Ten thoughts from 10 years in the Public Sector; #7 Marketing…

…why we can’t do it and why we all really need it

There was a young man from Australia, who painted his arse like a dahlia, the colour was fine, the drawing divine, but the smell … ah now that was a failure! What passes for Marketing in the Public Sector is all too often about dressing up what you have to make it look pretty. This is not marketing.

But the Public Sector and Marketing, real Marketing, should be joined at the hip. If the Public Sector is there to deliver services to meet the needs of users (can we call them customers if they have no choice of where to shop?) and Marketing is about understanding the needs of service-users then the logic of applying marketing principles in the Public Sector is hard to deny.


Marketing is misunderstood.  I know, having been a Chartered Marketer for sometime, the irony of the confusion around the term Marketing is not wasted on me.  If Marketers can’t get the message across about what Marketing really is then what hope for any of us!  But right now the Public Sector needs to understand and adopt the principles of marketing if it is to deliver services effectively and efficiently.  Marketing, real marketing that provides strategic direction, not the promotional whitewash and PR that gets thrown over rough surfaces, is in short supply in the Public Sector. This needs to change.


Marketing in the Public Sector is often confused with promotion, simply pushing your services at people and telling an audience what you think you want them to hear.  This is called speaking at people or telling and has nothing to do with the essence of marketing.  A department of telling is not a place aspiring communications professionals would apply to work in; unfortunately many of them are trapped in just such places.

The Chartered Institute of Marketing’s definition of Marketing is “the management process responsible for identifying, anticipating and satisfying customer requirements profitably”. In short, Marketing is business.  But this definition assumes a link between delighting the users (customers) of your service and the health of the company bank balance. As a young salesman selling on commission I learnt early in life that in the private sector it is the customer that pays the wages. I didn’t get paid until the cheques had cleared. This isn’t the case in the Public Sector, the service user (consumer) may be paying for the service with their taxes but they are not viewed as the customer. The customer the Public Sector focuses on is the Government Department that channels public money to them. The Francis Report shows an extreme example of how this fixation can go horribly wrong.

To marketers in the private sector, customers are a great source of knowledge and insight about what works and what doesn’t. Unfortunately in the Public Sector they are an untapped asset, all too often viewed as an inconvenience to be managed, not a precious resource to be valued. Their opinions and observations are received as criticism by organisations that seem to focus more on protecting their position than delivering brilliant services.  There, I’ve done it, I mentioned Public Sector Services and Brilliant in the same sentence.  Maybe this could catch on?

There will of course be those who say that if customer satisfaction is a function of expectation versus performance then as people don’t expect much from Public Sector Services why commit resources to improving them. But in many cases providing better service can actually be more cost effective.

Marketers are uniquely positioned to add value in the Public Sector. Its time to shoot the Wombat (Waste of Money, Bags and T-Shirts) myth of Marketing and start to create, communicate and deliver real value to the consumers of Public Services.


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