The Brand Called Wally Olins

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

The London office of Saffron, which describes itself as “the world’s smallest global brand consultancy,” is the big, white hangar you’d expect from designland. The people have that Euro world-citizen look: the women pared down, the men with heavy, pushed-back hair. No suits. No bling. It’s actually, to be more specific, haute Hispanic—Saffron, which also has offices in London, Mumbai and New York, started in Spain.

At one desk there’s a conspicuously elder statesman, Wally Olins, CBE (Commander of the British Empire), Saffron’s British chairman since 2001. At 80, he’s old enough to be everyone else’s grandfather. But with his Prince of Wales check suit, round glasses, bow tie, and colorful socks, Olin embodies his own walking, talking brand. He clearly knows as much about style as he does about strategy and design.

For many, Olins—who in 1965 co-founded the legendary branding company Wolff Olins—is the leading apologist for brands and branding as the driving force of the modern world, the inventor of the modern corporate identity consultant as a recognized specialty rather than something admen do in their spare time.

We tend to take for granted that brands walk tall, but they didn’t always. They’ve migrated from their modest origins—the sizzling iron that marks cattle, the logos that became the assurance of consistent quality in 19th century consumer goods—and have recently become fetishized: Valued, written up, socially mobile, talked up like celebrities or religious cults (some also are celebrities and religious cults).

Now, people think about their personal brands, and talk about politicians and celebrities as brands to be managed. The elusive idea of branding is central to the way corporations—as well as institutions such as governments, national museums, charities, and universities—think about themselves. Increasingly, countries are being branded as well, and managed for maximum returns. The competition for inward investment, the best brain workers and tourists, makes many countries turn to businesses that understand better than the traditional marketing firms the long-haul grand strategy of branding.

Olins, who co-founded Wolff Olins with Michael Wolff (no relation to Adweek Editorial Director Michael Wolff) and sold it to Omnicom in 2001, looks like a design academic who’s used to the big international conference circuit. But while he has lectured worldwide, he isn’t a designer at all, and he doesn’t have an art or architecture degree. He’s a former ad agency suit, an Oxford history graduate recruited when London establishment ad agencies recruited those kinds of people.

His first job was with S.H. Benson, one of the London agencies that backed Ogilvy & Mather in the U.S., and was eventually bought by it. His “imperial posting” for Benson, in 1957, was to India, where he spent five years, married, and had two children. He’d asked for the U.S. (It was the early Mad Men years; wouldn’t you have?)

Olins returned from India in 1962 as a young “creative suit,” but became increasingly unhappy in the adland officer corps when he was working at the London agency Geers Gross.

“The work was very superficial and cosmetic and we didn’t get to the heart of anything,” Olins says. “When you’re thinking about the totality of an organization, an organization doesn’t just communicate through advertising but through its environments, through its products, and through its behaviors—and I wanted to get involved in all that.”

His Pauline conversion came when he met Wolff. Wolff was “the most brilliant creative brain I ever met, and the most maddening human being,” Olins says. “He’s the most remarkable, fascinating and charming creative of his generation. And like many creative people, he’s pretty self-obsessed. But I suppose there’s nothing wrong with that. After all, he’s got quite a lot to be self-obsessed about.”

Wolff was a creative who could speak Queen’s English, Olins a thinker who could sell, and their combined talents made them the poster company for the brand movement. (Wolff left the shop in 1983: “He’d become completely obsessed with those spiritual organizations like EST . . . and it was absolutely unworkable in an office context,” Olins says.)

At first, Olins says, nobody understood their ideas. Dinner party conversations were a checklist of other, more familiar jobs (“Does that mean you’re in advertising/PR/design/architecture, etc.?”). Advertising people, he recalls, were especially condescending. They believed that adland was the only possible place to be and that Olins, as an ex-adman himself, had gone down in the world. They saw his rhetoric as just a bid for status.

As for Olins, he believed he’d gone up, and was getting closer to the long-term essentials of his clients’ businesses.

Olins’ background makes him a better spokesman for what most people see as a design-led business than any designer could have been. Certainly he’s a better writer than anyone else in the business would be; his books, from The Corporate Personality (1979) to his latest, The Brand Handbook (2008), are free of marketing-speak and MBA talk, and anything diagrammatic with arrows, circles, and fades. Instead there’s a wonderful range of references across cultures, sectors, and centuries, from the Roman legions and Napoleon’s armies to the Red Cross and the AIDS ribbon. Think a little of Nassim Taleb and a lot of Malcolm Gladwell.

The experience and platform gravitas, the learning worn lightly, the accent, and vocabulary have made Olins more effective in boardrooms than most. But it’s his ideas and his books—translated into 20 languages, and used as primers for a generation of people who want to sound credible in the theology of branding—that have given him the high ground in the big conversations about brands.

The essence of Olins’ case for branding is threefold: Brands, not technologies, are the organizing principles of global businesses; brands answer increasingly important 21st century human needs for belonging and emotional rewards in an alienating world; and globalization means people need brands to negotiate this world and feel good about themselves.

The first point—that brands are at the heart of businesses—means, Olins explains, that the moment a bank teller, say, or a call-center operator, or even a UPS deliveryman goes off-message, all of their company’s hard marketing work, and the millions it’s spent, is tarnished for the affected consumer, and loyalty starts to erode. The people who are part of a business need to understand the brand because they have to act it out. But those brand ambassadors historically have been the worst paid and the least trained. Compounding the problem: these big, holistic brand issues are what traditional marketing companies—organized in terms of projects, schedules, initiatives, and markets—weren’t trained to think about, or to make money from.

The breakthrough practice for Wolff Olins was American. “I think the business that kind of coined it for us was Lippincott & Margulies,” Olins says. “Back in the 1950s they were the first to use the phrase ‘corporate identity.’ They understood how to use identity as a tool of management.”

The roots of the “corporate identity” business in general lay in design-led American companies, which from the 1930s to the ’50s sanitized the look of great American corporations through the application of massive, highly uniform design programs. These programs dictated the style of offices, shops, vans, writing paper, uniforms—every instance where the company introduced or identified itself. And they included a logo and a bible that laid down—to the Pantone shade—exactly how the identity should be applied.

There was some great work done, Olins notes, but the approach didn’t always date well, and sometimes looked heavy-handed later. “Though those early programs were often brilliant, they were very authoritarian and they didn’t suit the individualistic ’60s,” says Olins. “They didn’t allow individuals to express themselves. They wanted something more open-minded, less literal-minded.”

Olins says his more holistic, less rigid take on corporate identity and brands took root in Europe in the 1970s and, more marginally, in the U.S. By the ’80s, he says, large U.K. design companies were claiming the identity territory as just another of their services—and, as Olins tells it, borrowing his pitch as well. “What we were doing, the branding idea—was becoming mainstream,” he says, “so our rhetoric and our vocabulary were borrowed all around town.”

But even in the 1980s, Olins says, no matter how diverse the Wolff Olins team that conceived the Big Ideas (“We always tried to recruit different people, MBAs and marketing thinkers, not just designers,” he says), companies still got their big ones from iron-clad management consultancies such as McKinsey. And as design became more high profile and moved from the specialist pages to mainstream platforms, usually focusing on logos and costs, design also became controversial: All that money and that fancy talk, and the result was to finesse a squiggle! How, people wondered, could you spend millions on that?

Wolff Olins’ rhetoric and its mission to explain the big branding idea (meaning lots of press briefings, etc.) made it a particular focus for criticism. When its genteel, stylized Dame Prudence logo replaced the familiar man-with-umbrella as the logo of the giant Prudential insurance company, for instance, Wolff Olins was accused of neutralizing and abstracting a popular symbol of security.

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.

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