Marketing Government Policies, Programs and Legislation

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Most of my public-sector career involved directing social marketing and the marketing of products and services. However, early on I had the opportunity to use my marketing skills to market major policy, program and legislative initiatives. I have written a number of blogs on social marketing and the marketing of programs, products and services but have never written a blog on what is called “Policy Marketing”.

Role of Marketing in the Public Sector

Judith Madill in her study of “Marketing in Government” identified a typology of four different branches of marketing that occur in government organizations.

Type A: Marketing of Products and Services

Many government organizations offer products and services for a fee (either on a cost-recovery or for-profit basis) to support core public good programs). In this context, marketing is not dissimilar to marketing of products and services that occurs in the private sector.

Type B: Social Marketing

This entails campaigns to change attitudes and behaviours of a target audience(s) (e.g. anti-smoking, energy conservation, emergency planning, healthy living, etc.)

Type C: Policy Marketing

The third type of marketing that governments engage in might best be called “policy marketing.” This typically occurs when governments launch marketing programs to convince specific sectors of society to accept their policies or new legislation. For instance, when the government attempts to convince the public of the benefits of a program or policy which may be a “tough sell” and potentially receive strong opposition from certain influential group(s) of opinion makers.

Type D:  Demarketing or “don‟t use our programs” marketing.

Madill describes demarketing as campaigns launched by governments to advise and/or persuade targeted groups not to use government programs that have been available to them in the past. In recent years, demarketing campaigns have been developed in tandem with downsizing efforts.

In my most recent blog I describe demarketing as that  aspect of marketing that deals with discouraging customers in general or a certain class of customers in particular on a temporary or permanent basis.” “So, everything that’s opposite of building up the demand is to take down a demand”. “Demarketing is the science of reducing the demand for something, such as the demand for using water very carelessly when there’s a shortage.”

Marketing vs. Communications

Based on my experience in the public sector most governments launch new programs policies and legislation using traditional communication strategies, tactics and techniques. Most of the time this is sufficient to support the introduction of a new program, policy or legislation, especially when there is little opposition. However, on some occasions when government is introducing a program, policy or new legislation that is potentially very controversial and has downsides for specific interest groups or sectors of the population like tax reform, then “stronger medicine” may be needed. That’s where marketing comes into the picture.

As I point out in my blog Marketers Need Communications and Communicators Need Marketing , there is wide recognition of the role and value of the communications function within the public  sector and many organizations develop communications plans outside of a marketing framework. This can be explained by the lack of understanding by public sector organizations of the value marketing can bring to the communications function. There is clearly an opportunity to broaden the communications function in these organizations to include a strategic marketing mandate thereby re-positioning it as an expanded role and stretching the impact of communications efforts.

Many people – even marketing and communication pros – find it difficult to distinguish marketing from communications. Some think they’re basically the same thing. Others, especially in the public sector, think that marketing could be useful as an arm of government engaged in selling products and services or involved in social marketing for behaviour change, but do not see the value-added that marketing can bring to the strategic communications function, particularly with “selling” government programs, policies and legislation.

There is a strong need to educate senior managers and in some cases political staff in the public sector about the value and applicability of strategic marketing in selling government policies, programs and the introduction of new legislation. This requires recognition across all levels of management of the value of marketing.

Tax Reform Communication Fiasco

As Adam Radwanski points out in his Globe and Mail article you would think that closing tax loopholes for high-income earners – in a country in which campaign-finance laws restrict the influence of deep-pocketed individuals or businesses – would seem a political slam-dunk.

He states that in reality the federal government attempts to introduce a package of such policies – limiting business owners’ ability to “sprinkle” income among family members, to convert income to capital gains taxed at lower rates, and to use private corporations as vehicles to make passive investments – has wound up looking like a cautionary tale about the perils of trying to get anyone to pay more taxes, ever.

There is no question that governments have undertaken tax changes in the past which were more potentially fraught than these, and made them work politically.

For example, Radwanski points out that the Ontario government managed to harmonize federal and provincial sales tax (HST) – increasing the cost of some consumer items – without coming apart at the seams. When it came to getting public acceptance, the Ontario Liberal government had its ducks in a row in a way the federal one did not. In other words, they had an effective marketing communications strategy.

As a marketer, I wonder how the government communicators involved with the new tax reforms did not realize that it is never a good idea to assume that any type of tax changes or reform affecting effective pressure groups like doctors and small business would not cause significant opposition. Both of these groups have a history of opposing government policies and legislation in the past and in this case the government was attempting to “take money out of their pocket”.

Clearly whoever was responsible for the communications of these tax changes did not take an aggressive strategic marketing communications approach, which was sorely needed in this case. If ever there was a case for “strong medicine” i.e. marketing… this was it.

The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place. George Bernard Shaw


Marketing must surely now be seen to be an essential part of the overall communications function of the public sector, especially when “selling” policies, programs and the introduction of legislation.  With the shift of the public sector to more managerial, business-like approaches, the adoption of marketing and related practices can also strengthen the efficiency and effectiveness of government communications. One of the greatest obstacles to using marketing in the public sector is the lack of understanding of the different types of marketing in which to engage and how each might help the public sector improve their communications impact.

Marketing presents a comprehensive, integrated and effective approach from which to manage communications resources. The time has come for leaders in the public sector and their political masters to recognize and embrace the practice of strategic marketing.

To read more about Government Marketing , check out :

Marketing-driven government (Part 1)

Marketing-driven government (Part 2)

Check out:  Marketing Workshops for Public Sector and Non-Profit Organizations





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