The grand old man of brand

Wally Olins is back with a new book on brands but his analysis isn’t helped by some inconsistent use of the term

There was an interesting skirmish recently between two heavyweight design commentators. It began with an article by Adrian Shaughnessy on Creative Bloq, urging designers to reject the “cult of branding” and get back to talking about design. In a longer post on the johnsonbanks blog about the “gap” between design and strategy, Michael Johnson rejected this argument as “simplistic and naïve … the viewpoint of someone hoping that ‘branding’ will go away and let us get back to designing nice, simple, 60s-inspired geometric logos.”

The exchange is another instance of the rumbling stand-off between design and strategy that has emerged in recent decades. Looming large behind that debate, perhaps even its embodiment in human form – complete with trademark bow tie and glasses – is Wally Olins.

Now in his 84th year, Wally Olins has a career story that parallels the rise of branding as a discipline in its own right. A graduate in history, he started out in advertising with Ogilvy & Mather, an account man in the classic Mad Men mould. But even then he was developing an interest in the inner workings of the businesses he was advising – the strategy behind the selling. In 1965, he made the switch to design and, with co-founder Michael Wolff, established Wolff Olins. It was a risky move at a time when design was the poor cousin of advertising. But Olins was at the forefront of the ‘land grab’ that took place over the ensuing decades, as design carved out a strategic role for itself, first under the guise of ‘corporate identity’ and now under the defining term of the age – brand.

Wally Olins has written a few books in that time, and their titles echo the changing terms of the debate – The Corporate Personality (1978), Corporate Identity: Making Business Strategy Visible Through Design (1990) and On Brand (2003). This latest book looks ahead to what comes next, albeit with the cheerful recognition that the author won’t be around to see most of it.

The book only partially lives up to its subtitle. Much of it is an exploration of familiar themes – the increasing importance of ‘authenticity’ in branding (with Innocent cited as an example); the rise of ‘corporate social responsibility’ (a term that already feels outmoded and has recently been replaced with talk of ‘purpose’); how digital technologies mean consumers and brands know more about each other than ever; and how brand thinking now extends beyond products and services to the branding of cities and nations. This last theme takes up the final two chapters of the book, but it’s a development of an argument that Olins has been championing for decades. At times, these chapters feel like a direct pitch to governments for new work – you have to admire the way the selling instinct kicks in even now.

The confident voice of the salesman is ever-present throughout this book. Even for a reader convinced of the significance of branding, there’s a sense you are being spun a story that doesn’t always add up. There’s a slipperiness to the argument that often causes frustratration, and it stems from the word that appears twice on the front cover – brand.

What does it mean? It may be unfair to expect a definitive answer, but it needs addressing. From one paragraph to the next, the word is used in subtly different ways – sometimes as a synonym for the business itself, other times referring to its reputation, then referring to its projected image (which may be at odds with its reputation). At one point, Olins even refers to branding as “a fundamental manifestation of the human condition”. This fogginess around the definition is important because, consciously or not, it allows Olins to pull off some convenient rhetorical sleights of hand.

To give an example, Olins spends part of one chapter advising Tesco to make more of its corporate social responsibility initiatives in its branding, to counter the negative public perception that has taken hold. On a purely factual level, this will surprise some readers – Olins takes at face value some of Tesco’s positive community credentials, while talking about the ‘myth’ that it destroys small traders.

But setting aside the substantive arguments, there’s the strategic question about how this should affect Tesco’s branding. Is the answer really to push its community and charity work? Only a few pages earlier, Olins recounts the story of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill and how the public reaction was even more visceral because of BP’s carefully constructed green image – the company that would lead the way ‘Beyond petroleum’. The outcry was worse because people felt they were seeing the reality behind the brandwashing. Perhaps Tesco is wisely avoiding the same mistake.

The BP section is interesting in light of a scathing review that Olins’s previous book On Brand elicited from Marxist critic Terry Eagleton. Writing in Eye magazine, he described it as “a suitably slick account of a supremely shallow phenomenon” and directed readers to try Naomi Klein’s No Logo instead.

Wally Olins doesn’t mention Eagleton explicitly, but it’s clear he’s sensitive to the criticism. His answer is to describe Klein’s book as “an attack on the behaviour of big business” rather than an attack on branding itself. But this is where the slipperiness comes in – when businesses go bad, it’s a failure of business. When they do well, it’s a success of brand.

The same sleight of hand recurs in the chapter on nation branding, which recounts the national histories of Turkey, Singapore and Qatar as though they are extended case studies in brand thinking. The argument relies on retrospectively recasting complex economic, political and cultural achievements as ‘branding’ successes – and then implying brand consultants are the only people to help achieve something similar in future. Yet when a nation’s fortunes slide, this is the result of political and economic failures – the branders have once again slipped away and moved onto the next project.

None of this is to lay all the sins of branding at the feet of Wally Olins. Recognising the problem, he repeatedly returns to the idea that brands need ‘authenticity’ – there is no point in trumpeting how great you are if you can’t back it up in every element of how you behave. But where does this leave the brand consultant, who so often has authority over the ‘brand’ but little power to change the culture and practices of the organisation itself? Or is that part of the role – to speak truth to power, and do it with enough charm to get away with it?

Wally Olins is a past master at that. At the end of an Afterword looking back on his career, his final sign-off is “Have fun!” The sentiment may antagonise some critics, who would argue that brand consultants have had enough fun already. But it also speaks to an infectious energy that even a sceptic would have to salute. Wally Olins is one of the pioneers of brand strategy, but it’s always been with a creative twinkle in his eye – a fondness for intuition over analysis, and a healthy scepticism for the worst excesses of brand jargon. He has helped create the industry many of us now work in, complete with its fault lines and occasional skirmishes.

Nick Asbury is a freelance writer for branding and design and one half of creative partnership, Asbury & Asbury, asburyandasbury.com. Brand New: The Shape of Brands to Come by Wally Olins is published by Thames & Hudson on April 7; £16.95. thamesandhudson.com

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