Branding in Chaos: The Last Word By Wally Olins

By Drew Letendre

Wally Olins, the late co-founder of Wolff Olins, has left us a posthumous meditation on branding and “the shape of brands to come,” the sub-title of his final book, “Brand New” (Thames & Hudson, 2014). The book is a thin volume but packed with insights by a man who is considered a real brand guru.

The focus of the book by Olins, who died earlier this year, is on the corporation as a form of organization. It’s in trouble, by the way, and Olins notes three “inter-related and mutually reinforcing” reasons for the pandemic of corporate confusion in the face of increasing public distrust. This has implications for corporate identity and branding and it raises questions about how brand and corporate image can be wielded as business tools to address and manage the challenges.

Today, as the book details, there are unprecedented levels of scrutiny and skepticism of companies, much of it facilitated by internet technology, which has left the barriers separating the corporation and the public, porous. Olins’ metaphor of porosity is apt, as the scrutiny and skepticism flows both ways—the corporation is more exposed, more transparent to public inspection. We can peel back the curtain on the organization and even certain individuals “behind” brands.

At the same time, the corporation now possesses an intelligence-gathering apparatus on its customers that would’ve been the envy of the KGB. And, unsurprisingly, this voyeuristic technology that the corporation operates behind the user interface is well-known and becoming a thick strand in the fabric of public distrust. Big Brother may not be watching anymore, but Jeff Bezos & Co. surely is.

These are new, choppy waters corporate brands must navigate at a time when many companies are becoming more complex and fragmented. Growth by acquisition multiplies complexities, not only down in the operational and financial viscera of the corporation, but at the level of brand. Olins gets at the kernel of this problem as it manifests in the realm of brand architecture with such clarity it merits quotation in full. He asks: “How do businesses assimilate the companies and brands they acquire so that they fit comfortably into the whole without losing the characteristics for which they were acquired in the first place?” Good question. While this isn’t a new dilemma, it is made sticky by globalism in a time with regionalism, authenticity, and proximity are prized by individuals.

The dominance of the Western cultural and business culture paradigms are on the wane and increasingly ineffectual in these newer scenarios. They don’t translate in the myriad local cultures in which they are asked to function. Per Olins, can brands adapt and keep their core integrity or will they splinter under the pressure of too many adaptations?

Related to this is the gross investment of energy and focus on internal integration, which produces an “inward turning,” an internal preoccupation with reconciling organizational structures, differing business cultures, operations, infrastructures and systems, etc. This detracts and distracts from listening to the market, from dialogue with clients, with outreach. A by-product of this mode of growth is the much lamented but ubiquitous business silo, the creation of mutually exclusive, insulated fiefdoms.

This isn’t pure atavism. We deal with complexity by breaking it down into its simpler constituent components, solving problems in manageable packages (silos are, among other things, manageable packages). But segregation and insulation can rupture into internecine competition. The corporation becomes a house of brands divided. And it is not only a matter of internal division, but of over-extension. Supply chains and sourcing are literally longer, more complex, involve more intermediaries to the point where “reach exceeds grasp,” the limbs of the organism are hyperextended. This has produced, among other things, embarrassing corporate episodes where, for example, mainstream apparel retailers are—knowingly or not—sourcing slave labor.

Finally, there is the matter of what Olins calls the changing “Zeitgeist,” the “Spirit of the Age.” Olins claims this is the most profound of challenges to the 21st-century corporation. At the center of it is a new public ethic, a new public call for accountability and right conduct on the part of businesses, especially with regard to sustainability, environmental stewardship, responsible sourcing, fair trade, and humane labor practices. “There is intense pressure,” he writes, “on the corporation to have a wider remit.” The problem is that the new vogue of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), depending on the depth of commitments thought necessary to make good on it, can be deeply at odds with the traditional, core (capitalist) obligations companies were designed to serve: operational efficiency, revenue growth, expanding profit margins, shareholder value.

As I have written before, and as Olins also points out, corporations are being lured into seeing a requirement to establish compatibility between their philanthropic initiatives and responsibilities and their financial ambitions and obligations. As never before, they have to establish good social credentials with the public. Easier said than done. Attempts have been made to even give a nod to their CSR in corporate branding work. In the egregious example of BP Olins cites, that company’s rebranding under the progressive “Beyond Petroleum” banner, backfired disastrously when business reality and progressive aspirations couldn’t be reconciled. Corners were cut. Accidents happened and they’ve been paying for it—literally and figuratively—ever since.

The new primacy accorded these philanthropic concerns in corporate branding and advertising betrays an unprecedented demand that the corporation behave ethically, that it be more accountable to the public. It is under a new level of scrutiny that is making the CSR function a staple of corporate structure and driving messages about “good (corporate) works,” even more than customer benefits—a branding tight rope walk that should not be done with out nets, if at all.

Olins, who pretty much invented branding as an industry, has not only left us with much to ponder but, as usual—generously—the terms in which to do it.