INTERVIEW WITH WALLY OLINS

27 February 2008
Exclusive Highlight on TAXI Design Network
In this ever-changing world, our understanding of and approach towards branding must adapt in order to be successful. This weeks feature is an interview between TAXI Design Network and Wally Olins, the Chairman of Saffron Brand Consultants.

This original interview was first published on
TAXI Design Network and was reprinted with permission.


Wally Olins presenting during the past Icograda World Design Congress in La Habana, Cuba.

TAXI >>Hello Wally. Visual and copy come straight to the mind when we talk about branding. You are a leading practitioner of corporate identity and branding. What are your thoughts on using audio to build brands?

Wally Olins>>Well, I think one has to remember that everybody's got different senses. We all have 5 senses at least - we hear things, see things, smell things and touch things, and the prime medium for branding at the moment, or has been, seeing things, but increasingly, as product brands become less important, or - putting it another way - as service brands become more important, the way people behave becomes very significant. So, for a brand, the way people behave is very very significant.

Let me give you an example from your own world - Singapore Airlines is probably the best as far as behaviour is concerned, or the way people see it is concerned. Not because of the way it appears or looks like, not visual or audio, but the way people within the organization behave to their passengers or customers. My answer to you is: audio is one of the senses of course, audio is important, but the real issue is service brands and the way service brands operate in terms of the way people behave to each other. In this aspect, Singapore Airlines is a classic example of a brand which understands that its primary function is to make people feel good. In other words, behaviour is the key issue in service branding.

TAXI >>According to Chris Thompson of Electronic Arts Asia, the video game industry, valued at $33 billion in 2006, is projected to hit $50 billion in 2009. Do you think video games are a potential vehicle for advertising and branding?

Wally Olins >>I think all of these new techniques and technologies are very significant, and they're growing, and make old fashioned media advertising look slow, out of date and crude. So I believe that the extension of branding into the interactive digital world is important largely because people can respond when you're dealing with interactive medium, where I can say something to you in advertising and you can respond to me. Therefore yes, I think there will be a huge increase in this kind of thing.

TAXI >>In your website, you enthused about teaching. Not only are you a visiting professor at a few business schools, you provide professional consultancy and hold seminars on branding and communication issues around the world. Recently, you wrote a book. What do you make of current brand literacy? In your opinion, what more can be done to raise the level of education on branding?

Wally Olins>>I think that there are a number of complicated issues here. The first one is that the word "brand" means very, very specific things to different people. Branding originally meant products that were on the supermarket shelf which had a kind of existence in the fast moving consumer goods world.

Increasingly, branding is coming to mean a much bigger world than that - so in a sense, if you're looking at what branding means today, you have to understand that it represents things like image, identity, reputation, belonging and a whole series of words that are much bigger than the original meaning of brand.

The reason why "brand" being used increasingly in world of commerce, is because "brand" equals money. People pay lots of money to be associated with brands, and that means something much more specific than corporate identity or reputation, which is not so clearly associated with economic benefit. So the word "brand" is much misused, much misunderstood and much maligned - but broadly speaking, what it stands for, the sense of differentiation you get, the feeling of differentiation you get between one product and another, which can be differentiated rationally less and less. There is now no rational difference in other words in price service quality between one petrol station than another - one petrol station tries to distinguish itself emotionally rather than rationally - and that is the question that lies behind the question.

TAXI >>Your article in The Times Magazine, "Why brands are good for you", talked about brand mutation — apart from businesses, brands describes individuals and organizations too. Given your specialized expertise, how can brands build value in an environment where everything and anything can be considered a brand?

Wally Olins>>Well that really relates to my last answer I gave to the previous question - the reason why people get so attached and associated with brands the reason why like them so much is because they provide a means of identifying the individual. If a kid walks around in a Nike T-shirt, he is actually saying, "I belong to a particular society, I belong to a particular tribe, I have a particular affiliation, I have a particular social interest in Nike". It's a very interesting phenomenon the way people walk around with badges of commercial organizations on them, on their jackets and T-shirts, they are actually advertising products they have spend money buying. The reason why they do that is identify themselves belonging to a particular social group.

The way you look at luxury brands such as Louis Vuitton or Burberrys, you don't buy them, nobody buys them - or a t shirt with a crocodile on it like Lacoste - you don't buy because of the T-shirt's quality. A T-shirt's quality, whether or not it has Lacoste on it, is more or less the same. People buy them for purposes of identifying themselves with particular way of life and that product and service underlines that and that's incredibly significant today, where for the most part where spiritual affiliations are less strong.

Of course, If you look at way religious fundamentalism is growing, the relationship between fundamentalist and the religion is if you like a brand affiliation its saying I belong to a certain way of being that is my identification but most people in world do not have such strong religious affiliation so they use commercial affiliation instead.

If I buy a T-shirt with Lacoste on it, or any brand with big name on it, what I am saying to people is, "I am the kind of person who uses this kind of product - I not only paid for the product, but I'm also implicitly saying I have paid for this product because it represents a sign of my affiliation with this world". You don't buy an Hermes handbag in order to carry things around - you're better off with a supermarket bag. You buy an Hermes handbag because it represents an idea, a socio-economic idea , it represents an idea of your wealth your sexual orientation all kinds of social and economic ideas. Think of why you buy things. Isn't that true?

TAXI >>Apart from consumer brands, you worked with a number of countries on branding. Which country would you say is an exemplary model for city branding?

Wally Olins>>What's interesting about city branding is that until relatively recently a few years ago the idea of a city state was in decline. In the 20th century, very few city state towards end of 20 and beginning of 21 you see development of a number of city states. Singapore is a classic example of a city state. Another one is Dubai - there are a number of city states developing now and that's very interesting and recent phenomenon. Of course 3-400 years ago you had a number of city states. In Europe alone you had Venice and Florence, you had city states all over Italy - but they disappeared when nation state began and now they are beginning to emerge again. So these city states have to present themselves in a world where there is 3 million, or maybe 2 million people, against, competing with, having a relationship with China with 1.2 billion people, or India with 1.3 billion people.

They have to present an idea of themselves which is very very singular and different and they have to make a noise in a world where they are very small and their competitors are very big. Inevitably they focus on what makes them different and that makes them focus on their brand. They don't like calling it a brand because when you're talking about nations you don't call it a brand, but if you think about the history of nations, the way in which culturally, economically, militarily and socially, the way they've presented themselves - these are all versions of branding. So the city brands that are emerging today - they are using branding techniques which are on the one hand very new because they come from the commercial world of branding, but on the other hand very old, because nations have always had flags, they've always used propaganda, and other ways in order to educate people to build a patriotic view of their nation. So some of it is new, and some of it is old, but basically the word is new but the ideas are traditional. City state is in itself a new form - it nearly died for a very long time and now it's back again.

If you're talking about branding a city, the city has to have a personality, it has to have a character, it has to have a culture, sport is very important with a city. A lot of cities derive strength from their football clubs. Manchester, for instance - Manchester United is the most famous aspect of Manchester, and a lot of people from all over the world who support Manchester United know nothing about Manchester at all, so sporting success and prowess is very significant in respect of presenting an idea of the city. Also, culture is very important and sometimes that is associated with all kinds of other factors as well. One of the most successful cities in the Mediterranean is Barcelona and they used the opportunity of the Olympics in 1992 to project an entirely new image of what Barcelona stood for.

TAXI >>You were the recipient of a CBE in 1999 and you were nominated for the Prince Philip Designers Prize. A year later, you received the Royal Society of Arts' Bicentenary Medal for your contribution to design and marketing. Add to that very impressive accolade list the D&AD President's Award in 2003 for Lifetime Achievement and the Reputation Institutes' inaugural Decade Award in 2006. As a celebrated veteran, do you think content is still king? Or has technology stolen the crown?

Wally Olins>>Content is still king of course! Why wouldn't it be?

No, no, no, no, technology is a tool. That's quite wrong. No, technology is a tool you use but there's no substitute for creativity. Technology is very useful because you use it to do all kinds of things you couldn't do before. You can have a telephone call with me now, you can send me emails and we can talk about one thing or the other, but it's the content - it's what you're saying and thinking and what you produce. Technology is the tool you use to facilitate. No, that's quite wrong, in my judgment. Quite wrong.

TAXI >>Marketers have got their money on the youth audience. But with globally shifting demographics, what about the retirees who are primed to splurge? Does the graying dollar hold any value?

Wally Olins>>Well you see, speaking as a member of the gray market myself, I naturally think that the gray market is not sufficiently exploited. The reason for that is very clear - most of the people in this game, in this business, are very young, and technology means that if you're older and you can't grasp the technology or you can't use the tools properly. But of course it is the case that as demographics shift, and older people with more leisure and more money to spend are going to be an attractive marketplace, then gradually there will be a shift, and the demographics will mean that there will be more focus on this particular market.

But you must understand that younger people who dominate the marketplace are inevitably not interested enough, old people are boring and they've done it and they're conservative... There's all kinds of stereotypes that have hindered the growth of that marketplace, but it will develop, no doubt about it. Just as there are stereotypes about youth, there are stereotypes about age - but it will grow. The market will grow, and there are a few very clever people who understand that, and are exploiting it, but it's a bit early right now.

TAXI >>What is the WORD, which you think would reside and reverberate in the design world for the next 10 years?

Wally Olins>>I guess that the word I would use would be "Change".