MARKETING, ADVERTISING, SALES: What's the difference?

Updated: Nov 13

One of the most common reasons businesses and organizations struggle to inform, entertain, and motivate potential customers and stakeholders results from confusing marketing, advertising and sales. My goal for this short piece is to offer an easy-to-remember rule of thumb to help you keep them separated and use each more effectively.


Like most rules of thumb, this isn’t offered as a perfect guide to understanding the differences, but like “a pint is a pound the world around,” it will get us a long way with a little effort.


In this I’m using a fictional restaurant to avoid the need to repeat “businesses and organizations,” and “customers and stakeholders.” Another advantage of using a fictional restaurant is that the divisions of sales, marketing and advertising are more familiar to all of us.

Marketing touches every activity related to serving customers and creating interest in our restaurant’s offering. Marketing is both an activity and a term for the overall activity within which successful advertising and sales occur.


For our restaurant, Apple Creek, when we engage in marketing as an activity we manage our social media platforms, monitor social media like Yelp, we work to generate positive feelings and thoughts regarding our restaurant’s atmosphere and offering whether electronically, or in person.


(Working in the open kitchen at Cobble Hill, Cedar Rapids, Iowa.)

Marketing shapes, and is shaped by Apple Creek’s customers. The specific look and feel of Apple Creek will be very different if our target market segments are upscale diners who enjoy a very good bottle of wine with their meal, than it would be if we target families with young children.


(Website of Sams No. 3, Denver, Colorado)

Advertising is mid-way along the continuum that moves from most general (marketing) to most specific (sales).


Advertising may be a billboard that says, “Apple Creek, 2 Blocks this way ->,” or a radio spot for the best burger in town, or a TV commercial showing trendy upscale diners enjoying conversation. An advertising message appropriate for the family Apple Creek probably won’t be a good message for the Apple Creek wine crowd. Advertising is much more focused on specifics than marketing is. Who, what, when, where and how (much) are the most frequent subjects of advertising.


Selling is what our menus and wait staff do. The sales function involves providing highly specific information about specific products or services, often individually tailored to influence specific customers.


In a future piece I’ll talk about why it’s so easy to confuse one function with another when you’re engaged in promoting your business or organization, and how important maintaining awareness of the distinctions are if you are to reach your goals.