Philip Kotler, a widely recognized marketing "guru" and author of numerous textbooks on the topic, breaks down the history of marketing as a discipline into five eras: product, production, selling, marketing and holistic marketing. These eras don't have distinct start or end dates, and the practices of each era are still in use; but their sequence illustrates the evolution of marketing as a discipline.


The five eras of marketing are production, product, selling, marketing and social or holistic marketing.

The Production Era

One of the earliest strategies now recognized as "marketing" followed what Kotler calls the production concept: Products should be inexpensive and available everywhere.

Companies stressed mass production and efficiency – producing as much as possible at as low a cost as possible – and marketing efforts were based on securing the widest possible distribution.

Today, companies still use this strategy when trying to expand the market for a product.

The Product Era

In the product era, marketing was less about establishing cost leadership and universal distribution and more about relying on the attributes of the product itself to attract consumers.

Companies built marketing efforts around quality, performance and innovative product features.

The concepts of the product era remain important in marketing today, but producers must be aware that a good product by itself usually isn't enough. It has to be appropriately priced and adequately promoted, and consumers have to be able to find it, which means securing distribution.

The Selling Era

In the selling era, companies viewed aggressive promotion as the key to success. Any product can succeed, the thinking went, if a company just pushed it hard enough. Kotler refers to this as businesses "selling what they make, rather than making what the market wants to buy."

This strain of marketing continues in the modern era, particularly with "unsought goods" – things people may need but don't normally think of without prompting, such as life insurance. Selling-era tactics can be risky for companies, as the hard sell can turn off consumers, perhaps even push them into the arms of a competitor.

The Marketing Era

The marketing era, which Kotler says started around the mid-1950s, saw a fundamental shift. Instead of just trying to persuade consumers to buy the products they were making, companies focused on making products that customers wanted to buy.

Deciding which products to make and market went from being a case of "filling a hole in the factory" to one of "filling a hole in the market." It was in this era that the field of market research really took off.

The Holistic Era

In the modern, "holistic" marketing era, Kotler says, "everything matters."

Marketing is integrated with all aspects of a company's operations – production, distribution, advertising – so that the company can quickly and effectively respond to changes or opportunities in the marketplace. Marketing is not only directed outward, toward the customer, but also inward, so that everyone in the organization is fully aware of the company's goals and its strategy for attaining them.

Today, we might refer to this stage as social or relationship marketing.

Finally, holistic marketing isn't just about maximizing a company's financial return. It also takes into account whether the company is acting in society's broader interest.