Consumers became savvier, more cynical, more independent, and more immune to traditional marketing techniques in 2004, using technology to deliver - and screen out - more choices.
Marketers continued their struggle to adapt and find ways to anticipate consumer needs, and some excelled in this, developing new techniques to break through the clutter.
Here are four marketing signposts that we took note of over the past year. Each represents an expression of these trends.
The Google IPO. By the time Google filed for its initial public offering in August, founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page had investors salivating in anticipation of the offering, which eventually garnered billions in fresh capital.
The seeds of Googlemania had been sown long before, beginning with the company's unusual name, its spartan home page, and ultra-high-performance search-engine technology and speed.
Google went out of its way to differentiate itself. Everything it did was different, and it made sure you knew about it. Even the prospectus for the IPO stated Google's brand promise and differentiation.
Say what you will about Google, but its founders are master branders, and you can't argue with their success.
Democracy Plaza - the NBC/Bank of America conversion of Rockefeller Plaza in New York City. Before and during the US presidential election, NBC and Bank of America transformed Rockefeller Plaza into Democracy Plaza - a museum, an educational opportunity, an entertainment extravaganza, and a media center focused on the democratic process, as well as on the NBC and Bank of America brands.
Democracy Plaza featured exhibits of an original copy of the US Declaration of Independence; full-scale replicas of the Oval Office and the president's jet, Air Force One; and interactive exhibits promoting voter registration.
NBC came up with the idea and invited Bank of America to be the sole corporate sponsor. Of course, Democracy Plaza also featured prominent displays of NBC and Bank of America's logos everywhere, and, of course, national media coverage was built into the event itself. Virtually no one in the nation was in the dark about Democracy Plaza and its purpose - or its sponsors.
Arnold's California triumphs. Star power drove the whirlwind triumph of Arnold Schwarzenegger in his defeat of recalled California Gov. Gray Davis. But since then, Schwarzenegger has parlayed his recall win into a powerful admixture of politics and pizzazz.
This movie star-populist's willingness to take every issue "to the people" to circumvent his political opponents using the California initiative process and his own charisma have paid off in a number of key political wins, from workers-compensation reform to the passage of the state's controversial budget. Other governors would not have had a prayer in getting similar agendas accomplished.
Schwarzenegger, like Oprah Winfrey, is a human logo. His face, mannerisms, and bravado can be truly irresistible to the electorate, and this is what helps him transcend party orthodoxy.
"Fahrenheit 9/11" and "The Passion of the Christ." Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 and Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ both overcame efforts by major studios to block them by developing end-around strategies that took the films directly to receptive audiences.
Gibson personally financed his movie and chose fundamentalist Christian churches as his opening venue, reaching out to pastors offering free screenings. And pastors didn't hesitate to vigorously promote it to congregations, creating strong word-of-mouth buzz. By Easter, the movie was being shown on thousands of "conventional" movie screens nationally.
After Disney rejected Moore's film as too political, the Weinstein brothers stepped in, bought the rights to the film, and then got independent film giant Lions Gate Films to handle distribution.
Both filmmakers relied heavily on the controversial content of their projects to get free media coverage for their efforts, which further propelled them to financial and artistic success. Both also used the internet to good effect, serving as grist for the blog mill and other unconventional opinion and news sources.
In the end, the major studios were left with nothing, and Moore and Gibson earned hefty profits.
The thread tying Google's IPO, Democracy Plaza, Schwarzenegger, Fahrenheit 9/11, and The Passion of the Christ together is that their marketers were able to do their jobs with clarity. When things changed, they recognized the change and found a way to leverage it to their advantage.