News & Views

Wally Olins CBE, 1930 -2014

by Contagious Team
Branding and corporate identity visionary Wally Olins has sadly died, aged 83. Chairman of Saffron Brand Consultants and founder of Wolff Olins, his latest book, Brand New: The Shape of Brands to Come was published this month. To commemorate the passing of a pioneer described by his colleagues at Saffron as 'insatiably curious, infectiously charming and occasionally infuriatingly impatient!', Contagious has chosen to reprint an interview with Wally that we published in 2006. May he rest in peace.

Fifty-one of the world's top economies are corporations, not countries. With revenues of $247bn, Wal-Mart jostled for 18th place with the GDP of Belgium in 2003.

Contagious editor Paul Kemp-Robertson talks to celebrated brand consultant Wally Olins about why nation states and global brands are taking on each others' roles.

PKR/ What's the difference between branding a nation and branding a company's product or service? 

WO/ I start from an historical standpoint. None of this is new; it's been going on forever. Whenever a nation is formed, whether artificially or organically, there is always either an implicit or an explicit attempt by the leaders of that nation to create ideas around which people can develop. The prime example is the French Revolution, when the King was replaced with a Republic. There was a new national anthem, a new flag, new days of the week, a new God - and that's the late 18th Century.

What is new is that the technologies are completely different; the way in which nations seek to use the brand is much more commercial and cultural than it ever was before. Previously, it was always to do with political dominance and influence. Today, nations of all sorts - and new nations in particular - are competing with each other in terms of tourism, foreign investment and brand export. In order to make that work you have to promote. There is no way round that. Promotion has become a tool of the private and public sector in all nations.

Another area that affects the way a nation is perceived is one that can be extremely volatile and something over which we, the advisors, have no control. That is, public diplomacy. The image of South Africa completely changed when Nelson Mandela took over. Very few people had any idea of what or where Ukraine was, yet after a [TV-friendly] uprising, suddenly Ukraine appears on the map.

Another major factor is that you don't know who's in charge. If you're dealing with a commercial organisation, in the end there is a boss. If you're dealing with a nation, you're dealing with an entity which is both public and private. There is huge cultural, financial and political baggage. In places like Eastern Europe where you have proportional representation, often the government is a coalition - so you're dealing with one person one day and somebody else the next day, and they probably hate each other. So the kind of long term stability that you get in any commercial relationship is very difficult to achieve. You've got to be very smart to know how to achieve it: who is your target? Where do your targets lie?

In a commercial organisation you have one idea and that one idea can, broadly speaking, be applied in different places in the world in different ways. So, if I talk about an organisation like Orange, Orange is about optimism. It may be interpreted differently in Australia from France, but it's essentially the same idea.

Many nations are extremely paradoxical, if not contradictory in the way they are perceived. The classic example is the United States - the best known country in the world and somewhere that excites admiration, envy, fear and dislike in more or less equal quantities.

If you think of the US, what images do you see? What do you admire? Probably the opportunity that anybody has to achieve anything - home of the brave and land of the free. You may admire their total mastery of technology - think Microsoft and NASA. You may also envy the seductive nature of the popular culture: Hollywood, McDonald’s, Coke. You may not like it but it embraces you, it's very seductive. And then you now have another strand in that America is imperialist.

In other words, you cannot have a single idea about America - you end up with four or five which are paradoxical. The same applies to almost every nation you can think of.
However, what a nation needs to do is not very different from what a commercial enterprise needs to do.

PKR/ Are companies becoming more like nation states in terms of how they think? If so, how is that manifested?

WO/ Yes. Companies are beginning to think more about their own people. Corporations are increasingly concerned about their place in society, about issues around social responsibility, issues around their different sets of stakeholders and how they can satisfy those stakeholders. Companies are much more rounded in their concerns over these issues and are becoming a lot more sophisticated.

PKR/ Tell me about your work with Saffron (Olins’ independent consulting firm) on branding Poland…

WO/ Poland actually has the same population as Spain. Its position when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 was not that different from Spain's position in 1975. The difference is that 20 years later, images of Spain have aligned with reality whereas images of Poland have barely changed.

Spain is one of the best examples of a very successful image programme. It emerged from the Franco dictatorship poor and authoritarian with an attitude that people had towards it which was entirely related to its past: you go to Spain because it's cheap and sunny, that's it.

30 years later the reality of Spain has changed dramatically and deliberately. And perceptions of that new reality have changed in line. Look at Telefonica - a multinational bigger than BT; look at the automotive industry, Seat is a very successful company. Look at film, you've got Almodóvar; you've got great cities like Barcelona and fashion brands like Zara and Mango.

Poland needs a national branding programme because it does not consist entirely of miserable wretched people engaged in uprising against authority driven by a totalitarian state and whose population is largely church-going plumbers. We're trying to present the perception of Poland in line with people's changing reality - that is our job. The reality of Poland is that it has a population of 40 million people, it's one of the six most influential countries in the EU, it's got very sophisticated R&D activity - it's becoming a modern country.

It has not got flagship brands like Telefonica but it's culturally very significant. There are all kinds of ways in which we can present an idea of Poland which is not exaggerated, but a programme like that needs 10 or 20 years for alignment between perception and reality to take place, which is a long time.

PKR/ Do you think brands still represent a nation the way they used to?

WO/ A very interesting question, what they call in the trade the ‘notional flag’ effect. Yes, there are some areas in which there is no doubt that having the association of a nation with a brand is very valuable. For example in motor cars, it's good to be German or Japanese - whether the car is actually made in Wales is another matter. But the national branding effect, the halo effect, is highly valuable in certain kinds of product. Nobody cares where pharmaceuticals come from, but they do care where their perfume comes from. And marketing people being what they are, which is to say quite smart, use the national flag effect sometimes in an entirely phoney fashion. The classic example of this is Häagen-Dazs, Baileys or Neutrogena, all of which are entirely bogus national brands dreamt up [by product developers] in New York.

PKR/ How does Saffron's role differ from an ad agency role?

WO/ In my judgement a brand consultant has the strategic job of creating the brand idea and the advertising agency's job is executing that idea through certain kinds of promotional activity.

The advertising agency's job is essentially tactical. This is particularly the case in an organisation like a nation because nations do not project an idea of themselves solely through advertising. A nation projects an idea of itself through all kinds of things, through food, through culture, through sport, through visiting. Advertising is a part of the way in which the nation presents itself but it isn't a very big part, whereas if you take Kit-Kat or you take Coca-Cola, advertising plays a huge role in the way in which the brand is perceived. Advertising is one of the media that Spain uses in order to project an idea of itself. But if it didn't have Barcelona and it didn't have the Seville Expo, if it didn't plan what it was doing and how it was presenting itself, then advertising would have no value at all.

PKR/ Thinking of your responsibility to modernise a national brand image: if that particular country hasn't produced any global brands - and you can't create them overnight - how do you start influencing people's perception?

WO/ Sport is very important. Films too. And food. All cultural activities are important. The way a country is perceived is through so many different vectors and advertising is only one vector. How influential is advertising for French wine on you? A bit, but not that much. You go to France, you see what people wear, what they are buying, how they entertain themselves - there's a huge mass of things to influence you. So what you have to do is think of yourself as an orchestral conductor. You have an idea, you develop the idea. The unique idea we created for Poland is around creative tension. Out of the many hundreds of Poles we spoke to from different groups, I haven't found a single individual who says it's not true. You could say that creative tension is a polite way of saying Poles are argumentative which they are; a polite way of saying they're very individualistic, which they are.

PKR/ As a brand consultant, how do you interpret creative tension?

WO/ One example: Krakow is one of the most beautiful towns in Poland, but it also is a very Central European town in heritage. You can say on the one hand it's very Polish but on the other hand you can see the same regional characteristics in Prague or Budapest - places that are hugely popular with tourists. So Krakow is this and it's also that.

In terms of public diplomacy, traditionally Poles are regarded as anti-Semitic. Suppose they did a Mandela and suppose there was a really big programme of reconciliation? The idea of creative tension allows you to think in terms of doing things which are different from what other people do - coming back to the point you made about advertising agencies. Advertising Croatia as the small, clean heart of the Mediterranean - I regard that kind of stuff as junk. It's not serious.

“The way a country is perceived is through many different vectors and advertising is only one vector.”

PKR/ If corporations are now thinking and behaving like nation states, does this mean they are out-growing the traditional advertising agency model?

WO/ The major communication groups like WPP all have within them different cells - PR people, branding people and so on - all of whom think about processes of communication in a much broader way than they ever did before. What we have traditionally called an advertising agency, which was undoubtedly the most influential company in its relationship with clients, is going to have to change as clients grow in sophistication and the nature of the people with whom they communicate changes. In other words, they won't just be communicating with a brand's customers; they will be communicating with the advertiser's own staff and they will have to learn to do other things. They will have to mutate into different kinds of organisations.

Broadly speaking, we're all more or less happy with the products that are produced, but everybody's deeply dissatisfied with almost every service company that exists. I quite like BA but things go wrong, they fall to bits the whole time. Why? Because running a service business is infinitely more complicated than running a product business. In the service business, the people who matter, the people who communicate the brand idea are the most junior employees as those are the people you deal with.

So the communication spend, the communication focus, has to be far more on your internal audience than anybody else, including your external audience. Advertising agencies who understand this will deal with it and mutate accordingly.

I think the traditional pattern of an ad agency is nothing at all to do with the first decade of the 21st century. It's an anachronism. The term advertising agency has become a misnomer because their prime issue now is to communicate with people inside companies.

Take motor car companies. They spend a fortune on advertising. But nowadays, no car company makes lousy products. Cars just don't fall to bits. There are some good cars and some better cars, but something that will stop you buying a car is lousy service.

So where should the focus lie? For Lexus and Toyota, for example, it lies with service. They under-stand the service business. So that means as a client, the way in which you think about the product-service relationship has got to be very different from the way in which traditional ad agencies are able to help you communicate. Until recently they didn't communicate internally as there wasn't enough money to. Now we're moving away from brand building, they will have to adapt.

PKR/ Within the subject of branding nations, are there any questions that you haven't been asked before or anything you feel needs to be addressed?

WO/ A lot of people say: 'You can't treat a nation as though it's breakfast cereal. A nation has an ideology, a tradition, background, food, religion, various ethnicities - and what you're doing is playing silly games. It's impertinent thinking that you can interfere.'

That is a view that I think needs a very thorough airing, because in my judgement it's just not true. As I said before, what we're doing is not new, it is part of a very long tradition.

I think the other issue - and this is one about which I feel most strongly of all - when I went into this business, it wasn't called branding. It was called corporate identity. It was regarded peripheral ... a bit like vegetarian food… you didn't take it seriously. Now people understand that the brand is the centre of the universe.

If you look at Richard Branson's business, it's only a brand. What he makes isn't important, it's how he sells it that counts. Branding has become one of the most significant contributions that commerce has ever made to our cultural existence. I think it is absolutely extraordinary that grown-ups should walk around wearing T-shirts and caps decorated with the symbols of companies who make smelly running shoes or silly fizzy drinks. I find it fascinating. It is a cultural phenomenon of enormous significance which is not really being explored very much.

Naomi Klein wrote that book - No Logo - which is very well argued, but is in fact inaccurate because she's not in any sense arguing against brands. What she's arguing against is globalisation and the idea of the corporation. She only attacks brands as a symbol of a corporation and it's very difficult to attack brands because people love them. This is why they are successful.

People like the idea of influence, they like the idea of identifying themselves. They don't buy brands purely because they like the brand, they buy brands because the brands help them to identify who they are, who they think they are, who they want to be.

Wally Olins, CBE is the chairman of Saffron, an independent consulting firm in London and Madrid. He is Visiting Fellow at the Saïd Business School, Oxford. He co-founded Wolff Olins in 1965. His most recent book, On Brand (Thames and Hudson, 2003) has been translated into 20 languages.