The Brand Called Wally Olins

The brilliant, iconic corporate identity groundbreaker can't slow down

Now, at Saffron, Olins stays perfectly in sync with the changing world despite his having cut back on the number of clients he works with. He explains his current role as more “ambassadorial” (he also mentors, gives speeches, and is writing another book). As well versed in new media as old, he believes the flattened digital world actually fosters brand culture rather than just demystifying it. Too much choice and too much information is as oppressive as too little, he says. “And confusing too,” Olins adds. “People shop online to realize ambitions conceived in the off-line world.” The emotional appeal of strong brands will endure in the online environment, he says, provided their owners police them carefully.

Another trend he cites is how brands in general “are getting more extreme. From the 1970s through to the ’90s, the commercial secret of the big Western designer and luxury brand businesses—the LVMH and Richemont brands and their smaller competitors—was that they were growing their businesses in Japan, where they had a symbolic role and value way beyond their meaning back home in New York, Paris or Milan.” But now it’s expanding out to China and the rest of the BRICs, he notes, which are the growing markets for Western luxury brands, from Rolls-Royce and Learjet to Prada and Gucci. 

The future of brands, says Olins, will be the story of new brands from new places asserting themselves alongside established names among the world’s retailers and media.

“The first thing is you manufacture for other people,” he explains. “So, it’s designed by Apple in California and rather disdainfully made in China. The second thing is we make it and we put some imitation Western name on it. The third thing is we make it and it’s still Western style, but it says Li Ning [a Chinese version of Adidas]. The fourth thing is we look for products and services that are uniquely our own. Slumdog Millionaire’s an example of that; it’s the first made-in-Mumbai Bollywood film crossover product that’s gone worldwide.

“Look at yoga, look at health practices, look at food,” he continues. “Now you sit in your room and say, ‘Shall we have Indian, or Chinese, or Italian food?’ In 10 years time you’ll say, ‘I’ve got a headache, I’m going to go to the pharmacy. Do I need an Indian remedy, do I need a Chinese remedy, or should I have a Western synthetic pharmaceutical?’ What I’m saying is, there’ll be a whole raft of stuff coming from these countries, indigenous to those countries, and which will be treated in exactly the same way, totally free from any prejudice, in the same way as you think, or as going to an Indian or a Chinese or an Italian meal. And when that happens, they’ll be the inventions of local brand people. They’re getting very savvy. They won’t need me to tell them what to do. But they just might be working in our offices in Bejing or Mumbai!”

The strategy envisioned and formulated by Olins early on—a company’s brand as the heart of its image—has only grown in importance and urgency the denser and more competitive the world. And in the world of branding, his prescience has only grown more admirable.