Tuesday, May 6, 2014


A few weeks ago the world’s most visible international brand consultant, Wally Olins, passed away. Obituaries and tributes immediately appeared in European papers and industry trade journals. Curiously, so far nothing of substance has surfaced in major American media, who prominently cover the deaths of actors and obscure Austrian documentary film-makers dead from malaria, those whom I –as an international brand advisor- consider of lesser interest and importance than Wally. Mr. Olins was a global presence, whose work, writings and opinions made headlines over a career which spanned a half century. The radio silence from American shores is deafening.

It can’t be because of his success or failure rate, both considerable. Olins and partner Michael Wolff founded the formidable Wolff Olins consultancy, the name and reputation of which still survive as a division of Omnicom, though both of the principals long ago left the practice. In their heyday Olins & Co. advised the Beatles on the Apple brand, turned an obscure telecom into the phenomenon still called Orange, rebranded British Telecom, renamed Guinness into Diageo, revamped Cunard, tried to repackage the UK as Cool Brittanica, and endeavored to convince the world that Poland was a vital place to do business. He proposed many of those strange-sounding and quickly dated hybrid names (Invensys, Unison) that thankfully never took hold in the popular mind. In his later years as CEO of Saffron he championed culture as the essential aspect of a brand. His last great public act was a spirited defense of the 2012 London Olympics logo which his namesake firm had created. Late in the game he became an advocate for place branding which sometimes works, but not always. His final book (he wrote seven, which were translated into 18 languages), “The Brand New – The Shape of Brands To Come”, released a month ago by Thames & Hudson, is already ranked in the 28,000s on Amazon, no mean feat for a nonfiction title.

Once upon a time branding was called ‘corporate identity’, and referred to a rigid system of graphical standards which visually defined an organization. That idea was expanded on by Wally Olins, who felt that brands encompassed deeper and more dimensional values than veneer can effectively suggest. But he never really left the visual idiom far behind, and he barely engaged the philosophical questions that practitioners actively debate today. Though his ultimate book is rich with machine-gun questions, it’s clear that Wally never left the world of advertising, hype, and its ready engagement of emotional manipulation. Brand people today ponder the implications of consumerism, waste, climate change, sustainability, workforce contentment, community building, ethics. Wally did champion authenticity in his last act, and that is a valid part of the defense. But he never seriously challenged the bottom-line agenda or short-horizon thinking that has got the world into such a confusion. Can organizations do good at the same time as doing well? While he asked it, Olins never answered that question.

Like or disagree with what Wally Olins preached, the fact remains that he presided over an era where the brand discipline came into its own, migrating away from simple cosmetics, differentiating our lot from admen and marketing types. He barely pondered the ingrained complicity with bankrupt economic paradigms. It is a brand new world, and brands are strategic tools for transformation. Emerging economies will have the same troubles if they adopt the old practices. Homogenization won’t be the problem, as Wally Olins feared. Changing the name, changing the look, summoning rhetoric only works so far for organizations. Stakeholders understand this. Marketing is on its last legs, advertising -executing a wild somersault- now brands itself “content-creation.” Which may be the reason America has gone silent on the passing of this lion of the Old Guard. The guy asked too many questions.

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