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A Brief History of Omnichannel


2 years ago

By Ramesh Patel

We have counted them at BORN – there are fourteen channels of brand consumption. Fifteen, if you include the traveling salesperson who calls on you from time to time.

These channels have evolved over three generations, each spawning a varied yet specializing group of agencies to address the needs of efficient brand activation.

Below I outline a brief history of each of the channels. I have also included a few fun historical facts around the evolution of modern day advertising to fascinate and (maybe even) inspire you.


First Generation

1. Stores: Current day brick and mortals may be shuttering left and right, but they are the original channel to capture consumer traffic. From trading outposts that specialized in barter, to the small shops in every locale, to the giant superstores. Stores are the main anchor of “physical commerce,” underpinned by human interaction and often incorporating each of the human senses – tactile, visual, hearing, olfaction (smell), and gustation (taste).

2. Publishing: Before technology swooped in, media consumption was dominated by newsprint and magazines. The medium for this channel was, of course, paper. Paper can hold and display two of the five components of a modern day digital asset – photographs/sketches and text (copy). The call to action on a printed advert was usually the request to call a phone number. If the consumer made that call they would essentially “exit paper” and enter another discrete channel (Voice), which was usually, a call center manned by a human who would respond to the incoming requests. Fun fact: The first American newspaper advertisement was published in 1704 in The Boston News-Letter. It was for a bar of soap, and mentioned delicately, that “It Floats.”

3. Voice: Call centers for inbound (taking orders and instructions, like booking a rental car or airline ticket); outbound (telemarketing people to get them interested in a product or service); and help desks have been around ever since the telephone was commercialized and sold widely in the early 1970s.

4. Billboard Ads: The out-of-home gargantuan format of billboards gave brands a larger-than-life feel and captured attention with beautiful images. They made their debut in the 1830s and are, surprisingly, still a thriving industry. Like paper, this channel also originally displayed two of the five components of a modern day digital asset – photographs/sketches and text (copy). In more recent times, billboards have become somewhat digitalized and now display all five components of a digital asset – photographs, video (moving photos), CGI (moving sketches), audio and copy.

5. Radio Ads: The first radio news program was broadcast on August 31,1920 in Detroit, but this channel saw massive growth when the Galvin Manufacturing Corporation created the first car radio in 1930. It was called Motorola because it was a motorized version of the Victrola, a common name for radios at that time. The Galvin Manufacturing Company later changed its name to Motorola. Fun Fact: The Victor Talking Machine Company, founded by Eldridge Johnson, made the Victrolas radios. The company created the famous logo of a dog listening to a gramophone – His Master’s Voice (HMV) became a household term for many decades.

6. Packaging: A multibillion dollar industry, packaging is the highly specialized design of all manner of containers made of all sorts of materials – boxes, sleeves, bottles, wraps and so on. Walk into a large retail store and you will see the richness and diversity of package design on every aisle – no two products want to look alike.

7. “Snail” Mail: Postcards or fliers delivered directly to your mailbox were once the most affordable way for brands to communicate with consumers. This channel’s delivery operator was the US Post. In 1872, Montgomery Ward started his iconic direct mail business, and for many decades since, the printed catalog sales has been a popular channel. Sadly, much of what is delivered now is junk mail, and this channel has in large part given way to its newer digitized avatar – email where the delivery operator is mostly the Internet.

8. Events: One of the oldest methods of brand engagement, events are still popular. There’s really nothing more natural that people meeting face-to-face to showcase and discover new products and services. This channel still offers brands a significant lift in discovery/awareness, conversion and sales. Plus, with the most recent fad of “experiential marketing” this channel is experiencing a resurgence.

Second Generation

9. Broadcast: Hot on the heels of radio came the invention of television. TVs delivered media comprised of all of the components a digital asset – text, audio, photo, CGI and video – so the content delivered was deemed “rich”. By the 1950s TVs were in many American homes and soon enough this became the main channel used by companies, private and public, and brands to shape opinion on almost everything – trends, music, politics, news. TV ads are still popular – to this day, advertisements seen during the Super Bowl have a higher volume of impressions than nearly any other channel, though smaller formats like videos on phones, laptops and desktops (“second screen”) via the internet are now gaining ground.

10. Email: Mail 2.0 came with the birth of the Internet and is to this day a massive channel for peer to peer, peer to group and brand to consumer communication. It serves as a hyper fast distribution channel for campaigns, discounts, coupons, offers and more. Fun fact: In 1978, Gary Thuerk of Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) sent out the first mass email to approximately 400 potential clients. It led to $13 million in sales of DEC products. Remember to find time to toast Ray Tomlinson, the founder of email. Not many people remember his name which is a bit sad, given that, every day, some 200 billion messages hit the wires.

Many of the agencies that were created to address the first and second channels have been acquired, over time, by one of the large “empire holding” companies – WPP, Dentsu, IPG, Havas, Omnicom and Publicis.

Third Generation

11. Web: Websites have been around for a very long time but Web 2.0, or the modern web, is by far the greatest tool available to marketers. This channel covers banner ads, transactional and non transactional websites, microsites, chat, blogs and other avenues of online interaction. Fun fact: Tim Berners-Lee created the Web/Internet in 1990. By 1994, Amazon was selling books online, and today with just the click of a button one could potentially access 3 billion people (the number of people who have internet access), which is quite incredible to think about.

12. Social: Between 2002 and 2006 self publishing platforms found massive acceptance by consumers. People could tell others, miles away, how they felt, what they were doing, and opine with abandom within their spheres of influence. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, LinkedIn and many others now allow people to broadcast their opinions and even signal their intention to buy something. Brands were quick to realize that unless they personalized their brand messaging to be in sync with what people wanted, they would not succeed. On Social, brands focus on “pushing” their unique selling proposition (value) or USP, while, at the same time, consumers signal, through self broadcasting, what they want to “pull” into their sphere (what we call their unique buying proposition, or UBP). Brands are successful when their USP aligns with a consumer’s UBP.

13. Mobile: Brands can now interact with consumers via their mobile device. This channel is increasingly important as consumer digital behavior tends more and more towards mobile. Smart, mobile phones offer consumers everything from calendars to calculators, personalized lifestyle apps to time (what a wrist watch used to do), navigation and so much more. With some 4 billion phone users every day this channel is growing in importance.
Gaming – The experience delivered here is not via a phone, desktop or even a laptop. It is a computing device with a superfast graphics card – a gaming device. From the gaming arcade kiosks to the Wii and Xbox, this industry has grown in leaps and bounds. Microsoft reaches millions of consumers (gamers) through games like Halo. We all know how popular Pokemon Go was.

14. IOT: This is an acronym standing for The Internet Of Things. This channel involves brands merging physical goods with technological capabilities to elevate the consumer experience. You may not know it, but the car you drive is not as dumb as it looks. It is not all steel, glass, rubber and plastic. Cars have enormous compute power and many of them can communicate with phones and other devices. If you are running low on fuel do not be surprised if your car wakes your phone up, and prompts you to open a map so that it can navigate you to the nearest gas station. Smart devices (from HVAC systems to the lights in your home to devices like Alexa and HomePod) are popping up everywhere.

Connecting the dots between these channels (all of which exist today) and delivering a unified, immersive and appealing experience – be it one of brand discovery or consumption – is the holy grail of all marketers. No one has all the answers on how to do that well; but folks are getting there, as humans are wont to do.

– Dilip Keshu, BORN CEO

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