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What is the difference between marketing and branding?

In a recent conversation with a very senior person at a financial institution my colleague was told, “I think private wealth managers will have a hard time seeing the value of branding—they see marketing as a cost center, not a driver of sales.”

Hold it.

How did we go from branding to marketing in one sentence like that?

What is marketing? What is branding? How do they differ?

The difference between marketing and branding, Tronvig Group
There is a spectrum of opinions here, but in my view, marketing is actively promoting a product or service. It’s a push tactic. It’s pushing out a message to get sales results: “Buy our product because it’s better than theirs.” (Or because it’s cool, or because this celebrity likes it, or because you have this problem and this thing will fix it, etc.) This is oversimplification, but that’s it in a nutshell.

This is not branding.

Branding should both precede and underlie any marketing effort. Branding is not push, but pull. Branding is the expression of the essential truth or value of an organization, product, or service. It is communication of characteristics, values, and attributes that clarify what this particular brand is and is not.

A brand will help encourage someone to buy a product, and it directly supports whatever sales or marketing activities are in play, but the brand does not explicitly say “buy me.” Instead, it says “This is what I am. This is why I exist. If you agree, if you like me, you can buy me, support me, and recommend me to your friends.”

Branding is strategic. Marketing is tactical.

Marketing may contribute to a brand, but the brand is bigger than any particular marketing effort. The brand is what remains after the marketing has swept through the room. It’s what sticks in your mind associated with a product, service, or organization—whether or not, at that particular moment, you bought or did not buy.

The brand is ultimately what determines if you will become a loyal customer or not. The marketing may convince you to buy a particular Toyota, and maybe it’s the first foreign car you ever owned, but it is the brand that will determine if you will only buy Toyotas for the rest of your life.

The brand is built from many things. Very important among these things is the lived experience of the brand. Did that car deliver on its brand promise of reliability? Did the maker continue to uphold the quality standards that made them what they are? Did the sales guy or the service center mechanic know what they were talking about?

Marketing unearths and activates buyers. Branding makes loyal customers, advocates, even evangelists out of those who buy.

This works the same way for all types of businesses and organizations. All organizations must sell (including non-profits). How they sell may differ, and everyone in an organization is, with their every action, either constructing or deconstructing the brand. Every thought, every action, every policy, every ad, every marketing promotion has the effect of either inspiring or deterring brand loyalty in whomever is exposed to it. All of this affects sales.

Back to our financial expert. Is marketing a cost center? Poorly researched and executed marketing activities can certainly be a cost center, but well researched and well executed marketing is an investment that pays for itself in sales and brand reinforcement.

Is branding a cost center? On the surface, yes, but the return is loyalty. The return is sales people whose jobs are easier and more effective, employees who stay longer and work harder, customers who become ambassadors and advocates for the organization.

Branding is as vital to the success of a business or non-profit as having financial coherence, having a vision for the future, or having quality employees.

It is the essential foundation for a successful operation. So yes, it’s a cost center, like good employees, financial experts, and business or organizational innovators are. They are cost centers, but what is REALLY costly is not to have them, or to have substandard ones.

10-shortcuts-to-marketing-success

Illustration for Tronvig Group by Sage Einarsen.

If you liked this you may also want to read:
What is marketing strategy?
Brand Strategy Basics
The Difference Between Sales and Marketing
Your Brand Idea: Who but Horton can hear it?
Focus Group Testing Ban
City Brands: Dealing with a lack of control from Ari-Veikko Anttiroiko

22 Responses to The Difference Between Marketing and Branding

  1. Tracy Oats says:

    Thanks for this James – branding and marketing definitely get confused too often … we definitely serve out clients better when we explain the differences clearly.

  2. Well, just to challenge the standard view a bit: what if the idea that branding precedes marketing comes from a too narrow view of marketing? If marketing is seen from the point of view of old-fashioned production or selling orientation, it certainly looks as if branding is the heart of everything, and marketing is just about ‘selling techniques’. But marketing has been developed also as a strategic tool, which is itself at the very core of the entire business strategy. How can branding suddenly take its place?

    As I started to develop city marketing in the 1980s, when branding was not developed at all in this particular area, I seem to have developed a different view than those who see marketing as just a tool for branding.

    Rather, and this is very tentative, I think that branding developed simply from a ‘product’ dimension of 4P, extending to such directions as identity and positioning, which in the current market and competitive condition gained a special role in marketing. Thus, it is still an integral part of strategic marketing. Does this make any sense?

  3. James Heaton says:

    Professor Anttiroiko:

    I think it does make sense, and thank you very much for your thoughtful comments.

    Sometimes I think this argument might be no more than a kind of childish fight: “My tool is bigger than your tool.” and I may have played into this by saying, “Branding is strategic. Marketing is tactical.”

    I was perhaps arguing that my tool is bigger.

    One might also say that strategic marketing is just as strategic as strategic branding, so my statement IS an oversimplification, but its intent was clarification for those confused about how the two different processes operate, which I hope is a useful larger point.

    Marketing operates primarily through tactical means, and branding, while manifest in all things including every tactical action, is to my view, really about what people hold in their minds, and this is significantly more about strategic positioning than tactical action.

    I’m not sure I still believe unequivocally that branding is primary, and our understanding of marketing continues to evolve. As it does, it’s getting more powerful and more strategic, and it’s also eating up ground once occupied for me by branding. So it goes.

    In the 15 months since I wrote this post, I have, it turns out, spent more time talking about marketing than I have about branding, and this could be a reflection of my own awakening to just how much strategic ground marketing could be made to cover. Branding though still remains, for me, fundamental.

    To take your example, when it comes to marketing a city, is it more important to look inward and create a brand that is true to the experience of those living or visiting that place, or is it more important to think about what the city has to offer in terms on the needs of those who use it? For me this difference in approach is a key difference between branding and marketing. Each approach to the problem of what to do yields a slightly different outcome. Each implies differing tactical actions, and (I now believe) each approach benefits from the insights brought by the other.

    In our own Branding and Marketing Discovery process, we now do both things—we try to get at the truth of the brand from the perspective of those who know it well, and then we also try to understand the brand offer in terms of the needs of those who do and might potentially consume it. This second set of findings often suggests changes/improvements. Do you/we then, as in your example, ask a city to change something fundamental about itself so that it will be a better sell? Is this what really happens? I’m guessing the answer might sometimes be yes. That’s interesting, and I’m curious to know your experience.

    In any event, thanks for helping me think about it. I will continue to do so as I want to always be learning.

  4. Hello James,

    Thanks for your thoughtful reply. Good points. I am luckily out of the whole marketing game. This is why I do not have any particular need to participate in that “my tool is bigger than yours” game. And I am glad you have a rather pragmatic view of it, too. But about the original question, I probably have a simply old-fashioned view of it, as I was like sleeping for some twenty years — I had nothing to do with marketing after the latter half of the 1980s — and when I returned to the topic recently, it seemed that the discourse was more about branding than marketing, and it sure attracted my attention. As I said, my field is city marketing and city branding, and that is a special field that may also partly explain my view of the marketing/branding relationship.

    If I try to explain what I meant in the previous reply, I simply see that the product dimension of marketing grew out from its original place in 4Ps and became a kind of spearhead dimension through the interplay of business strategy, product development, and the symbolic aspect of communication, which for understandable reasons started to change the traditional idea of the marketing mix. This, together with fundamental changes in the economy (of which you know more than I do) and what Lash and Urry, for example, refer to as economies of signs and space, and a general emphasis on the increased symbolic nature of economic life (incl. digitalisation), and with increased awareness of brand values and global brand names since the 1990s, has created a completely new way of looking at the symbolic aspect of a product. This is why I see that the DNA of branding is in the interplay within the product-communication axis. Hence the brand is now at the core of the new discourse.

    The story is much longer and nuanced, but I tried to keep it short.

    As to your question about city branding, I guess I am not completely wrong if I translate the dilemma into the relationship of brand identity and the brand promise of the city. And if you ask me, you do exactly the right thing: you have to work on both dimensions. Yet, there are two extremely important things to take into account. First, a city is a reflexive entity. There is no ‘real’ city here and the ‘represented’ city there, but instead a reflexive entity that changes through its symbolic expressions — sometimes slowly, and sometimes only slightly — but the reflexivity is there. Thus, when we brand a city, we are also reworking the identity of the city, because there is no longer the same identity that there was before we started our endeavour. Of course, this requires that our actions are influential and meaningful to the community. With this exaggeration I am just trying to point out the very evolutionary nature of brand identity in the case of city branding. And second, we have to keep in mind that in city branding the ‘identity’ is an aggregate of experiences of people living and visiting the city, and a set of key attributes as expressed in urban symbolism, and this is not and should not be treated as a sacred cow. Branding is meant to point out weak points, gaps, cleavages, and tensions that require not only narrowly defined branding designed for external audiences but also profound changes in the self-perception, conditions, and policies of the urban community in question. This is a well-known story in many post-industrial cities which really needed a large-scale restructuring in order provide decent working and living conditions for their citizens. Sometimes it works, sometimes not, but in such cases there is no other way than just to try. Glasgow, Bilbao, Pittsburgh etc. are textbook cases of such changes, but only a tip of the iceberg.

    This message is getting too long, but let me just summarise. Yes, sometimes you must ask the city to reform itself in order to be able to attract desired values from the space of flows. (This is actually the key message of my ‘city attraction hypothesis’).

    Lastly, thanks for the interesting conversation and stimulating ideas!

  5. James Heaton says:

    Professor Anttiroiko:

    Thank you for taking the time to thoughtfully answer my question. You look too young to have been branding cities in the 1980′s, or is that the prerogative of the very young in Europe ;)

    I see you are publishing what looks to be a fascinating book on this subject: The Political Economy of City Branding (http://www.routledge.com/books/details/9780415859455/). I will have to read your ‘city attraction hypothesis’. It’s a topic that is becoming surprisingly germane to our work. We are beginning to brush up against these very issues as we work on branding and marketing projects involving keynote public institutions — like museums — in smaller cities. Their fate and identity is deeply intertwined with that of the city itself. So the questions we face sometimes grow larger as we get deeper into the real issues at play, until we are inevitably talking about the brand of the city itself, and how that will change or force changes on the institutions we are seeking to help and vice versa.

  6. [...] There are thousands of definitions of “branding” or just plain old “brand.” One of the best definitions of brand I’ve seen is from the Tronvig Group. To them, a brand is “what sticks in your mind associated with a product, service, or organization — whether or not, at that particular moment, you bought or did not buy.” [...]

  7. Tim says:

    I must soundly disagree with your position. Do you disagree with Peter Drucker’s statement that “There are two, and only two, essential functions for any business: marketing and innovation. Everything else is a cost.”

    Your view of marketing as a tactic is much too narrow and simple. Marketing is everything that an organization does to get and keep a customer. Branding came into vogue due to the success of the company’s marketing – see Coke.

    • James Heaton says:

      Tim: Thanks for the comment and for bringing up Peter Drucker.

      Sorry for the lateness of my reply. I was off grid practicing what I preach in How Not to Vacation.

      I do not disagree with you at the level of the most general definition of marketing. I’m not sure how helpful that kind of definition is though since it tends to consume everything and then just sit there bloated and unhelpful. Peter Drucker’s “marketing” certainly includes all of what I refer to as branding along with all that I refer to as marketing.

      You might also notice that I touch on question of the ongoing debate over whose concept is bigger in my discussion above with Professor Anttiroiko. I do not want to add fire to that. If you want marketing to be the first principal fine, but the marketing approach and the branding approach remain distinct and complimentary aspects of the what should be a synthetic and comprehensive process. I maintain that understanding their distinctive roles and contributions to this process makes for better marketing (your definition).

      I certainly do NOT disagree with Peter Drucker or his statement about the essential role of marketing for all businesses. On this point, please see my post: Marketing is Not Optional.

  8. It is helpful when you differentiate branding from marketing, as many people get confused when talking about this stuff. It was a pleasure reading your post. More Power!

  9. Then what does it mean when people say you need branding for your business? I mean, if branding is what we are then why do we have to do it?

    • James Heaton says:

      Thanks for the question. I have to assume it’s rhetorical since you are a graphic design firm, but let me take the opportunity to elaborate on the sentence.

      Your brand IS what you are, but more importantly it is what you are in the MINDS of your brand consumers. So, the truth and effectiveness of your brand expression matters a great deal. Your brand must have clarity and an idea that is strong enough, coherent enough and distinctive enough to be able to lodge in your brand consumer’s mind. This requires expert and persistent articulation and supporting expression across all the constituent elements of your brand, at least those over which you exercise direct and indirect control.

      This includes, but is not limited to, your employee training, your vision statement, your physical spaces if you have them, all of your deployed brand assets such as photography, videos, logos, graphics, colors, how you use language, and of course, your marketing communications expressed through websites, printed materials and all manner of advertising. Your brand is a living, breathing thing that is simultaneously within your organization and spread across all those who ever have and will ever encounter you.

      So, in answer to your question, you only have to “do it” in the sense that not doing it will likely result in your brand being incoherent and diffuse, a state described by some as having no brand at all.

  10. This is a very relevant and articulate article.

    But if I may, I’d like to present a contrarian view: The Brand is “what you are”, and Marketing is “what you do”… BUT “what you do” (habits) eventually defines “what you are” (personality).

    In my opinion, Branding and Marketing, and Sales, are more intimately connected than we think… And they should be treated as one function.

    As a Creative Director, I know that Advertising for the same Brand tends to have very different flavours depending on whether the brief is from Brand Manager or the CMO/Marketing Manager… In my opinion, that it’s because even though they profess otherwise, they have considerably different incentives and “end results” in mind.

    Case in point: Dove ‘brand’ ads are empathetic and appreciative of “natural beauty”, whereas Dove ‘marketing’ ads prey on insecurities like any cosmetic product… http://inkstainedmind.blogspot.com/2013/04/excuse-me-while-i-wash-my-mouth-out.html

  11. Marinela says:

    Hi guys! I am a bit confused about this answer from a startup company “We are not spending any money on branding right now.” Can one be spending money on branding? If yes, can you give me an example? Because I think more that what they mean is “we are not spending money on MARKETING right now” ? From what I understand here on this site, branding is the “ID” of the company which is stored in the minds of the consumers. So I guess that this ID is built up by marketing tactics, which cost money. Am I wrong? Please clarify it for me :)

    • James Heaton says:

      Marinela, what an interesting thought. Thank you.

      Branding, in part, could be seen as the “id” of an organization. It can and should also be more than that. Crucially, it has to have external manifestations through whatever means (including marketing). Your brand exists, I think, in the interplay between what you are and what you do (including your marketing tactics) on one side, and the idea your consumers retain about you on the other. So I see marketing and branding as two essential aspects of the ongoing relationship organizations have with the world. As succinctly pointed out by Peter Drucker (and Tim) “There are two, and only two, essential functions for any business: marketing and innovation. Everything else is a cost.” Contained inside Peter Drucker’s notion of marketing with a capital M, brand work is there, and serves as the internal foundation upon which marketing execution can be built. Marketing, as I describe it, is also there looking at the issue from its vantage point in the mind of the consumer. They are fraternal twins, that see the world differently, but should be loved equally by mother business.

      Organizations do not HAVE to spend money on branding, but many do and rightly so. They spend money on branding when they need assistance at what should be natural and easy, but actually is not—finding clarity. Organizations also often have to spend money on branding, when they or their marketplace is evolving or changing, or when they are having trouble expressing themselves effectively across all communication pathways.

      We actually have two rubrics for strategy: one that assesses the brand viability of an idea or execution (from the mind of the organization) and another that assesses the marketing viability (from the perspective of the mind of the target consumer). Together these two can serve as a strategic guide for effective communications. Neither is truly fixed.

      It’s remarkable how many organizations actually do need brand help, let alone marketing help. Perhaps this is just the consequence of a basic reality: things always change—markets, people, tastes. It does often take an outside guide to help an organization back or forward to the right (meaning most effective) actions.

      In the end, brand communications (natural or supported) should serve to foster a more positive and constructive influence over your brand as it exists (and evolves) in the mind of your brand consumers.

  12. Jump says:

    I think it worth mentioning that for a company to succeed, it needs both branding and marketing. It doesn’t cut it with just one or the other. Marketing for short term cash flow, and Branding for building the loyalty or equity. Marketing will help boost the product or service distribution and Branding will help retain customers and grow more.

  13. Cat says:

    I learned way back in my research about branding, that a brand is the ‘personality’ of your product that you are trying to market. Your brand will develop a reputation, initially by marketing tactics, but ultimately by consumer experience. It can be bad, or it can be good. (Don’t forget Public Relations, it’s up to PR to make sure the reputation is protected by enhancing the good and downplaying the bad.) Marketing ‘uses’ the good qualities of the brand to ‘sell’ to the public. And marketing will match graphic elements to reflect the positive qualities of the product by using colors, photographs, a logo and even fonts. These elements will create a visual identity for the ‘personality.’

    For example, Superman is associated trustworthiness and dependability in a time of need. He has a good reputation. He is identified with a logo—the letter ‘S’. His colors are mainly blue and red with a touch of yellow, and he has a cape that is unique to him. (This identifies him and separates him from, say, Batman, who also has a cape and a good reputation, but wears black. Branding needs to clarify a unique personality.)

    Superman gets publicity for his good deeds. News stories and headlines are the PR that communicates to the public the good deeds he is associated with, and helps spread this knowledge. This helps enhance his word-of-mouth reputation.

    Marketing strategies establish the graphics, the colors and the logo to match the personality to a visual identity. And these will be used leveraging his perceived positive qualities to sell Superman products like movies and toys…

  14. ken says:

    I have a bit of a different view on this. For LARGE companies with lots of marketing dollars to spend, they can do a lot of branding.

    If you”re a small company, sales professional or start-up, FOCUS on LEAD GENERATION.
    Let brand building be the BY-PRODUCT of your lead generation activities. Not a strategy onto itself.

    Far too many small businesses are VICTIMS of brand building. Flushing their limited marketing dollars down the drain.

    • James Heaton says:

      Ken, thank you for your comment and insight. I agree with you that there is a danger in spending lots of money on what some people think of as branding. And I agree that some small companies are victims of this.

      For me though, one of the essential functions of branding is to sort out how you are going to communicate your value so that those outside your company, or organization (or your own head) can understand it. Not doing this can also be very costly.

      Casting many lines may seem like the logical first step, but it is infinitely wiser to cast them strategically – knowledge of precisely where to cast those lines (who to talk to) can only be gleaned once the hard internal work, which involves getting clear on your brand and offer, is done.

      Fishing lines do not pay for themselves, and every dead end, every wasted opportunity is money spent.

      Branding should not be about spending a lot of money to make your logo look pretty, but it should be about making sure your energies are focused strategically on those things that will yield the results you want out in the world.

      Maybe another way to put this is…Beware of branding companies who will give you a brand without first helping you establish a strategic foundation for its operation within your tactical activities (such as lead generation, or your website, or whatever marketing activation you have taken on).

  15. Kerrie says:

    Great article.

    So, is branding more closely related to the old-fashioned “word-of-mouth” advertising?

    Is brand also more likely to be affected by unpaid publicity (e.g. journalist reports on TV, radio, internet or newspaper)?

    I’m predicting the answer is “yes” to both of these questions, but I’m just checking that I do understand how it all works together.

    • James Heaton says:

      Kerrie, as you predict, yes. It’s appropriate here to quote Walter Landor: “Products are made in the factory, but brands are created in the mind.” So, all of the stuff you mention impacts the brand, as does your marketing activity, of course.

  16. Roger says:

    Hi James, this is a wonderful article…I just stumbled upon it today and have enjoyed reading both it and the ensuing comments.

    I do wonder, as an aspiring brand manager I see a lot of variation in how companies approach the topic of brand and more specifically rebranding. Is there a framework you’d recommend that fleshes out and touches on more than the brand ID elements (which most seem to get hung up on) in a rebrand process? I have a hard time articulating the importance of digging deeper beyond these elements when working with a team considering a rebrand. Thank you.

    Thank you again, I’ll be following the blog.

  17. James Heaton says:

    Roger, one of our core brand strategy tools is our version of the Brand Pyramid which you can read about and download here at the bottom of Your Brand Idea: Who but Horton can hear it? We also have marketing strategy tools that start with research into the mind of the consumer and the true drivers of their behavior, because it is important for marketers to distinguish between what people say they will do and what they actually do. (See Brain Science and Marketing: Role of the Limbic & Reptilian Brains, and also What is marketing strategy?)

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