11/22/2013 04:35 pm ET Updated Jan 25, 2014

The Third Era of Marketing: Beyond Need and Desire to Expectation

With all the power of digital interactive technologies now available to marketers, it's easy to reduce all those consumers out there to numbers on screens. Such huge amounts of data make it tempting to think of marketing as a stimulus-response process of shaping consumer behavior -- if we do X, they will do Y. Useful as those approaches are, it's still vital to get up close and personal with consumers to get insights into why they do what they do.

First Came Need, Then Desire

The first era of modern marketing was about meeting people's needs. Back in the early days, the job of marketers was to present the functional benefits of their clients' product. They understandably assumed that only people who needed a product would pay attention to marketing for that product. Anyway, most people had little money to spend on anything more than the bare necessities of life, so they just needed basic information.

The second era of modern marketing was all about creating desire. Mass production made it possible to manufacture new types of products on a massive scale. Great for business, except that if people bought only what they needed then those products wouldn't get sold.

Then Edward Bernays, nephew of Sigmund Freud href="" target="_hplink">famously showed that marketing could go beyond addressing people's basic needs. It could stimulate purchasing by tapping into unconscious desires such as stimulation, status and self-expression. Gradually, sellers learned how to create desire and buyers learned how to respond.

In today's established consumer markets, people's basic needs are pretty much covered. They can rely on malls, supermarkets, stores, street markets, diners and food carts to offer a huge range of food and drink at every price point. Much the same applies to clothing and other basic needs.

Beyond basic needs, marketers have made skilled use of creativity, intuition, and focus groups to stir insatiable desires for infinite variations on familiar products. They've created desire for new types of products that didn't even exist a decade ago.

The Third Era of Marketing

Now we're into the third era of modern marketing. We marketers still have to meet needs and create desire, but we must also understand the growing importance of expectations in shaping consumer behavior. We and our clients have encouraged consumers to expect more, so they do. Consciously or unconsciously, they evaluate everything against what they have learned to expect. This means that we have to create great new stuff at an ever-faster pace just to stay in the game. More than ever, new, improved products hit the market to tempt consumers; last month's "wow!" quickly becomes this month's "yawn."

Technology has been one of the most influential factors accelerating this rise in consumer expectations. Barely a generation ago, people in many parts of the APAC region were happy enough to get just a couple of channels on a little TV with a fuzzy screen. Now, they expect multi-channel choice on a big HDTV.

Back before broadband connections and mobile devices became the norm, tech-savvy consumers sat at big desktop computers and occasionally bought software on optical disks. Now, with mobile devices and wireless connectivity, everybody expects to download whatever they want in moments, without the inconvenience of making a physical connection. They expect music, TV, videos, movies, and software to be instantly available.

There's been a more subtle ratcheting up of consumer expectations on the web too. Just five years ago it was good enough if a website looked good, loaded quickly and was easy to navigate. Now, any self-respecting, up-to-date website must be able to deliver changes in content updated in real time. For example, anybody who uses Facebook has now become used to white numbers appearing in little red circles as soon as there's a new notification, message or friend request. Such, apparently simple, dynamic elements have become a normal, expected feature of websites, but they are far from simple to create. It takes several specialists to create a site that not only looks good and does the basics well, but also meets consumers' expectations of what websites do now.

Forget Great Expectations -- Just Beat Expectations

The Third Era of marketing presents danger for the unwary and opportunity for the astute. It requires marketers to tune into consumers' experience and expectations across the whole range of their interactions with the brand. That means not only with products, but also with every aspect of the brand experience including advertising, marketing, sales, service, and software.

Not even the most creative and insightful marketing professionals can conjure up an accurate and detailed consumer experience on their own in their offices. In fact, in most cases, it's not even something that marketers can find out by asking consumers. Typically consumers can't articulate what they expect, and may not know that they expect anything at all until they experience something different.

This is what makes experience mapping an essential new discipline for marketers. By painstakingly accompanying real users through real usage situations, marketers can glean detailed, real-life information. They can construct a fine-grained understanding of what users do, how they do it and what they expect as they do it. According to user experience expert Giles Colborne, co-founder and MD of cxpartners, highly effective brand marketing initiatives typically come from identifying small but impactful ways to surpass consumer expectations. "Many brands think that they need to do something spectacular to delight consumers and get them talking, but they don't. They just need to understand the details of what consumers expect and find a simple way to do it better or different."

As marketing initiatives go, finding ways to beat consumer expectations is on the other end of the sexiness scale from an award-winning global advertising campaign. It doesn't even have the currency of content marketing or the geeky zing of big data. But it is emerging as one of the most cost-effective ways to create brand advantage. And competitors may not even notice until it's too late.