Marketing vs. Advertising vs. PR: 3 Key Differences
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Marketing vs. Advertising vs. PR: 3 Key Differences You Need to Know About

Kat Boogaard Kat Boogaard Last Updated:
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When it comes to marketing vs. advertising, it’s challenging to know exactly what the difference is. After all, from public relations to sales to publicity, there are so many different terms that are used interchangeably to describe activities that all contribute to a larger, shared goal.

But do they really all mean the same thing?

Or is there a notable difference between marketing and advertising?

Is there a major difference between marketing and sales?

What about public relations versus marketing?

Is your head spinning yet? We can’t blame you. These different terms all fall under one large umbrella, and that really only makes it that much tougher to figure out exactly what each one is supposed to represent.

So, before we roll up our sleeves and dive into the noteworthy differences between these different fields, let’s start by defining each term.

What is marketing?

The formal definition: An aggregate of functions involved in moving goods from producer to consumer.

When you think of marketing, it’s best to think of a process as a whole–rather than a singular activity. Marketing is the whole puzzle, as opposed to a single piece.

It’s for that reason that most businesses have marketing departments that encompass many of the other terms and activities you see listed below (including advertising and public relations).

Marketing is a broad term that represents all of the different efforts and activities that businesses and brands put into play in order to get a product or service in front of more eyeballs, attract new customers, and maintain solid relationships with existing ones.

What is advertising?

The formal definition: The action of calling something to the attention of the public especially by paid announcements.

In contrast, you can think of advertising more like a singular activity–as opposed to an entire process or strategy.

Advertising involves promoting a product or service through paid means. Whether that’s installing a billboard, purchasing Facebook ads, or even placing a radio commercial on Pandora or a local radio station, advertising is typically paid promotion.

It’s an effective way to get a particular product or service in front of a larger audience, and advertising is typically dictated and directed as part of the overall marketing strategy for an organization. It’s a singular piece of the larger marketing puzzle.

What is public relations (PR)?

The formal definition: The business of inducing the public to have understanding for and goodwill toward a person, firm, or institution.

If you’re trying to get a better grasp on what exactly public relations is, here’s another term that you can use synonymously: reputation management.

Put simply, the goal of public relations is to foster a positive reputation for a particular business and brand through various announcements and efforts.

Perhaps this involves a press release (here’s a handy press release template, by the way!) about a community-focused program or an expansion.

Or, maybe it’s a special event for customers or stakeholders. Perhaps it involves doing damage control on a scandal or some not-so-flattering news. There are plenty of different public relations activities that come into play.

Public relations is all about fostering positivity and goodwill within the community to continuously elevate a brand or business’ reputation.

The major differences

With those definitions mapped out, the differences between these three terms start to become a little more evident.

However, if you still need some added clarity on what exactly separates one thing from the other, let’s dive into some of the key differences between marketing, advertising, and public relations.

1. Their structure

As mentioned previously, the structure of these different things is one key differentiator. Marketing itself is an entire process that numerous different activities fit into.

“Think of marketing as a pie,” explains Laura Lake in a post for The Balance, “Inside that pie you have slices of advertising, market research, media planning, public relations, product pricing, distribution, customer support, sales strategy, and community involvement.”

When it comes to structure, this means that advertising and public relations are largely the same–they’re both individual pieces within the overall marketing pie.

However, if you’re aiming to differentiate marketing from anything else, thinking of structure is the best place to start. Marketing represents the entire process and strategy–rather than being a singular task or activity.

2. Their goals

Here’s another thing that can make distinguishing between these terms so challenging: Essentially, they all contribute to one major goal–increasing sales of a particular product or service.

However, within that larger goal, they also each have individual goals that can help you understand how they differ from one another.

  • Goal of marketing: To acquire new customers while fostering and maintaining a good relationship with them well into the future
  • Goal of advertising: To inform, persuade, or remind customers about your brand or product
  • Goal of public relations: To create, maintain, and protect the organization’s reputation, enhance its prestige, and present a favorable image

3. Their efforts

As we touched on in the definitions of each term, there are different efforts and activities that help to differentiate these oft-confused labels.

For a brief example, answer this one simple question (think of it as a pop quiz of sorts): Which of the following is not an aspect of advertising?

A) Purchasing a half-page in a local magazine to promote your new product.

B) Placing ads on Facebook to target your ideal customers.

C) Running an advertisement on Pandora to announce your new and improved features.

D) Putting out a press release about your new product.

If you guessed “D”, you’re correct. As a reminder, advertising involves paying for specific promotion. Option “D” fits more into the public relations category, as a press release is a traditionally more PR-related activity.

To bring even more clarity to how these efforts differ from each other, let’s break down some common activities associated with each.

Traditional marketing activities:

  • Market research
  • Advertising
  • Publicity or public relations
  • Sales
  • Merchandising
  • Distribution

Remember, marketing represents the overall process of getting a product or service in front of more eyeballs–which is why it encompasses both advertising and public relations.

Traditional advertising activities:

  • Television advertisements
  • Radio advertisements
  • Print advertisements
  • Direct mail campaigns
  • Billboards and signs
  • Banner and website advertisements
  • Pay-per-click advertisements
  • Social media advertisements

Traditional public relations activities:

  • Press releases
  • Business or community events
  • Speaking engagements
  • Media relations
  • Sponsorships and partnerships

Where does sales fit in?

Ultimately, all of these activities are different. But in the end, they all work in support of gaining new customers and increasing sales.

So with that in mind, you’re likely still left with one lingering question in the back of your mind:

What about sales?

Where does that fit into this overall puzzle?

Is there a difference between sales and marketing?

There’s no denying that the two are closely related. And they’re ultimately both aimed at increasing revenue for a brand or business. However, there is a distinct difference between these two terms.

“Marketing is everything that you do to reach and persuade prospects and the sales process is everything that you do to close the sale and get a signed agreement or contract,” according to Laura Lake in a another post for The Balance.

In other words, marketing exists to generate leads and gain the attention of prospective new customers. However, it’s up to sales to swoop in, provide some extra persuasion, and ultimately close the deal.

When it comes to marketing and sales, you really can’t have one without the other. For that reason, some companies put these two activities into one grouping, while others have entirely separate departments.

But regardless, it’s important that sales and marketing work closely together in order to achieve the desired final result of securing more purchases and customers.

Making the most of your efforts

With so many different activities to be handled, there’s another important consideration you should make: maximizing your time spent on each of them.

What exactly does that mean?

Well, some companies focus a lot of energy into public relations while others pump tons of resources into advertising. Each of these methods are important. But that doesn’t mean they all carry exactly the same weight from one business to another. For example, your brand might see better results from just one of those.

So, with that said, the smartest thing you can do in order to make the most of your marketing efforts is use a time tracking tool like Toggl Track.

By keeping a watchful eye on the time you invest in various activities, you can decide which activities actually have the most payoff for you. You’ll be able to identify those campaigns that really deserve your focus, allocate your marketing budget more effectively, increase sales and conversions, and ultimately make sure the time you spend on marketing is that much more effective.

Your marketing glossary

With all of this in mind, you likely will no longer have to ask yourself what the difference between marketing and advertising is and you won’t experience as much confusion about public relations vs. marketing.

But even with all of that new knowledge under your belt, it can still be tempting to use these terms interchangeably.

In order to prevent you from adding to the confusion, we’ve pulled together this handy glossary of synonyms that you can use–that are actually correct.

Potential synonyms for marketing:

  • Promotion

Potential synonyms for advertising:

  • Paid promotion
  • Ad buying
  • Media buying

Potential synonyms for public relations:

  • Publicity
  • Media relations
  • Reputation management

Over to you

Marketing, advertising, public relations, and sales are often terms that are easily swapped out for each other. But just because it happens frequently doesn’t necessarily mean it’s correct.

The terms actually have distinct differences that should be noted when figuring out how to best promote your own brand or business or hiring new employees.

So, when mapping out your marketing strategy, keep these different terms in mind to come up with your own comprehensive plan. If nothing else, knowing the differences between these labels means that you’re sure to ace your next trivia night!

Kat Boogaard

Kat is a freelance writer specializing in career, self-development, and productivity topics. She's passionate about being as efficient and effective as possible—much of which she owes to her 114 words per minute average typing speed. When her fingers aren't flying on the keyboard, she loves to bake, read, hike, or tackle yet another DIY project around her home.

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