Marketers Need Communications and Communicators Need Marketing

From time to time, practitioners in the field of marketing and communications get into a debate about the differences between marketing and communications and more importantly, about which takes prominence in an organization. First, let’s look at terminology. In order to clarify things, the term communications is somewhat of a misnomer. The field of endeavour is actually called “public relations” but a number of years ago, public relations became somewhat pejorative and fell out of favour. As a result, public relations organizations, especially in government and the nonprofit sectors, started calling what they do “communications”. For the purposes of this article and because of this shift, the term communications will be used.

There’s always been some degree of tension and competition between communications and marketing practitioners, especially when it comes to questions about which discipline ought to be dominant or which contributed more to their organization’s well-being. They also compete for scarce internal resources and for public attention. Some organizations use only one of these disciplines. Others use both. The degree to which they use them, and the specific ways in which they use them varies from organization to organization based on their purpose, size, and history.

Introduction of Marketing into the Public and Nonprofit Sectors

The concept of marketing in the public and nonprofit sectors was a bit of a late-comer. Marketing, up until the early nineties, was mostly associated with business. However, public sector and nonprofit marketing has become, in recent years, a burgeoning field.

For more information, see Judith Madill’s article in OptimumMarketing in Government or Centre of Excellence for Public Sector Marketing (CEPSM) article in OptimumThe Case for Marketing in the Public Sector. There are also textbooks on both nonprofit and public sector marketing e.g. Kotler and Lee’s book on Public Sector Marketing and Andreasen and Kotler‘s book on Strategic Nonprofit Marketing .

Marketing vs. Communications

If an organization is a public sector or nonprofit organization and sees its primary goal as serving the public, then communications tends to be the more dominant function because building relationships with its publics is its over-riding concern. Most public sector/nonprofit organizations have a communications group or team, involved in public information, community relations, media relations, issues management, community and public affairs and in recent years social media engagement.

On the other hand, if you are a for-profit organization and your focus is the generation of sales, communications tends to be of secondary importance and is normally conducted to support and enhance marketing efforts. In a small company, there might not be a separate and identifiable communications group at all. In a medium to large corporation, you definitely have a good size marketing group with a smaller communications function.

Marketing in a for-profit generates sales of goods and services and directly contributes to the company’s profitability while communications coordinates relationships with various publics in order to gain public acceptance and approval of the company’s activities, including its sales activities.

Many people – even marketing and communication pros – find it difficult to distinguish marketing from communications. Some actually think they’re basically the same thing. Others, especially in the public sector, think that marketing could be useful as an arm of government engaged in selling products and services or involved in social marketing for behaviour change, but do not see the value-added that marketing can bring to the strategic communications function.

Adding to the confusion is the emersion of social media. The revolutionary, user-generated content has softened the formerly strict boundaries between marketing and communications.

Despite the confusion, there are important differences between marketing and communications. The following is a helpful, albeit non-exhaustive, list.

  • Focus. In general, marketing focuses on selling products and services. In the public and nonprofit sectors, it is also used for revenue generation, behaviour change campaigns, selling ideas, programs, and policies, while communications tend to focus on building relationships with various publics.
  • Function. Both marketing and communications are management functions. The two serve different purposes; however, in the private sector, marketing is a line function that directly contributes to an organization’s bottom line. Communications, on the other hand, tends to be a stafffunction that indirectly supports an organization’s goals and objectives. While in the public and nonprofit sector, we have the exact opposite where marketing usually comes under the communications function, although not always.
  • Target. Marketing’s target tends to focus on the customer/client/end-user. Marketers strive to meet the needs of the customer demands while communications target a range of publics and goals that collectively support an organization’s objectives. Examples of these publics (or stakeholders) include customers/clients/members, the media, employees, suppliers, the community, political leaders and various associations/organizations depending on the topic area.
  • Carry-over benefits. Communications’ major focus is to contribute to organizational success by building and maintaining a positive social, and political environment. Studies show a target audiences’ favorable perception – shaped by positive, well-placed news coverage (likely generated by communications) – benefits and “lifts” an organization’s marketing strategy.

Both marketing and communications play substantive roles in accomplishing corporate goals and objectives. Savvy leaders should learn – and appropriately integrate – marketing and communications into their corporate strategies to better achieve organizational success.

The lines between marketing and communications blur through social media, it’s possible that the fields will continue to have more and more overlaps and similarities. Organizations are using their Twitter streams and Facebook pages to both market themselves and carefully craft consumer perceptions. While media releases and marketing campaigns still show the differences between the two subjects, the new shiny mediums are blending the two together, complementing each other and making organizations more efficient and effective.

In a Forbes article practitioners were asked to distinguish marketing and communications. Here’s what some marketing and communications-area experts said

Marketing is more proactive while communications tends to be a bit more reactive. Communications kicks in if there is news to report, a public relations crisis, a community that needs outreach, or a new product/service/program to promote. Marketing can help create responses that communications can then respond to.

The purpose of communications is to build relationships with all stakeholders – not just current and potential customers. Communications smoothes the way. It creates a favorable operating climate in which it is easier to market, expand and be viable. As marketing guru Al Ries says, PR lights the fire, marketing fans the flames.

Marketing is the activity, set of institutions, and processes for creating, communicating, delivering, and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners, and society at large. Communicationsis the practice of managing the flow of information between an organization and its publics.

All forms of communication should be integrated together – and that includes how you answer the phone, sign off on your email, post to Twitter and Facebook, etc. Communication and marketing should involve all available tools. Service to the public should also be considered part of your overall communications and marketing because if it sucks, nothing else that you say matters.

Effective marketers constantly think from the customer’s / client’s viewpoint and constantly ask, ‘”What’s in it for them?” and then listen with respect to what they say. That’s especially true for public sector and nonprofit marketers i.e.why should someone support your government program or policy or your nonprofit with money or in-kind support or promote your message or buy your products and services?

The truth is, you can’t market without doing a little communication, and you can’t do communications without a little marketing. The end goals—selling products, services, programs, policies or ideas and making people love your organization—are too intertwined: If what you are marketing is poorly conceived, your organization probably won’t be viewed favorably by the public, and if people aren’t connecting with your overall brand, they’re probably not going to buy what you are selling.


Value of Marketing to the Communications Function

To be sure, marketing, when done properly, starts with the audience and works back to a message that will motivate action. The assumption is that if you want someone to take an action, like buying your product, service, idea, policy or program or changing behaviour you need to appeal to THEIR needs vs. your own. You’re trying to gain mind share with an audience absolutely overloaded with information. If you want to own real estate in their brain, you better make your message all about them.

Just as important, a good marketing campaign needs to incorporate messaging that deals with a competitive landscape, taking into consideration that your audience has choices. If you want to excel, differentiation – how you are different from the others – is critical and a key element of branding (for more information see my blog on branding).

One of the factors that leads to a disdain for the marketing function in a nonprofit or public sector organization is ignorance. “Our good work will sell itself” is one of the many delusional beliefs that inhibits nonprofit and public sector organizations from incorporating marketing into their communication function.

Public sector and nonprofit organizations can and should learn something from business. Many companies have started and failed because they believed their brilliance or product excellence would sell itself. It just isn’t true.

Every organization, no matter the sector, struggles with exactly the same things:

  • How to make people aware of their existence
  • How to make people aware of why they should care about their existence
  • How to get people to take action to achieve a goal or mission

In the nonprofit sector, these cannot be achieved by a communication strategy alone. You are competing for the attention of your audience amongst organizations with a similar cause or a different cause, and distractions caused by the challenges of every day life including but not limited to work, family, friends and hobbies.

Effective marketing principles will help you compete effectively for the attention you desire and deserve by helping you to:

  • Better understand the current position you hold within the minds of the audience(s) you want to reach
  • Craft a complete marketing communication strategy around the needs of those you want to pay attention and/or take action
  • Encourage sponsorship by appealing to the needs of those businesses that serve the same communities you do

There is a strong need to educate senior managers in the public and nonprofit sectors about the value and applicability of strategic marketing management principles. This requires recognition across all levels of management of the value of marketing, both in terms of the potential impact on the effectiveness and efficiency of programs, services and outreach campaigns, as well as the benefits to their audiences.

Within the public and nonprofit sectors, there is wide recognition of the role and value of the communications function and many organizations develop communications plans outside of a marketing framework. This can be explained by the lack of understanding by public sector and nonprofit organizations of the value marketing brings to the communications function. There is clearly an opportunity to broaden the communications function in these organizations to include a strategic marketing mandate thereby re-positioning it as an expanded role and stretching the impact of communications efforts.

Marketing can be used to achieve the vision of better informing and engaging audiences by viewing communications within a broader strategic marketing framework. It can help to drive results in program uptake, program impact and behavioural change. And it can save money by helping executives and program/service managers make informed decisions around investment in their communication resources.

Many in the public and nonprofit sectors identify marketing with selling products, programs or services, or promotion and advertising. Others see the value of social marketing to change attitudes and behaviours. It is true that marketing can assist in generating revenue within these sectors or succeed in changing behaviours, but it can also be a useful paradigm for improving relationships with clients and the publics with whom these sectors interact.

Marketing as a discipline can be beneficial to the public and nonprofit sectors for the following four reasons:

  1. Existing and potential clients are guaranteed to play a major role in developing and implementing a program/product/service;
  2. All program elements are focused on behaviour change instead of settling for awareness alone;
  3. Initiatives tailored to specific segments of the market as opposed to the general public ensure efficient use of limited resources; and,
  4. The application of 4 Ps (product, price, place & promotion) will always ensure that the campaign will move beyond just communications / promotion to being developed strategically for specific audiences.

As both the public and nonprofit sectors continue to try to meet the challenges associated with demands for better and improved service delivery as well as new services and programs with budgetary constraints, new and different models of management and their associated tools and tactics need to be considered to help both sectors deliver more quality, speed, efficiency, and convenience to their audiences. Marketing presents a comprehensive, integrated and innovative approach from which to manage communications resources. The time has come for leaders in both the public and nonprofit sectors to recognize and embrace the lexicon and practice of strategic marketing in their sectors.

Jim Mintz is the Managing Partner of the Centre of Excellence for Public Sector Marketing where he presently works with a number of public sector and nonprofit clients.



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Centre of Excellence for Public Sector Marketing (CEPSM)

The Centre of Excellence for Public Sector Marketing (CEPSM) offers strategic marketing and communications consulting services developed specifically for governments, non-profits, and associations. CEPSM has an exceptionally strong core senior consulting team that is complemented by a world class network of associates and partner organizations.

CEPSM conducts a wide variety of marketing and communications training in various formats, including: public workshops, private tailored workshops (in-house or at our facilities), private coaching and mentoring services, the annual MARCOM Professional Development Forum; and the university-accredited Sprott Certificate in Public Sector and Non-Profit Marketing

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