There are four basic promotional tools available to marketers to communicate information about their products and persuade people to buy: advertising, sales promotion, personal selling and public relations. Specific plans for each of these tools, like when and how they will be used, are a key part of a firm's marketing plan.
Advertising is a mass-market medium, capable of reaching very large numbers of consumers at once. Because of its reach, it plays a critical role in educating people about how brands differ and which offer the benefits they seek. It is especially effective for building visibility and establishing a brand image over time. Particularly in crowded categories like soda or toiletries, advertising saves buyers time by helping to weed out unsuitable alternatives and identify the choices most likely to satisfy them.
Sales promotion devices are used to create urgency or excitement about buying the firm's product. They are particularly effective at stimulating trial for a new item, or getting a consumer to switch from her usual brand. For example, coupons provide a short-term price cut, only available to people who act before the expiration date. A premium with purchase -- some small gift or merchandise offered at nominal cost -- encourages consumers to buy a product more often, or in greater volume, than they otherwise would.
Personal selling relies on a sales force trained in persuasive communication of a product's benefits. The most successful sellers are adept at tailoring their message to each potential buyer and responding to difficult questions or objections. As the only major promotional tool that can only be used one-on-one, personal selling is also the most expensive. It is used most often by marketers of high-cost, high-involvement or customized goods like cars, real estate or industrial equipment.
Public relations programs aim to understand and influence the attitudes of the general public toward the firm and its offerings. Using devices like press releases, newsletters, legislative lobbying and corporate sponsorships, marketers try to generate positive publicity in print, broadcast and online media. However, unlike the other promotional tools, publicity cannot be entirely controlled. This is especially challenging during a crisis, when media attention can generate unpredictable or even counterproductive outcomes.