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Marketing vs Branding: What's the Difference?

Last Updated Dec 10, 2010 3:19 PM EST

There's a fair amount of confusion out there when it comes to the difference between marketing and branding. I know this because when I post criticisms of branding, I often get embroiled in discussions about other types of marketing. To illustrate the point, here's a email I recently received from a Sales Machine reader:
Big fan of your columns and always enjoy the commentary. I'm a sales and marketing director in a mid-sized company. Something we pride ourselves on is innovative, technology driven products and thinking outside the box. I try to build my marketing plan based on the same. Two years ago we management hired a big branding company to "rebrand" us. Doing this they have empowered a brand director who can't find his way out of the box and we have clashed. So maybe you can help me answer the difference in marketing and branding?
Will do. First, let's see exactly why you're confused. Here is the definition of "marketing" from wikipedia:
  • Marketing is the process of performing market research, selling products and/or services to customers and promoting them via advertising to further enhance sales.
  • Marketing generates the strategy that underlies sales techniques, business communication, and business developments.
  • Marketing is an integrated process through which companies build strong customer relationships and creates value for their customers and for themselves.
And, by contrast, here is the definition of "brand management" from wikipedia:
  • Brand management is the application of marketing techniques to a specific product, product line, or brand [in order] to increase a product's perceived value to the customer and thereby increase brand franchise and brand equity.
Wow! That all sounds so impressive, doesn't it? All strategic and cool and "gosh! we ought pay a lot of money for all that." Which would be great if it weren't utter BS.

The wikipedia definitions were written by marketing people and are really just a reflection of what marketing professionals WISH were the case. In reality, the situation is quite a bit different.

Thus here is my real-world definition of marketing:
  • Marketing provides tactical assistance to the sales function, by locating and nurturing qualified leads in order to reduce the cost of sale and shorten the sales cycle. To do this, marketing groups use a variety of techniques, such as advertising, research, and logo design.
And, in fact, if you look at marketing groups that really provide value, you discover that that's exactly what they're doing. With that in mind, here is my real-world definition of branding:
  • Branding is a currently popular buzzword that marketing professionals use in order to make their jobs seem more important, and in order to take credit for the work of other groups, like Sales and Engineering.
And, indeed, whenever you find marketing professional talking about branding, it's usually in the context of pretending that they're responsible for product design, or for sales support, etc. -- as long as those groups are successful. When they're not, hey, it's always the fault of the other guy.

Please note that this is not to say that BRAND is not important. It's very important. However, the activities of the marketing group (i.e. the things that they really do, like logo design, advertising, etc.) actually have very little impact on brand, which is largely the result of product quality over time.

Why, then, is there such a gigantic delta between how marketers want to define themselves and the role that they actually play inside the corporation? The answer is simple: the marketing guys have done a great job of selling the concept of "marketing is strategic" along with the various buzzwords that reinforce it.

Taken as a profession, this successful repositioning of marketing from a tactical function into a strategic one is real victory of fantasy over reality -- exactly the kind of thing that marketers claim that they can do for products. So, in a way, they're right. But they're also wrong, too.

The problem is that the era of "strategic marketing" is almost over, because the concept doesn't work. Marketing professionals are NOT qualified to tell engineers how to design, sales pros how to sell, sales support people how to manage customers, etc.

So we have a classic situation where the "branding" (if you will) of "strategic marketing" has created expectations that the product "real life marketing" can't fulfill. The result is entirely predictable. The "strategic marketing" is gradually being seen as a empty fad.

Meanwhile, REAL marketing (as I've defined it above) is undergoing an incredible explosion. Armed with new tools and technology, and a better understanding of how sales processes work, there are marketing groups out there that are having an ENORMOUS impact on revenue and profit.

Unfortunately, dumb ideas sometimes die hard, and it sounds like our Sales Machine reader has gotten saddled with one of these "strategic marketing" drones who's embraced the "branding" buzzword. Essentially that means that the firm will be paying a "branding" tax.

Worst case, real marketing will get starved for money while the "branding" activity eats up dollars with no discernible impact on sales. So sad, but I've seen it happen a hundred times.

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