Marketing vs. Communications: The Surprising Difference

Aug 13, 2021

Communications (promotions, advertising, etc.) should make up only 8% of marketing. If that surprises you, then maybe you’ll enjoy this article as much as some of my email subscribers

My first interview with Seth Godin changed my life.

Seth Godin on how marketing goes much deeper than communications

I got to talk to someone I deeply admired (Purple Cow was one of the very first marketing books I ever bought).

It also gave me a boost in credibility for a podcast I had just started a few weeks prior.

The YouTube video of my chat with him has been seen more than 200,000 times, with comments like this one:

Fan gives a raving review of an interview with Seth Godin on marketing versus communications

But, above all else, it changed my life because it prevented me from falling into the cycle of death: operating as if marketing is all about communications and nothing else.

Here’s the specific moment I’m talking about:

Louis: There’s an industry that really annoys me, it’s the telcos. Internet providers, phone providers, mobile data, and that kind of stuff. If I have to choose one industry, they’re the ones that are really racing to the bottom. They are always competing on price. Let’s say we have a brilliant idea of starting our own internet company. We provide internet just like the others but how would you make it remarkable?

Seth: You asked the question exactly the wrong way, I don’t know if you did that on purpose.

Louis: Oh no.

Seth: You can’t begin by saying, “How do we make it just like the others and make it remarkable?” You have to say, “How do we make it different from the others so that it is remarkable?”

Seth: Then you say, “How do we make it for the smallest possible audience?” That part takes discipline. But when I think about the magic of an internet company or a telecom company, what do they do for a living? They connect us to other people, something we desperately want. There are only two ways to do it. You can connect us to other people the way everyone else connects us to other people, in which case I’d like the cheapest, thank you very much. Or you can connect us to different people in a different way, people I can only reach through you.

Seth: The opportunity for someone is to say, “Where’s the minimum sized group of people who desperately want to be connected in a new way? If I can connect them using hardware and software, they’ll want to be connected because they don’t want to be left out.” From that little circle, if what I’m doing actually works, the circle will get bigger. That is the way it always happens.

This moment changed my life because I understood why I fell in love with marketing in the first place.

Marketers are change-makers who are able to influence and even design products, services, experiences for the right people.

We are not just communications cogs at the end of the process who are expected to take an average product for average people and just “market it.

Communification: communications is always marketing, but marketing is not always communications

Does this sound familiar?...

Taking an average product (a commodity, even), being expected to find people who will actually care enough to listen to you, trust you, and buy from you, all the while competing with other companies offering the exact same thing.

Mark Ritson, brand consultant and former marketing professor, argues that marketers tend to ignore 92% (!!!) of their job.

Mark Ritson on the difference between marketing and communications

He calls this “communification:”

Communification is a term that describes the difference between marketing and communications

And then there's Allan Dib, best-selling author and creator of the book The One-Page Marketing Plan.

Allan Dib on how marketing with only communications is like putting lipstick on a pig

He calls it “putting lipstick on a pig:

"They have an offer that’s so-so and they think adding marketing to it is the thing that’s going to make it work. And that’s when you get into pushy, sleazy tactics."

The cycle of death

And so in operating as if marketing is all about communications and nothing else,  you enter the cycle of death:

  1. You are forced to use crazy promises and pushy sleazy tactics

  2. You have to interrupt as many people as possible

  3. Results are average (or even shit)

  4. There is no money to make the experience even better

  5. There is a growing inconsistency between what is said and the reality

  6. You face mounting pressure from Leadership who thinks even less of “marketing”

  7. Rinse, repeat

The challenge with good marketing... to align what you do with what you say.

Your behavior, as a brand, goes beyond features, price, customer support... It's everything that you do (and also everything you don't.)

In the book Zag, Marty Neumeier, a brand strategist who coined the term “radical differentiation,” makes it clear that “communications” is the last step:

Communications is only the last step in marketing

In Purple Cow, Seth Godin argues you have a choice between two scenarios:

An updated understanding of marketing reveals it is not the same as communications

What is it going to be?

Think about the brands and artists you admire...

Chances are, there is no difference between what they say, how they’re perceived, and what they actually do.

  • Imagine if Daft Punk, who’ve been fighting the Star system responsible for copycat artists, had started to produce music anyone could have made on their iPad? Imagine if they had removed their helmets to show their face and appear on the front cover of tabloids?

  • Imagine if Basecamp, the company selling project management software while fighting against Google’s monopoly and shitty privacy practices, were using trackers in their emails or selling their users’ data to the highest bidder?

  • Imagine if I, in my next email, was promoting ClickFunnels and their approach to 1000x your growth? Or if my podcast episodes were full of irrelevant ads from Squarespace, Zip Recruiter, or Audible?

7 steps to avoid the cycle of death

1) Update your brain:

You have the right to have a say about the experience people are going through. You have the right to look beyond the tactics.

2) Become familiar with the three-step marketing process:

Diagnosis, strategy, tactics - according to Mark Ritson,

"The starting point for marketing, each year, or when you take over a new job, is diagnosis: understanding the market, building a segmentation.

The strategy then becomes the choices that you make about what you will, and actually more importantly, what you won't do, having then understood and diagnosed a market. It's about having clear targeting from the segmentation that you've built. It's about very tight, distinctive positioning to the market, in terms of what you will and won't stand for, and what your aim is to represent to the consumer."

3) 👏Demand 👏to 👏spend 👏time 👏with 👏customers👏.

Demand to talk to customer-facing staff, to listen to sales calls, to read chat logs, to meet customers where they are, to watch website recordings, to read surveys… Understand your market well. That’s what market-ing is all about.

Marketing is about talking with customers, not at customers. The latter leads to marketing bullshit

4) Identify opportunities throughout the journey.

It might sound a bit cliché but hear me out. Find out where there are major discrepancies between what is said and what is actually done. What can you challenge to have the highest impact possible?

5) Share your learnings (but don’t use boring spreadsheets).

If you want to convince Leadership to change, stop using numbers and start sharing stories. Make them sit on customer calls with you. Select the best Voice-of-Customer data and add them to a one-page document. They need to understand how people perceive them to really understand what's going on.

6) Mimic behavior, not features.

Go beyond your category and look at brands you and your team admire. What are they doing across the journey? What are they not doing? How far are they going? How are they communicating? What are they saying? What are they not saying? You will see a congruence. You will see patterns. You will see that they do a few things well while saying “No!” to the rest.

7) If none of the above works...

if you struggle with convincing anyone to change, if marketing inside your organization is synonymous with communications… There might be only one option left: reconsidering your position and looking elsewhere. Search for companies you truly admire selling products or services you love and check their Glassdoor reviews. Get in touch with existing employees and ask them about the way marketing is being perceived internally.

You might find a company that has avoided the cycle of death and values marketing for what it truly is…

“To create remarkable products that the right people seek out.” Seth Godin

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