Click play to listen to the rant.

Activation. Brand. Activation. Brand

Why can it not be both?

Because in a world of polarised hubris, supercharged by the likes from the echo chamber, it’s impossible for two things to be true.

Bothism, might be a phrase coined by Mark Ritson, but this alludes to a considered approach, and that goes against the grain of algorithmic distortion.

Now, is the time to invest in brand. With the works of Sharp, Binet et al. quoted to death and the usual conflation between theory and application. Completely missing the concepts of context and adaptability (‘it depends’).

Why a resurgence in brand?

Well, the reason why there’s a ‘brand resurgence’ is due to the penny finally dropping that you can keep optimising the pipeline, but you still need to maintain the flow within it.

And let’s not forget the impact of Data Protection legislation of GDPR and PECR. Google has finally caught onto the privacy bandwagon with Google Analytics 4 (GA4), Apple has doubled-down on anti-tracking in apps, and Facebook’s ad targeting has been hit making its profits weep. 

What was once possible through the programmatic ensemble of tracking and targeting, is going to require a change in mindsets, as well as data.

Data is the new oil, if, you know how to refine it. We’ll have to resort back to the metrics that matter, just like how we used to do it, before we became blind to the fact that our digital data is products for the world’s biggest data brokers.

Some of us already got this concept, but were made to feel like idiots because we dared to challenge the dogma…brand isn’t just for recessions

You’ve forgotten positioning…  

Whether the ratio is 60:40, 50:50 or 90:10, the necessity for cash flow in the immediate and to invest in longevity is a given. The notion of brand positioning, however, is often missed in this rhetoric.

What’s the point of pushing for ‘BrANd AwAReNess’ if the brand positioning is out of sync with intended perceptions and market expectations?

That’s the point of this rant.

While the message of ‘don’t cut back on your marketing’ has some truth, the misdirection that this only applies to advertising is where the problem starts. I’ve ranted before about marketing in a recession tropes, and it’s time to talk about getting the positioning right.

Having done a few projects of this nature, I’ll also cover a real (redacted) working example.

Understanding the position of brand positioning

Kotler (2003), defined a brand as: “the act of designing the company’s offering and image to occupy a distinctive place in the mind of the target market”.

Brands can stimulate through various sensory triggers, it’s not just about visual or audio – as explored by Lindstrom (2005). Regardless of what smells we want to create, knowing what our positioning is, is critical for clarity in its translation.

We’re human after all, emotions do play their part, even if the data can’t account for them.

There are various brand positioning strategies that can be considered. As Patel (2022), pointed out from customer service, convenience, price, quality, differentiation, and even social media.

While these are starting points (let’s not dissect the social media one, save your energy), they provide a direction of travel and differentiation (Thimothy, 2022). The goal being we need (and want) to understand the perceptions and competition we’re up against.

For brand positioning to work effectively, we need an audit. While Simon from Finance may have some insight, it’s your customers who will know more.

I know, shocker…

Brand audit avoids brand drift

Despite what many think, the two biggest risks to brand are time and consistency. Something, many managers despise.

Brand Drift (trademark pending) is the phenomenon that occurs when there’s a changeover in management and/or, ego-centric decision-making. You know, the type that stamps their mark and purpose on the property.

The reds want it all, and they want it now (if you haven’t read it, I highly recommend Surrounded by Idiots, by Thomas Erikson. It explains so much.).

They are here to do things their way. Forget consistency and time, that’s not how branding is done. It’s not like egos were sacrificed for the benefit of brand longevity…

And that’s why brand positioning often drifts.

To tackle the drift, we need a brand audit. Transparency. A solid foundation upon which the walls can be built upon. We need perceptions, perspectives, and propositions. Uncovered through research and refined for alignment and clarity.

We need to know what’s landing, who’s doing it, how they’re doing it etc. etc. Insight bliss.

To achieve this, we need a tool. One that helps to shape thinking and corresponding action. Just like any framework, academic theory, model, or research. Surprising to those with their heads buried in the echo chambers – honestly, they’re not the Scriptures, they can be adapted…

The Brand Key

The Brand Key is such a tool. The key to the Brand Key, is the elements it covers to purify the brand’s essence. The very nucleus of brand strategy.

Knowing what’s possible, and what we won’t do. Avoiding dilution through distillation. Applicable to both agencies and client-side.

The Brand Key comprises of nine parts:

Root strengths: How was the brand formed? What is it known for? The origin story of your brand, and all the rich tapestry that is your brand’s history.

Competitive Environment: Direct competitors and market competitors. Identifying your real competitors. Who are your customers seeing, what’s their approach, and the context behind it?

Target: Who are you targeting? What problems do they have and you’re solving? In both a B2B and B2C context, it’s about understanding the value they create and how you can support them.

Insight: What research, material or feedback do you have? Insights to help shape or influence action.

Benefits: What do people get from you? Can you justify the reasons for engagement and transactions…?

Values, Beliefs & Personality: This is, what some may call, “purpose”. The difference is, it’s reviewing and articulating what these are. From an internal and external point of view.

Reasons to believe: Ah, yes, the proof is in the pudding. Give evidence of your claims and of your beliefs. Actions speak louder than words.

Discriminator: Your USP. What’s the single most compelling reason someone should give a shit about your product or service, over your competition…? Tough question if done honestly. 

Essence: What is the essence of your brand? Describe it in 250 characters. It should be articulable, tweetable, and so understandable that even your Mum ‘gets it’ (a good test for any idea or concept). It’s the concentrate, not, its diluted counterparts. This is the nucleus of the brand.

These are just prompts. Each part is designed to give direction for investigation, research, and collaboration. Qualitative and quantitative. This is just as much about people (customers and staff) as it is the hardcore data.

Unlocking the essence becomes the stimulus for distinctive assets (Romaniuk, 2018) and a catalyst for strategic direction. Forming the perceptions, and cementing them through actions. Consistency through association and experience. The brand vision is understood and tangible.  

Applied brand audit

As promised at the beginning of this rant, I’ll share with you a real-world example. A brand audit using the Brand Key. The objective was to evolve the strategy through the discovery of the brand essence. For I too have been that new manager, and unlike some, I’m not one to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

So, before sharing, I thought I would set out the context of this audit:  

  • The work has been redacted. Heavily. I haven’t included everything.  It’s designed to give a taste of what’s possible. This one was done as part of my strategy and planning work for a uni.

  • Every faculty and department had a vision, strategy, and policy. Academia was best described to me as “herding cats”. Part of the scoping stage of this audit, was understanding current direction, philosophy, politics (often underestimated), and projects to see how these could be distilled into a workable essence.

  • The sector likes to copy. Institutions may teach differentiation, but when it comes to applying to their own brands, it’s a different story. As you will take away from the perception maps, due to the entities, awards, and statistics, the sector competes on, there isn’t much differentiation…

  • Finally, research was both sourced in a primary and secondary fashion. Research methods overkill. Comparing what had happened, with where we are, and where we want to go.

For ease, word count, and your time, I going to go through the steps on a top-level basis, and share some screenshots of the output to demonstrate the application of the Brand Key as a tool. 

Brand audit step 1: Scope, research, and insights

The first part was to focus on the current activity. What was working, what wasn’t working. From the messages we were focusing on and the impact this was having perceptually. Here comes the perception maps:

Taking two comparative variables (in this case student satisfaction scores against entry requirements, and graduate prospects scores against entry requirements), we had a map of where we sat amongst our competitors in the market.  

Surprise, surprise, those with outstanding scores, were the ones who stood out. Institutions with minimal differences between them were clumped together. Making it difficult to know what the differences really were – welcome to one of the main challenges of marketing post-92 universities…(a rant for another time).

For those with significant scores (like Cambridge), they became the instant outliers. Working through a list of variables, the fascinating part was seeing the contrasts of the maps from the quantifiable sector data, against the perceptions of participants in focus groups (system one/system two thinking in action (Kahneman, 2011)).

In the context of the Brand Key, this was one of the starting points in relation to the roots, competitive environment, target insight, and even, reasons to believe.

From portfolio to social media and everything in between, no leaf was left unturned.

Brand audit step 2: Workshops

With the research exposed, it was time to gain further understanding not just of what we were doing, but how others were perceived by the market. Sharing, collaborating and discussing a melting pot of ideas, sentiments, and knowledge was essential.

Separate audits on elements such as features on websites, performance of customer journey comms, media and campaigns plans, courses (products) and routes-to-market were exposed for constructive scrutiny.

Workshops (Mallhota, 2012) were designed to take this foundation, and start to mould it into the Brand Key framework of benefits, values, beliefs & personality, discriminator, and eventually, the brand essence.

How our material and actions were perceived, whether it resonated with what we were saying, and crucially, quantifying and qualifying actions and perceptions of competitor brands, from the market.

The benefit of this approach was that in addition to all the ‘nitty gritty’, we were able to analyse attention competitor brands. Brands unrelated to us in terms of sector, but relevant in the sense that they too, were talking to people in our market.

Coinciding with a building list of entities for consideration and action, moodboards were also part of the output from this phase. Highlighting aesthetic and creative inspiration of what was resonating with our target audience – aspirational, yet relatable, in this case.

Brand audit step 3: Feedback and buy-in

Auditing is one thing, presenting back is another.

Because this isn’t about presenting the findings and that’s it. They had to be workable. They had to inform what came next. More importantly, they needed to provide the rationale for any changes or vision I was going to introduce.

As anyone who has been involved in change management will tell you, buy-in is essential.

Whether it’s design, digital, operational, or customer experience, these need to be in sync and understood by those internally. Because they too, are your customers, and if they don’t believe, what chance do you have convincing anyone outside the organisation?

Staff are brand ambassadors. Empower them.

The Brand Key is not only a tool for discovery, but also a tool for presentation.

Summarising the highlights. In this case the main discriminator being an emotional resonation between the institution and the customer (student). Summarised by the emotive line from the workshops of ‘when you know, you know.’

The nucleus (essence) of the brand, incorporated everything from this audit into a foundation for the marketing strategy:

‘We empower individuals to make real, sustainable changes to our world. Enriching society to serve humanity through a fusion of creativity, individuality, excellence, responsible teaching and leading practices.’

This sentiment was the justification for the actions. Aligning what we say, to what we do. Understood by the people that mattered the most – the team.

Brand audit step 4: Marketing strategy and action plan

Audit done. Foundations were laid, and the next stage was to build the walls, through the subsequent strategy and action plan.

From targeting and marcomms, to portfolio and events, the audit was about identifying the behind-the-scenes, and the aesthetic language and messaging positioning.

Doubling down on the strengths of the brand, and recognising where our own limitations make it difficult to prove our value.

Tasks and projects for the short, medium, and long-term. Refining ideas, allocating resources and focus accordingly. With the rationale giving confidence in the work being set out.

Recognising our current position, and deciding how we will monitor our progress, through the right metrics, enabled us to focus on the needs of the immediate, and the future, in unison.

Unlock your brand

People in the business need to believe in the brand as much as the customers engaging with it.

Painting over the cracks, doesn’t fix the cracks. A coherent brand execution is one where the vision is understood by the creators, executors, and the recipients. 

The Brand Key is the unlock to uncovering, defining, and refining where your brand is placed in the market, how it’s perceived, and what you do.

A brand is an intuitive perception that resides within the minds of the beholder, through association and recognition.

As marketers, we can nurture that perception, but ultimately, it’s about how it’s received and understood. On every conceivable level.

It’s not just about the ads you run. It’s an approach for acquiring business now, and for business longevity.

In short:

Understand your market.
Know your positioning.
Define your brand.
Refine your proposition.

That’s the brand positioning approach for marketing in a recession.

Share your thoughts

What tools have you used to audit or build a brand? Let me know in the comments below, tweet me @CJPanteny, or get in touch.

And if you liked this blog, don’t forget to share it on your socials and bask in its ranty goodness.

See you next time.


Binet, L. (2013) The Long and the Short of it: Balancing Short and Long-Term Marketing Strategies. Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA)

Erikson, T. (2019) Surrounded by Idiots: The Four Types of Human Behaviour (or, How to Understand Those Who Cannot Be Understood). Vermilion.  

Kahneman, D. (2012) Thinking, Fast and Slow. 1st Edition. Penguin

Kotler, P. (2001) Kotler on Marketing. Simon & Schuster UK

Ritson, M. (2020) ‘Bothism’ is the cure for marketers’ fascination with pointless conflict [Online] 03.09.20 Marketing Week. Available from:

Kotler, P. (2003) Marketing Management. 11th Edition. Prentice-Hall.

Lindstrom, M. (2005) Brand Sense : How to Build Powerful Brands Through Touch, Taste, Smell, Sight and Sound. 1st Edition. Kogan Page

Mallhota, N.K, Birks, D.F. and Wills P,. (2012) Marketing Research: An Applied Approach, London: Prentice Hall

Patel, S. (2022) A Complete Guide to Successful Brand Positioning [Online] 28.09.22 Hubspot. Available from:

Romaniuk, J., (2018) Building Distinctive Brand Assets. 1st ed. Australia: Oxford University Press.

Sharp, B. (2010) How Bands Grow: What Marketers Don’t Know. 1 Edition. Oxford University Press

Thimothy, S (2022) What Brand Positioning Is And Why It’s Important For Your Business [Online] 14.01.22 Forbes. Available from:

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