Defining Differences: Marketing, Advertising, Branding (Part 1)

People, like agencies, tend to think that they’re smarter than the average Joe, and they certainly like to make others think that their work is more intelligent and effective. It’s an inescapable human trait: We tend to represent ourselves as doing something a little bit special, even if we’re actually doing the same old thing that the rest of the industry is doing.

It’s this human foible that has caused so much confusion about the terms “marketing,” “advertising,” and “branding.” A couple of decades ago, advertising agencies started to claim that they didn’t “just do advertising,” that they were also marketing consultants. They represented themselves as “brand builders.” Other players in the industry, such as consultants and media vendors, got in on the act, and we now have a variety of definitions for these terms, depending on who’s using them and what they have to sell.

The Definitions

Here are some simple, “agnostic” definitions:

  • Branding is an association, created in the mind of a potential buyer, between a particular make of product and a desired characteristic. For instance, J. Walter Thompson, an old haunt of mine, did a decent job of branding Ford when it launched its “Quality is Job 1” campaign. People began to — amazingly — associate the Ford brand with quality.
  • Marketing is a general term for the deliberate efforts that a company executes to effect specific objectives. Those objectives can be pretty diverse, ranging from selling product to branding to making shareholders feel good about the company. The methods used to conduct marketing are also diverse, extending across the various advertising media and events promotion, direct mail, inbound telephone service campaigns, outbound telephone marketing, and so on.
  • Advertising occupies a certain spectrum of marketing media — specifically the ones that involve media owners selling “inventory” to advertisers who then employ that inventory to spread specific messages. Advertising involves three basic elements: a target audience, a message, and a medium via which to send that message.

The Confusion

The confusion starts when people who for a living work in advertising (which, inherently, is used for marketing purposes and sometimes involves branding objectives) start to mix up the objectives of their projects with the executional processes that they use while making their living.

Sometimes, advertising agencies attempt to move up the professional services food chain and actually get paid to do marketing consulting for their clients. Most clients, though, like to think that their own employees control this more generalized function and so decline to pay extra for such agency services. The result is a client that sees the agency as a service provider, conducting the clerk work of advertising and providing good creative, while the agency employees see themselves as much more important, strategic partners.

When ad agencies pitch a potential new client, they position themselves not just as agencies but as “branding partners.”

Media sellers also contribute to the confusion when they attempt to sell their inventory for “branding” purposes. We’ll revisit that issue after discussing how branding budgets get allocated from a company’s marketing department.


The client’s marketing department divvies up the marketing budget into different slices. Some people slice up the budget pie by medium; for example, 10 percent goes to online, 40 percent to television, 30 percent to print, and 20 percent to radio. Other people slice up the pie by the different marketing objectives; for example, 50 percent goes to inspire immediate sales, 20 percent to reach a new, untapped market, and 30 percent to inspire long-term brand association with some desired trait. Unfortunately, since clients seldom explicitly state which method of budgeting they’re using, marketers often will make the confused conclusion that a certain objective implies a specific medium.

Often, a client and its agency will even structure it so that people handling one particular objective are expert in only one medium. The print people get handed the sales objective (and fight with the interactive people for the budget), and the television people get handed the branding budget. This keeps things simple, to be sure, but it’s seldom the most efficient way to spend marketing dollars. And it certainly feeds the confusion about the words “branding” and “advertising.”

We’ll continue part 2 of this discussion next week.

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