Wally Olins on Brand

23 Feb

My short review of the latest Wally Olins book appears in this month’s Profile magazine (mailed to IPR members).

Here it is for PR Studies readers.

I sense another ‘paradigm shift’. Once it was fashionable to talk about products or customers; now it seems we’re all brand ambassadors.

If the nineteenth century was about making things and the twentieth century about marketing them, then this century appears to have opened as a golden age of the brand builders.

Step forward Wally Olins. The co-founder of the Wolff-Olins design consultancy and author of Corporate Identity is happy to hold this torch. He does so by taking the fight to Naomi Klein, whose No Logo has become the handbook of the anti-corporate and anti-globalisation movements.

He argues that you can’t characterise branding as good or evil. Just like PR, it may serve the common good and may be unscrupulously commercial. To demonstrate this, he cites the examples of many well-known charities that have successfully used the techniques of branding to advance their causes.

He also refers to the many brand names that have disappeared from our high streets in recent years. Branding may be powerful, it may be persuasive. But in the end the consumer still has choice over their spending and their loyalty. And there are always hidden dangers. At this book’s launch in Oxford, an Ulster voice challenged the author about the insensitive name of one of his proudest brand building achievements, Orange. Ouch.

Another of the author’s in-depth case studies is Volkswagen (‘how the ultimate craft-based company fell in love with brands’). Olins argues that the New Beetle is a tribute to branding, not a statement about German engineering. Think how far this company has travelled since its origins in Hitler’s Germany.

The challenges are even greater for service companies, where actions speak louder than cute designs. As Olins writes: ‘Kit Kat doesn’t answer back, doesn’t get tired, isn’t anxious, is always ready to perform and always tastes the same.’ By contrast, ‘call centres are staffed by people, not ice cream.’ As a consequence, consultants and corporate communicators are learning the often pre-eminent importance of internal communications and ‘change management’.

Wally Olins is the practitioners’ academic (he’s connected to business schools in Oxford and Copenhagen). He’s more concerned with how the world works than with ideals. He writes in an informal, conversational style. And his reading list is eclectically drawn from literature, history and psychology.

Most important, it’s a good read. Yet the art book publishers Thames & Hudson have struggled to turn these concepts into consistently striking images. It’s a problem we suffer from in public relations, too: good ideas, poor pictures.

Olins, O (2003) Wally Olins on Brand, Thames & Hudson (£18.95)

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