The government's widening participation agenda places financial imperatives on further education (FE) sector colleges to re-focus their institutional vision and their marketing strategy. At first sight widening participation may be seen as essentially a marketing issue, with two key challenges. Facilitating choice involves enabling an engagement with learning for those who have considered FE but have rejected it because of economic, social, cultural or community barriers. Increasing demand requires colleges to reach out to those for whom engagement with learning has traditionally never been part of their lifestyle horizons. Both are new, but recognisable, marketing objectives which colleges can address. Pursuing traditional FE marketing models based simply on ‘selling’ and a functional view of marketing is destined for failure, however, for widening participation is inherently a challenge to internal institutional culture that requires colleges to change fundamentally their modus operandi, their view of the world and their values. This article explores in the context of FE the relationship between widening participation as a concept and policy, the developing marketing perspective of institutions, and the emerging cultural challenges that face senior managers in colleges. Drawing on case study evidence from a number of FE colleges the article examines how far colleges are responding to this ideological and management imperative. The article concludes that widening participation is firmly established as both a moral and strategic imperative at senior level in FE. However, there is not yet much evidence of this culture permeating more widely through institutions because of the dominance of a project view of widening participation and limited awareness of the complexity of needs and wants in the diverse group of communities that are currently non-participants in FE.