Advertising, Branding, Communication: What’s the Difference?

There are a few intricate differences that, for some reason, drive industry professionals to break ours up into, well, more industries. However, outside of the community—we all usually end up being relegated to the marketing department. It’s okay. People who haven’t spent years diving deep into our world can’t be expected to fully understand.

So, what really are the differences between advertising, branding, and communication anyway? From my eyes, these are the ABCs (if you will) of our industry.


Advertising is perhaps the more blunt of the sub-sects. It’s all about being noticed—interacted with—calling someone to some action. It is results driven. Creative, but analytical. There is plenty of fun to be had here, but also a lot of work to be done.

It may also be the most commonly used term to refer to our industry, thanks to shows like Mad Men. And even just the ever prevalent concept of ‘ads’ in our world. This is the realm that originally drew me to the industry. And, while still my first love, I’ve thankfully learned that focusing exclusively on efforts here is not sustainable. There is much more that goes into building a widely successful brand.

While sometimes the most exciting and glamorous, it’s only so far a cry from the cheap seats. There are careful lines that must be walked to maintain your brand’s integrity.


Branding is the long game. You might be able to build a great ad overnight, but you’ll never be able to build a great brand in the same timeframe. It takes a near infinite amount of time to establish your brand. This is because once you stop, it’s gone. It takes forever to get there, but only a moment to lose absolutely all of that progress.

This realm of the industry is highly similar to advertising. It mostly drops the call to action, or employs a lighter, more indirect one. The goal is still to be noticed, but not to make a sale. Wait—what? I know. It’s about building a relationship with your consumer. Which, eventually, should result in a sale.

Instead of asking customers to buy something, we’re giving them tips and tricks. We’re donating to causes they care about, and letting them know how well we take care of our employees. And, that when they’re ready, we’re here for them.


Technically, everything in the industry is communication. Where there’s a sender, a message, a receiver, and maybe a bit of noise, there’s communication. However, there are more specific levels of communication that are actual functional pieces within the industry.

Internal communication is sometimes thought of as a human resources responsibility, and while it can be, marketing should have a hand in it as well. Think about this: can you trust human resources to tell your employees how they should be representing your brand? Should they be communicating information about the promotions, branding, or PR you’ve been perfecting? No. Efficient internal communication opens a direct line between employees, and the marketing department so that the proper information flows freely between.

External communication and public relations efforts fall here, and within branding as well. They are not sales-y. They are more like bulletins, updating your audiences with useful information and happenings. This allows you to be more of a coworker offering the wares of their child’s fundraiser, than an unexpected door-to-door salesman.

Integrated Marketing Communication

Integrated Marketing Communication (IMC) is my preferred way to look at our industry. Conveniently, it best fits the outside world’s view of us as well. The concept behind IMC is that no matter what corner of the industry you crawl out from, we all share the same goals. Sure, we may use different methods of getting there. We might place higher priorities on some aspects more than others, but in the end—we promote and protect the brand. We grow the brand, whether that be through sales; through relationships with customers and employees; through being cognizant and adaptable.

While the industry is certainly heading in this direction, there are still some distinctions between specific functions that are important to note. But they are nothing worth completely dividing us over.

Better Together

There are a lot of bits and pieces that intersect and overlap. This is why we all get lumped together so often. Of course there are differences. However, true industry professionals can easily point them out, and navigate around them.

This is why the IMC model is effective. It’s not the result of a lack of importance placed on our industry, it is the recognition that these efforts, and the professionals behind them, function best when thought about as a whole. When things are worked on together, and seen from different angles. Instead of focusing on the differences that separate us, focus on the common goals that unite us.

The best in the industry are adaptable. They are proud to say that they work in marketing. Or in advertising. Even branding, or public relations. Real industry professionals understand the importance of ensuring each aspect functions at its peak potential. They’re able to provide support to any department, or position, that makes achieving their goal possible.

How did you get interested in the industry? What are your opinions on the shift towards Integrated Marketing Communication? Let me know in the comments!

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