Marketing and communications: What's the difference?


In the last two weeks I have been asked this question more than once. Having worked mostly in large corporations, I assumed the difference was clear to all. And I now see that as my own large enterprise bias. The more I work with smaller organisations, the more I see that the two functions start as one and begin to separate as an organisation grows. But since they share the same DNA, the helix structure remains. And it's the smart companies that realise this.

Here are some further thoughts on similarities and differences.

1. Marketing is firmly embedded in the sales cycle; communications aids it

Marketing exists to drive revenue and generate sales. It focuses on branding, advertising, websites and driving traffic in order to capture leads. Customers are the main stakeholders.

Communications has an adjunct role in sales. It focuses on different audiences and stakeholders - and customers or potential customers are only one of these.

2. Marketing has big budgets; communications is a bit more DIY

Marketing tends to hold agency budget - the size of which depends on the size of the company. While comms has some budget, communicators tend to rely less on agencies and are more likely to create their own content.

3. Marketing focuses on branding; communications on storytelling

While marketing owns the brand and all the attendant elements, communications builds stories around the brand.

4. Marketing is owned media; communications is earned

Marketing owns various channels, such as the website, the main brand social media channels, and buys space in other media. Communications builds relationships with the press in order to encourage media stories about the company. It also builds relationships with other audiences (analysts, investors, shareholders, employees, general public) so that they tell stories about the company.

5. Marketing is all external; communications also has an internal focus

Employees are key stakeholders for communications. And since the boundaries between external and internal have now dissolved, communicators need to ensure that employees receive the same messaging and storytelling that are being used for external audiences. 

What DNA do comms and marketing share?

Both work on thought leadership, social media, product updates, influencer relations and events. In the best cases, there is strong integration, shared messaging, and a clear understanding of who is responsible for what. In the worst cases, there is no integration, disparate messaging and no swim lanes.

Internally, communications also shares DNA with HR. This is another swim lane that needs to be clarified as an organisation grows.

Clarity is essential in both cases; without it there's a risk of political infighting and confusing audiences with mixed messages.

What's the correlation between size and separating out the function?

This is not an academic answer. It's based on my observations with my customers and my experience working at a company that grew to 110,000 employees. It's also affected by public listing (this sparks a need to communicate with investors), global reach (need for regional communicators and language-specific communications), and the kinds of products and services the company sells.

  • Up to 500 employees: marketing and communications are one
  • Over 500 employees: organisations start to separate out an employee communications function
  • 1 - 5,000+ employees: organisations build a corporate or global communications function

Having a separate communications function is also vital when a company is embarking on a digital transformation - but that's a topic for another post.

(Photo by Jason Rosewell on Unsplash)