Branding According to Wally Olins
I recently had the opportunity to read an interesting book titled On Brand. The author, Wally Olins, is cofounder of famed agency Wolff Olins and professor at institutions like the London School of Business and Oxford University. The book adroitly summarizes the nature and history of branding. I found it to be a good reference for my own work, which is primarily focused on software design. Olins’ insights on the discipline of branding at large are definitely applicable to visual and interaction design.
Practical Implications of Branding
For designers, Olins’ lofty, high-level arguments can translate into fairly specific and useful tips (at least, these are the insights that I personally drew from the book):
- Remember that your designs should strongly appeal to customers’ emotions. It’s not enough for a website or a software application to perform its function well (most do nowadays), it has to do it in a way that feels memorable and delightful.
- Touching people’s emotions starts by knowing what makes your audience tick, as well as understanding the unique attributes of your client’s or your company’s brand.
- Be cognizant of the importance of your work: for the user of a website or software application, the interface is the product, as somebody once said.
- A brand is embodied not just by good visual design, but also by how the interface feels (interaction design), what voice and tone messages it incorporates, and by the relevance of its content (editorial).
- Tap into larger cultural trends to make your work more effective.
- Don’t immediately give in to focus group results. Innovation, solid branding, and differentiation often cannot come from that type of research. It is your job as a designer to perceive what’s not readily apparent to everyone.
Salient Arguments in the Book
According to Olins, businesses are made up of three strands or disciplines:
- Technical or craft skills
- Financial know-how
- The ability to sell
Generally, one of these dominates depending on the company. Success comes from a judicious mix of the three strands. Nowadays the ability to sell – as embodied by marketing in its perennial pursuit of seduction – is the most important because the other two strands are commodities. Every company has access to them. Likewise, the recent business buzzword “innovation” is critical although in actuality almost anything can be copied by anyone, and usually very fast. Clearly, innovation can carry a company only so far. On the other hand, brands are the result of good marketing based on the true and unique personality of a firm, and they are the real capital of a company. Olins explains that corporations have been shifting their focus in the last decades from making and selling to “being” – to representing a set of values. In a world bewildering with competitive clamor, in which rational choice has become almost impossible, brands represent clarity, reassurance, consistency, status, membership – everything that enables human beings to define themselves. Branding is a conceptual shorthand immediately comprehensible to the world around us. Brands foster a sense of identity and are, therefore, ideally suited to the age of the sound bite.
The Importance of Design
Identity is created by the application of conscious design. That’s why design is crucial in branding and ultimately in business. Brand name, identity, and values all project trust and reputation. These three aspects of a brand must revolve around a differentiating notion. Once that unique notion is found, the next step is to visualize it and bring it to life through design.
Because branding is about creating and sustaining trust, it generally means delivering on promises. The best and most successful brands are completely coherent. Every aspect of what they do and who they are ought to reinforce everything else, establishing a sense of reliability, credibility and trust in the minds of their customers. In the end, though, without a good product branding will fail.
Olins goes on to explain that as companies mutate into global coalitions with fluid management structures, shifting borders, alliances and business activities, brands increasingly emerge as the most significant “spiritual” and cultural glue in our contemporary world. If true, Olin’s statement has deep implications about the current state of the human condition, but that’s not an angle he fully develops in his book. Brands are ultimately controlled by the customers, not the marketers, and they have a life of their own different from what the marketers initially planned. People know branding is manipulative, but they don’t mind that. They go along with it because it’s part of a collusive societal dynamic.
Brands are so powerful because they appeal to emotions (inspiring loyalty beyond reason). There’s no set formula to create and manage brands. Brand stewardship is a very intuitive, creative, non-scientific (intangible) process. Olins opines that the reason why engineers reject marketing and branding as fluff is because they don’t want to believe that a product can have a personality. That would mean that the product has a life of its own, which in turn makes it unpredictable and unreliable. This triggers engineers’ own distaste about losing control. Emotion always equals loss of control for those who Olins labels as “technocrats”.
The author also expresses strong opinions about the usefulness of research in the branding field: if one wants to create a brand via numbers and research alone, one is removing creativity from the mix, and that’s risky because branding touches emotions and emotions are the purview of the creative. He describes how new branding agencies are popping up to focus exclusively on creativity as opposed to research- and analytics-heavy processes. This approach allows them to define fresh and effective brands more naturally.
The Social Impact of Brands
The book includes several chapters covering the social impact of brands, in particular the current backlash against advertising and excessive marketing. Olins explains why consumers want companies to behave well socially, but those same customers are unwilling to pay more for socially responsible but costlier products. In addition, Wall Street pressures companies to grow 15% to 20% annually (when the whole economy grows by only 2% – 3%!), so firms are hard-pressed to lower their profit margins in order to be more socially responsible. For the author, this represents a contradiction at the core of contemporary society.
Is branding then a good or a bad thing? It depends on customer behavior, because brands and marketers respond to what people want. So, if consumers want companies to behave in a certain way, we should pressure them with the language of our wallets. Branding is no longer restricted to corporations, which often are considered “evil”. It is now the driving force behind charities, cultural organizations, and even countries. So it can’t be all bad. Olins believes that branding is just a tool. What you do with it is what can be judged along moral lines.
People love brands because they make life more attractive and easier, and because in our consumer society we define ourselves partially through them. We like their complex mix of function and emotion, the way they complement and manifest our personality. We enjoy brands that help us say something about ourselves. We have the power to shape brands to be what we want them to be, and to shape the society in which we want to live. All we have to do is use that power for mutual benefit.