What’s the Difference Between Marketing, Branding, Advertising and PR and Does it Matter?

It’s a question that comes up in many venues. On Twitter and in LinkedIn groups. In business meetings. In university classes. It recently came up through a journalist who was asking for input from marketing professionals – like me: “I’m looking for experts to explain, compare and distinguish advertising vs. marketing vs. branding vs. PR.”

For those of us “in marketing” the answer is deceptively simple.

For those who are not, the answer can be both confusing and subtle. It’s a question that creates a lot of confusion for my clients, my students and often even for marketing communication professionals.

This is the answer I generally provide:

  • Marketing is a broad organizational function that encompasses the traditional “4P’s” – price, product, place and promotion.
  • Under the category of promotion are a number of elements that go into what is often called the “promotional mix” – these include both advertising and PR.
  • Branding is a process that involves establishing a “personality” for a company or product/service in the minds of some target group – generally customers.

As with marketing, branding is impacted not only by promotional activities, but also by price (a “high-end” brand will generally have a high-end price point and vice versa), product (e.g. quality and service attributes and experiences customers have with the product or the service they receive), place (which also includes access/availability – exclusive products are often difficult to access/in limited supply, adding to their “allure”) and, of course, promotion. Many people wrongly assume that brand is about logos, taglines and corporate colors; they are an element of the brand but as explained previously just a part of it.

  • Advertising is not marketing.
  • PR is not marketing.
  • Branding is not marketing.

Marketing is – literally – everything a company does to deliver a product/service to its target markets. That means product development. It means pricing strategies. It means customer service. Marketing *communications* generally refers to the promotional elements of the marketing mix that take place in support of the company’s overall marketing goals/objectives. What is usually called a “marketing department” is, in reality a “marketing communications” department. It is not a department that is responsible for product development (although the product obviously impacts marketing effectiveness), pricing (although pricing certainly impacts marketing effectiveness) or service.

Do these distinctions matter? In  most cases, no. As long as an organization’s communication activities are being well coordinated and are consistent with the desired brand image, what you call things is probably irrelevant. It’s just, as they say, “semantics.” Problems can arise, though, when these activities are *not* well coordinated and that generally occurs because of organizational turf battles that place responsibility for various communication activities under different leaders.

From an organizational structure standpoint, when people/companies talk about the “marketing” department, what they are typically talking about is really “marketing communications” – a function that would have responsibility for all of the communication elements that impact consumers’ interactions with the brand. These would include the elements of the promotional mix I mentioned earlier – advertising, PR or media relations and branding. I would *always* recommend that all of these functions fall under one overall leader – there might be separate departments to handle PR and advertising, but both of those departments should report up through a single structure so that all of the communication activities of the organization are coordinated and aligned in support of the desired brand identity/image.

The bottom line: what matters  most is that the organization is able to effectively communicate with its key audiences to achieve its goals. Whether PR reports to marketing or marketing reports to PR is really irrelevant as long as those communication objectives can be achieved. It may be an important issue to the leaders of those individual functions but, in the big scheme of things, this ongoing discussion and debate is a huge distraction – and detraction – to the organization’s overall marketing effectiveness.  (And don’t get me started on who should “own” social media…)

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