to the mainstream and is adopted into
standard marketing practice.
The printing press, radio, television and now the internet are all examples
of major breakthroughs in technology that ultimately altered forever the
relationships between marketers and consumers, and did so on a global
scale. But of course marketing isn’t about technology, it’s about people:
technology is only interesting, from a marketing perspective, when it connects
people with other people more effectively.
There are plenty of examples of technology through the ages having a
significant impact on various markets – technology that may seem obscure,
even irrelevant today. Remember Muzak – the company that brought elevator
music to the masses back in the 1930s? The technology for piping audio
over power lines was patented in 1922 by retired Major General George O
Squier, and exclusive rights to the patent were bought by the North American
Company. In 1934, under the corporate umbrella of ‘Muzak’, they started
piping music into Cleveland homes.
Muzak seemed to have hit on a winning formula, but the advent of free
commercial radio sounded the death knell for the company’s chosen route
to market. With free music available on shiny new wirelesses, households
were no longer prepared to pay for the Muzak service. Undeterred, the
company focused its efforts on New York City businesses. As buildings in
New York soared skywards, the lift/elevator became practically ubiquitous.
Muzak had found its niche, and ‘elevator music’ was born.
So what, you might think.
It’s true that, compared to behemoths of contemporary media such as
radio, television and now the internet, elevator music is small potatoes. But
back in its heyday this was cutting-edge stuff, and it reached a lot of people.
Muzak had the power to sway opinions and influence markets, so much so
that for music artists of that era, having your track played on the Muzak
network practically guaranteed a hit.
The point is that technology has the ability to open up completely new
markets, and to radically shake up existing ones. The mainstream adoption
of digital technology – the internet, the software applications that run on it,
and the devices that allow people to connect to both the network and each
other whenever, wherever and however they want to – promises to dwarf
all that has come before it. It heralds the single most disruptive development
in the history of marketing.
Whether that disruption represents an opportunity or a threat to you as
a marketer depends largely on your perspective. We hope the fact that
you’re reading this article means that you see it as an opportunity.
The first global communications network:
‘the highway of thought’
To understand the explosive growth of the internet we need to look back at
how early communications technology evolved into the global network of
interconnected computers that today we call the internet. The story of electronic
communication begins with the wired telegraph – a network that
grew rapidly to cover the globe, connected people across vast distances in
a way that seemed almost magical, and changed the world forever.
Tom Standage, in his book The Victorian Internet, looks at the wired
telegraph and draws some astonishing parallels between the growth of
the world’s first electronic communications network and the growth of the
modern-day internet. Standage describes the origins of the telegraph, and
the quest to deliver information from point to point more rapidly in the
days when speedy communication relied on a fast horse and a skilled rider:
On an April day in 1746 at the grand convent of the Carthusians in Paris about
200 monks arranged themselves in a long, snaking line. Each monk held one
end of a 25 foot iron wire in each hand connecting him to his neighbour on
either side. Together the monks and their connecting wires formed a line over
a mile long. Once the line was complete the Abbot, Jean-Antoine Nollet, a noted
French scientist, took a primitive battery and, without warning, connected it to
the line of monks – giving all of them a powerful electric shock.
These ‘electric monks’ demonstrated conclusively that electricity could
transmit a message (albeit a painful one) from one location to another in an
instant, and laid the foundation for a communications revolution.
In 1830 Joseph Henry (1797–1878), an eminent US scientist who went
on to become the first Director of the Smithsonian Institute, took the concept
a step further. He demonstrated the potential of the electromagnet for
long-distance communications when he passed an electric current through
a mile-long cable to ring an electromagnetic bell connected to the other
end. Samuel Morse (1791–1872), the inventor of Morse code, took Henry’s
concept a step further and made a commercial success of it: the electronic
telegraph was born.
In 1842 Morse demonstrated a working telegraph between two committee
rooms in Washington, and congress voted slimly in favour of investing
US $30,000 for an experimental telegraph line between Washington and
Baltimore. It was a very close call: 89 votes for the prototype, 83 against
and 70 abstentions by congressmen looking ‘to avoid the responsibility of
spending the public money for a machine they could not understand’.
Despite the reservations of the congressmen, the new network was a huge
success. It grew at a phenomenal rate: by 1850 there were more than 12,000
miles of telegraph line criss-crossing the United States, two years later there
was more than twice that, and the network of connected wires was spreading
rapidly around the globe.
This spellbinding new network delivered news in moments rather than
the weeks and months people were used to. It connected people over vast
distances in ways previously inconceivable, and to many remained completely
Governments tried and failed to control this raw new communications
medium. Its advocates hailed it as revolutionary, and its popularity grew at
an unprecedented rate. Newspapers began publishing news just hours rather
than weeks after the event, romance blossomed over the wires, couples were
married ‘online’, gamblers used the new network to ‘cheat’ on the horses, and
it transformed the way that business was conducted around the world. In
the space of a generation, the telegraph literally altered the fabric of society.
Does any of this sound familiar…?
A New York Times article published on Wednesday 14 September 1852
describes the telegraph network as ‘… the highway of thought’; not much of
a stretch from the ‘information superhighway’ label we apply to our modernday
revolutionary network. If anything, the communications revolution
instigated by the telegraph must have represented more of a cultural
upheaval than the explosive growth of the internet today.
For the first time, people grasped that they could communicate almost
instantly across continents and even oceans. They felt a sense of closeness,
a togetherness that simply hadn’t been possible before. The telegraph system
was hailed by some as a harbinger of peace and solidarity: a network of
wires that would ultimately bind countries, creeds and cultures in a way
hitherto unimaginable. Others, of course, used the network to wage war
more efficiently. The sheer expansion of ideas and dreams that ensued
must have been truly staggering, the opportunities and potential for change
For rapid, long-distance communications the telegraph remained the
only game in town until 1877, when two rival inventors battled to be the
first to patent another new technology set to turn the world of electronic
communications on its head. Its name, the telephone; the inventors, Elisha
Gray and Alexander Graham Bell. They submitted their patent applications
within hours of one another – but Bell pipped Gray to the post, and a now
famous legal battle ensued.
The first words ever transmitted into a telephone were uttered by Bell,
speaking to his research assistant, Thomas Watson, in the next room. He
simply said: ‘Mr Watson – come here – I want to see you.’