Wally Olins and Daren Cook on branding

Wally Olins is widely acknowledged as the godfather of branding, effectively creating the idea of the ‘corporate personality’, and remained at the forefront of company identity and brand thinking. He sadly passed away in April 2014.

Courier and Daren Cook sat with him a few weeks prior to his death where Olins spoke about the role of branding for startups and why founders often confuse branding with logos.

Throughout our contact with Olins for this article, he exuded the energy, intelligence, warmth and mischief that’s marked his sparkling career.


COURIER: You’ve both worked with clients of all sizes, but I’d like you to focus on startups today. Daren you’ve had very recent experience with Hailo. Tell us about the role of the brand there?

DAREN: There’s a competitor to Hailo called Get Taxi. They both do the [same] job, they’re both right in terms of name and identity. One of them’s got an attitude and one of them just tells it like it is. And I think one has a value and one is kind of pedestrian.

WALLY: Most organisations have competitors, which are functionally and rationally very similar in price or quality or service. You buy it because it’s cheaper, better quality, uses more advanced technology, or the service is better. These are hygiene factors. If you want to differentiate yourself from your competitor, you have to find a way of talking about yourself with an emotional context, and which creates a contact between you and them. That’s what a brand does.

COURIER: A lot of people mistakenly reduce brand and identity to just the logo. How would you explain the difference?

WALLY: The logo, which is what many people think the brand is, is simply the symbol, that you use to express who you are, so that you get a shorthand.

DAREN: There’s a value in it.

WALLY: And therefore it’s worth money.

DAREN: Any kind of business, whether it’s a big business or a small business, everything in that business depreciates. Everything. The tables wear out, the people wear out, the building wears out. The brand is the only asset that if you work with it right only ever appreciates in value.

WALLY: A lot of people talk about brands as though people like Daren and me create them. Most of the time we’re not creating them. Most of the time we’re refreshing them, reinvigorating them, because the world has changed so they have to be different (even though they’re the same brand, in the same place) they can’t look like they used to look.

DAREN: All a brand can do is identify what makes this business true, valuable and important; what makes it digestible and seductive. You have to be absolutely clear about what the value is. That, for me, is what’s changed.

COURIER: You touch on how the brand has changed over time, especially in the context of digital and social media. What impact has that had on how you construct an identity?

WALLY: It’s allowed people to get much closer to brands because you’re looking much more closely at every manifestation of the brand today. You used to look at the brand, either through the product or through advertising or through the environment.

DAREN: Social media makes it really transparent, doesn’t it? We always used to talk about the fact that great brands are only ever as good as the product they represent. You can’t hide a terrible experience or a terrible product behind a brand.

The role of brand has changed in the sense that it has to work much harder, given the proliferation of ‘stuff’ out there now. There’s a million of everything, so clarity of what you stand for and can communicate is greater than ever.

COURIER: This brings us to the scrutiny companies feel today, especially new companies trying to make their mark.

WALLY: If you get it wrong then you can be in big trouble. Whether or not this big trouble kills you in the end is another matter. If you’re small, it probably does, but if you’re big like the banks even with their appalling behaviour, which is continually unravelling — they still exist and they still do not change. And they still produce these extraordinary advertisements, which have got nothing to do with anything that has an effect on an individual.

COURIER: And that fear of ‘getting it wrong’ is perhaps why lots of founders of new businesses are often terrified around brand. What have your experiences with founders been?

DAREN: Well, there are two types of people, whether they’re founders of startups or CEOs of big businesses. There are those who understand the value of brand and get it, and those who don’t. That’s really important because great work only comes when clients let you do great work and understand the value of it. The idea of brand is both huge and nebulous, and perhaps that’s why people are scared of it.

COURIER: Can you go into specifics about what those conversations are like?

WALLY: You talk about the product and the environment, the communication and promotion all being related to each other. If you’re dealing with people who are emotionally adjusted to that idea, even if they know nothing about it, it doesn’t matter what their background is, they will get it.

I can think of two or three people who have been in this room we’re sitting in now who had absolutely no idea about what a brand meant except that they wanted a name and they wanted a logo and that they kind of liked blue or green or whatever it was.

DAREN: I’ve met startup founders who’ve got a great idea but don’t get the value of that kind of provocative, pushy ‘look at me’ approach to brand. So it ends up black and white. Some entrepreneurs have a great idea, are great at what they do but don’t see beyond that.

COURIER: So what makes a good relationship between you and the client?

DAREN: Trust. There’s an intuition which is required. Wally and I often talk about the difference between intuition and research.

WALLY: Well, you know my classic story about — I won’t say the name of the client — the CEO of a very very big company… this is twenty years ago or so. We agreed everything and he was going to show it to the board, and he said, ‘Wally, how do you know it’s going to work?’ I said, ‘John, you have to have the courage of my convictions!’

COURIER: What about the other way; where the client says, ‘Well this is all well and good, but you don’t understand the peculiarities of my business’?

WALLY: You have to really understand what it is they do, not necessarily in absolute detail, but what it is they do that makes them different from what somebody else does.

DAREN: For me, it’s frustrating and thrilling that I know a lot of people that operate in this industry haven’t got a clue, because they’ll do some nice logos and say to the client, ‘do you like this one?’ No? Do you like this one?’… that’s never going to work for me. I like getting under the skin of the client, understanding them.

COURIER: New businesses today can grow very big very quickly. How long term a view should they take in terms of the initial identity?

WALLY: Somebody asked me recently ‘how important are names?’ and I said, ‘well, it is useful to have a very good name but even if you have a terrible name, and you’ve got a product that works, you can live with it’. The worst name that I know of, for a very successful organisation, is Volkswagen. It’s completely unpronounceable in any language other than German, it has associations with the Third Reich and Hitler and everything else that you can think of. VW, OK, you can kind of use it, but actually even VW is not very easy: ‘Fau Vay’. And yet it’s an incredibly successful organisation.

COURIER: If a company has got it wrong from the outset, how should it approach adapting its identity once a business is already moving?

DAREN: I’m working on a business at the moment that fits this point. It was called Teddle.com and the idea is you can quickly and easily book a cleaner. They had a problem with the name. When I was introduced to them, like a lot of people who first heard the name, I thought they were called Peddle. The guys there had the vision and the foresight to go, ‘wait a minute, we’ve got a massive opportunity here, people aren’t getting what we’re about, they’re not understanding who we are, we have a great business and a great opportunity, the brand is holding us back’.

So the job that I got was to take a fantastic business that’s only been running for a year and has got pretty good traction and change the name. We changed it to Hassle. We did it quickly and they haven’t looked back. It was all about having the understanding that everything’s working but this bit is really holding us back. And it’s just about having belief and confidence, and being bold.

COURIER: What’s your guidance if I can’t engage people like you two because I have to spend my money on building my product or open a factory? Are there any basic principles you could give someone on developing name and identity along those lines.

WALLY: Yes, read my book, On Brand! Oh no, not On Brand… what’s it called?

DAREN: It’s called Brand New!

WALLY: No, that’s the new one! I wrote a book called The Brand Handbook, and that tells you what to do.

COURIER: OK, thanks for the plug, Wally. Can you offer some choice insights or principles from that book?

WALLY: Why am I here? Who am I? What am I trying to do? Who am I trying to do it for? How do I do it? and How do I manage it?

DAREN: And what am I instead of? And what is my ambition? Where do I wanna be in five years? Because if you focus on what you’re instead of, you will be better able to differentiate what you do and stand out. And in this world that we’re in now, London in 2014, whatever idea you’ve got, the reality is there are ten other people out there with the same idea and it’s a question of who does it first and who does it best. You don’t have to be first, you have to be best.

WALLY: And you have to be different.

DAREN: But not different for different’s sake.

COURIER: The search for the right person to develop the visual identity is often terribly tough for someone setting up a business. How should a founder approach this?

WALLY: Look at people who have very recently graduated, they’ll show their work online. If a young designer gets an opportunity to work with a new business that could be successful, you can probably work out the financials in a way that you pay a little bit down and give equity, or you pay a sum of money when you achieve a certain turnover. The designer has a huge opportunity as it’s often the first big job that they’ve got.

DAREN: A lot of startups don’t have a lot of money but a good way of getting a lot of value from creative agencies, web designers or brand consultants is this idea of a bit of equity. It makes you a vested interest in making the thing work.

WALLY: It’s infinitely easier today to start a business with an idea than it has ever been. The question is, how you project the idea of what you’re doing. But there has never been a better time to start a new business than now.

When I was young, which is a long time ago, people were always complaining that the young generation were couch potatoes. All they do is watch television, they don’t do or create anything. All that has changed. You now have a situation where because of the way technology has advanced in terms of communication, you can start a business with nothing more than an idea.


Wally Olins

Wally Olins set up the world renowned Wolff Olins agency with Michael Wolff in 1965. It was here that he developed the idea of an organisation being able to project an idea and the concept of a company having a personality or identity. Selling his share of Wolff Olins in 1997, he set up the Saffron brand consultancy in 2001.

In his 20s, Olins had been head of advertising for what is now Ogilvy in India. He worked on some of the most lauded brands in the world, including leading the rebrand of British Telecom to BT, and was an instrumental figure in creating the Orange brand among many others. His books on branding have been studied by peers, students and many who simply admired his insights on how organisations can develop emotional relationships with consumers. He died aged 83.

Daren Cook

Daren Cook graduated from Central Saint Martins in 1992 as a designer, and now has his own practice, Daren Cook Design. He spent 15 years working at some of the world’s most prestigious branding agencies, including Wolf Olins where he developed a friendship with Wally Olins. He designed Olins’ last book, Brand New.

This story originally appeared in Courier 04 Spring 2014.