As a marketing and communications agency owner and consultant, I often hear "marketing" and "communication" used interchangeably. But they’re not the same. Here’s how I structure the difference between these two complementary disciplines.

Marketing is an "outside-in" discipline that centers an organization’s focus on who its audiences are and what they want or need. Marketing then shapes who a company is to better meet these wants and needs. This reshaping can be through improved products and services – the value proposition – or through better service design and more customer-centric promotions.

Communications, in contrast, is about getting your message out using an "inside-out" approach. It is the discipline of analyzing and advancing what is central to what your organization has to say and then finding the best way to say it.

The rules of marketing and communications are changing

There was a time when the two disciplines had little to do with one another. Communications used a range of tools to generate unpaid, or “earned,” attention, such as media relations, corporate communications, crisis communications, events and more.

Marketing meant paid placement: advertising, certain types of sponsorships and other paid – controlled – access. And many classic Mad Men wouldn’t be caught dead "lowering" themselves to the level of communications or public relations.

Since the rise of the Internet, the two worlds have blended dramatically. Ownership of the earned and paid spaces is no longer cleanly divided: communications and public relations firms are paying bloggers for coverage and buying ad space to get their message across. This blending is due in no small part to the deterioration of the fourth estate – the media – and the rise of social networks. We also see ad agencies – the bastions of paid marketing – arranging grassroots street events and pop-ups and generating buzz on social media.

But the traditional mindset of each discipline still plays a vital role; they should not be confused or conflated.

The illusion of control

Many organizations, particularly public service, regulatory, not-for-profit and membership groups have traditionally relied on a communications mindset to control their stories. They are naturally nervous about public criticism in the uncontrollable world of social media: messages cannot be influenced as easily by professional mediators (especially the media). But today, that fear can be a trap: staying silent can betray the trust of Millennials and Gen Z'ers who expect transparency at levels that can feel uncomfortable for less promotionally minded organizations.

The marketing mindset will always help your organization compete, respect your customers and align to what’s important to them more powerfully than “inside-out” communications alone. And although nothing can protect you from criticism, your organization will be on a stronger footing when it confidently understands and empathizes with its audiences.

Do you need communications or marketing?

Here are a few ways to analyze what you need.

1.    Is your primary objective to get other organizations or influencers to think, talk and act in a certain way about you? Do you want them to spread your message? If so, communications tactics may be important.

2.    Are you trying to change behaviours in your audiences? Do you want them to do or think differently about you or a service you provide? Marketing tactics are good go-to tools in this case; they demand a focus on who your audiences are and what barriers need to be overcome to achieve your goals.

3.    Are you trying to influence someone else’s agenda? A combination of both marketing and communications tactics will have the greatest impact.


As you would when selecting any resource, be sure you understand a marketing or communications firm’s strengths, the starting point and focus within this new blended world of marketing and communications.

About Christine Saunders

Halmyre President Christine Saunders is a marketing consultant to service-based organizations, a strategic advisor to marketing executives and leaders, an entrepreneur and a hobby farmer. Prior to founding Halmyre in 2014, Christine owned a traditional integrated marketing and communications agency specializing in financial services, public services and not-for-profits. Her education is in politics, ethics and philosophy, and she is a proud Maritimer despite living in Upper Canada today.

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