BRANDING CONSULTANCIES: From jam jars to mobile phones - Wally Olins - a founder of Wolff-Olins - looks back on 30 years in branding

Elegiac outpourings in coffee-table books and on TV show that the

60s were a golden age for creative businesses. Everybody felt liberated

and independent. Maybe. But for people like me, working in small,

struggling, financially fragile businesses, it certainly did not feel

like it at the time.

In Wolff-Olins there were about 12 of us working behind a converted

shopfront in Parkway, Camden Town.

We had a fair amount of talent: graphic designers, product designers,

architects and a sprinkling of marketing people -those were early days

for marketing people in design companies.

The company called itself a design consultancy, and we hovered uneasily

between the rather pretentious, narrow, introverted and insecure world

of design and the more vigorous, commercially successful, louche world

of advertising.

There wasn't really a design business back then. There was no trade

publication, despite a few magazines illustrating Italian toilets and

Danish light fittings. There was also the Council of Industrial Design,

which saw its main job as improving public taste - a bit of an uphill

struggle. And there were lots of jobbing designers - some were good,

some were bad, most were indifferent.

In the early days, Wolff-Olins' work centred on a mixed diet of

exhibition stands, packaging, brochures, signing systems and product

design. The term corporate identity had only just been invented and

brands were mostly labels on jamjars and packets of washing powder.

We knew we wanted to complete corporate identity jobs for our


But we had to define what identity was. There were no rules and not many

examples to follow. So we had to work it out for ourselves.

But our problem was also how to get known. In the 60s, the only

companies that really mattered in the communication business were

advertising agencies.

They did everything. If you had a communication problem, you went to

your agency and it solved it.

Most advertising agencies regarded us with a mixture of incomprehension

and disdain. They assumed either that we were a supplier/sub-contractor

to them, or that we nursed secret ambitions to become a fully fledged ad

agency ourselves.

To get on in the communications world, we had to do things that ad

agencies didn't, or couldn't, do. We were lucky. We designed prototype

restaurants for Lyons, then a big name in catering, and we developed an

identity programme for the paint company Hadfields, the computer company

English Electric Computers and for BOC, the gases company, which is

still around today. At the time we did this work, nothing much had been

seen like it before.

Wolff-Olins also had a hand in putting the final nails in the coffin of

the British motorcycle industry. We worked with Norton Villiers to

redesign their final throw, the Norton Commando. The bike was too big to

get inside our little converted shop in Camden Town, so when it rained

we covered it up with a tarpaulin. I used to wonder whether the Japanese

were designing their bikes that way.

All this work - and more for companies such as Bovis, Bowyers, P&O and

others - was startling and high-profile. It was clearly commercial and

was evidently in the world of communication, but it was nothing to do

with advertising. So it, and we, began to be noticed.

By the mid-70s, life in the design world had changed completely. People

such as James Pilditch, Terence Conran, Rodney Fitch and Michael Peters

had big-business ambitions. A new world of retail design, interiors and

corporate design was created. Design companies grew, both in size and in


Ad agencies and design companies began to collaborate; clients began to

get a bit more choosy. Trade magazines such as Design Week and Blueprint

appeared. Design commentators such as Peter York, Deyan Sudjic and the

subsequently ubiquitous Stephen Bayley emerged and, by the early 80s,

design was a more or less mainstream activity. The job that reinforced

Wolff-Olins' reputation in the 80s was 3i, the first major financial

services company to use design in a big way.

Then, suddenly, around about the late 80s, everything became a "brand":

political parties, universities, football clubs and airlines. And the

brand began to take over the corporation. Previously, companies such as

Unilever had created and developed brands. Now new companies such as

Virgin and Body Shop were brands themselves. Branding moved from

products to services, simply because the service sector exploded.

Mobile phone companies, utilities and financial service groups all

demanded brands. At the same time, conventional advertising broke into

shards, and new and powerful forms of promotion and communications

developed, from direct mail to multimedia. So ad agencies became less

important and other communications companies - not just design

consultants but PR companies, direct mail houses, multimedia shops and

others - grabbed a piece of the action.

Design consultants rapidly transformed themselves into brand


Sometimes the transformation was cosmetic; in a few instances it was

real. And that's when they really became significant players, sometimes

collaborating with McKinsey & Company, Bain & Company and other major

consultants as well as ad agencies and other communications


Most of the top brand consultants grew. They expanded into Europe, some

grew internationally and some went public. In the last recession of the

early 90s quite a few went bust. Since then, many brand consultants have

been acquired by major communication groups. Now they have become global

mainstream service businesses.

Have we lost something? Yes, our innocence. Have we gained anything?

Commercial nous, sophistication and a place in the sun. Not a bad swap,

I suppose.

- Wally Olins left Wolff-Olins earlier this year.


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