15 May Olins: Work only for those willing to travel the journey
Wally Olins, the founder of Wolfe Olins, died recently at the age of 83. He was described by the Financial Times as ‘the world’s leading practitioner of branding and identity’. For more than 50 years, Olins promoted the importance of projecting a well-defined image through branding not just for products, services and companies, but also for countries, institutions, non-profits and individuals.
On receiving a copy of my book, ‘The Right to Brand’ published in 2013, I was invited to meet with Olins last October at his office in London. Greeted by an unexpectedly charming, quiet-spoken gentleman, he spoke intensely about brands and why many around the world continue to overlook the strategic value of getting the process or discipline right.
Fascinated that there were companies in Malaysia willing to attempt brand building from the strategic business, and not just from the marketing, advertising and design perspective, he was curious as to why my book was targeted only to emerging market audiences, when he felt that the brand barriers and issues case studied in Malaysia were similar to those experienced by companies in the United Kingdom and Europe.
The Americans started this (branding)
‘The Americans started this (branding) and they are probably the best when it comes to the building of product and service brands. However, the rest of world is fast catching up’ he explained. But as much as he advocated the need for branding as a holistic and intellectual exercise for those intending to brand, corporate identity development has not, according to Olins, moved very far beyond design, ‘which is why design companies are today still strongly associated with brand building. And why corporate identity programmes begin with logos and end with a manual on how identity should be disciplined in application’, he lamented.
He believed that branding is more about people and culture, and that the driver for market growth is not just the use of advancing technologies but that success today lies in the ability to brand, as brands respond to the human desire for belonging and emotional endorsement. ‘It is the same for companies and countries’ said Olins who pulled out a book on the branding of Poland, sharing his passion for country branding where his ideas on corporate identity have successfully been applied to the development of a successful nation brand.
Insufficient synergy between brand insiders and outsiders.
Like Olins, I am not a designer by training, but appreciate the importance of good design and creative communications in the building and sustenance of brands. Coincidentally, both of us spent our early years in advertising. His in the 1950s with SH Benson in London and later Ogilvy & Mather in India, while I started my brand career with Bates Advertising (or Backer, Spielvogel, Bates) in Malaysia.
At the same time, it was interesting to know at my meeting with Olins that he transformed the image of former government department British Telekom through the creation of the BT brand in the mid-1980s. When given the opportunity to create the new Telekom Malaysia brand as an agency account director in 1990, the BT experience had offered timely information on how to successfully position Malaysia’s national telecommunications company at privatisation.
We both agreed, however, that despite great advertising, agencies were not always able to sustain the market value of the brands they help launch or create. The tendency to delegate brand building to external experts while the organisation operated in isolation of the brand development continues. With insufficient synergy between the ‘outsiders’ and ‘insiders’, there is usually not enough integration between the brand work done by the external specialists and the internal brand owners at organisations without the will to change business delivery in tandem with what had been promised to markets and consumers.
Building a brand from the ‘inside-out’.
Olins was also interested to know how I was able to persuade some of Malaysia’s largest companies to infuse brand thinking into their businesses, when many through his work experiences, were not as confident to attempt the brand-driven path in much of Asia.
I explained that the ability to connect ‘outside-in’ with ‘inside-out’ branding came from the privilege to work as a consulting partner with Ernst & Young when the global firm developed competencies and thought leadership in process innovation and technology enablement from the middle to the end of the 1990s. Seconded to the international practice from Malaysia, the experience provided rare insights into what happened in the ‘stomachs’ of the world’s larger organisations. How they thought, what they did and how they used brand thinking to stay ahead of the competition.
Through these engagements, the dots started to connect as to what was missing between the internal and external branding process at emerging markets, and what additional knowledge, skills and processes would be required in the building of stronger brands in the future. The brand method which emanated from this learning was ‘market-think’, an approach implemented over the past 15 years in different configurations at some of Malaysia’s larger companies with mixed results.
In taking my leave, I asked Olins whether I should pursue my professional interest in brand building and whether what I said in my book would be useful, if not credible, to those who might read it. He told me: ‘There is a secret to all of this. Do work only for those willing to travel the journey… and you will be excited with every brand you help build, and gratified that you have been part of it when you walk away.’
Thank you Wally, it was wonderful meeting you.
(This article first appeared in The Edge on 23 April 2014)