In whichever industry you operate, you’ll have come across the terms “sales”, “advertising”, and “marketing” when talking about professions. But what’s the difference?

In this article, I’ll discuss what each term means, how they can be applied, and why modern marketers are looking at it differently.

What is sales?

Historically, sales were seen as purely transactional. Customer X wanted your goods, you kindly relieved them of their money and handed over the purchase.

Of course, it was a bit more dramatic than that, with bartering and the odd argument, but it was a relatively simple procedure.

Given that many customers would have used you due to your close proximity or quality of the product, there wasn’t much more to it.

“Is sales still considered the same?”

No. And for a good reason!

Nowadays you can hop into a car, a plane, or another mode of transport to get to nearly any corner of the world. Services such as Amazon or just the internet, have revolutionised how people can access products and services.

What was once a customer base of a few miles, is now thousands — and more. Brands are fighting against each other to win over the custom of one person, and that person has a huge choice of where to spend their cash.

To remain competitive, sales has moved from selling to building relationships.

Rather than focusing on a single transaction, they are having two-way conversations with customers, understanding their needs, and helping them to meet future goals.

A shoe retailer that used to just sell shoes begins to support your social and professional life through developing footwear that reflects who you want to be.

What’s more valuable: one sale or lots of sales? A good relationship between a sales and customer is valuable to both. In that respect, sales are all about interacting with a customer and building a relationship.

Photo by Boston Public Library on Unsplash

What is advertising?

We have come across an issue, have you noticed?

All those customers, all those interactions, how on earth do you have the people power to speak to all of them?

Not to worry, that’s where advertising comes in.

Communication is an essential part of gaining and retaining customers. Advertising provides a mechanism in which you can share your message with lots of people, at any time.

Advertising can be online or in the physical world. A well-known example is from the media industry, those evil shadow people that control the world.

Not really, they’re working non-stop to keep the world informed and entertained.

Take your local newspaper, for example, they have a printed publication, email newsletters, social media accounts, a website, and sometimes even a mobile application! They have a platform and a captive audience that loves content, and you have a message that needs to be shared. It’s like a match made in heaven 😇.

Advertising isn’t just about sales either.

The message you are sending can have many different purposes. If you begin to take notice of adverts, you’ll understand what brands are trying to achieve, and you can be your own judge if they’re getting it right.

Banks have created videos that don’t directly sell mortgages, or banking services but position themselves as that caring figure looking out for you.

The purpose?

Well, a bank that cares about your future must surely be the first on your list when you’re buying a house — well, you decide.

That’s just one example, a message can be before, during, or after a sale, and the trick is to target people when the time and context it’s right for both of you.

What is marketing?

I’m going to do this one backwards, starting with my description and then how that has come about.

Firstly, marketing is planning, managing, and maintaining processes to create value.

That’s a tongue twister. Read the next few paragraphs and come back.

There are many activities available to someone who wishes to grow their brand.

Advertising and sales are just a couple of examples. In reality, a marketer has a tool belt stocked full of ideas that can achieve a wide range of goals.

But what tools do you use and when?

That’s where marketing can be used to effectively plan activities to achieve the right goal. Not forgetting that testing and research are crucial elements to successful marketing too.

Plan? Check. What next? You need to make sure that your plan is actionable, that means controlling people and resources to achieve what you originally set out to do.

Without someone in charge of making sure things happen, you’ll likely risk missing your targets or ending up somewhere without ever knowing how you got there — where even is there?

Plan? Check. Managed plan? Double-check. Surely that’s it? Not quite.

Alongside plans, your brand will have different strategies that govern how you should look, talk, and even walk.

Marketing would make sure that those set of rules are maintained to keep your whole brand working in unison (e.g. consistent use of logos and following the same tone of voice).

Properly maintained marketing, while on the surface, seems like many small tasks, when it comes together has a significant impact on how customers see and feel about your brand. Think Coca-cola, McDonald’s, and Amazon.

Finally, marketing is all about creating value. In the context of brands and customers, value is a type of currency that either has an emotional, physical, or social impact.

To use an earlier example, that pair of shoes for a wedding can make or break your big day (emotional impact). Your friends and family will be watching you (social impact), and not having huge blisters at the end would be a bonus (physical impact).

Now, go back to the first part and hopefully it’ll seem a lot less daunting.

It’s all about functions, not job roles

I’ve summarised each of the different terms, and how they can be applied, now I promised to explain how modern marketers are looking at things a bit differently.

It starts with this basic premise; job roles and functions are two different things. Follow me on this one.

A job role is pretty straightforward, either you’re sales, marketing, or advertising, sometimes both, rarely all three (that would be silly). A function, on the other hand, is splitting those job roles into smaller pieces and saying, “actually, I do bits of this and bits of that”.

Marketing Managers maintaining a website can act as a sales function (e.g. taking online orders). Business Development Managers calling customers can act as a marketing function (e.g. communicating brand values). And finally, an Advertising Executive booking space in newspapers can act like a selling and marketing function (e.g. planning and interacting with customers).

Whereas each of those functions might have been siloed into different job roles and departments, I would argue that across a brand anyone can perform any of those functions, whether you’re a Customer Service Representative or a Delivery Driver.

Marketing, in combination with the other functions, should create an environment where everyone contributes towards a brand.

What’s the point?

Sales, advertising, and marketing are all different functions that people can adopt.

Marketing is planning, managing, and maintaining processes to create value. Sales is interacting with customers and building long, strong relationships. Advertising is communicating messages.

Each one of these functions has differences, but they work together to grow successful brands.

There is no widely agreed definition or role for any of these terms – a dictionary only goes so far! It’s possible that your organisation works differently, or functions are spread across people who already have the experience, whether it’s in their job title or not.

What is your approach? Leave a comment below.


Devon is a Chartered Marketing and owner of Marketing for People. He is also a lecturer at Huddersfield University and Leeds Trinity University.

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