A new way to make brands

by Robert Jones 

For the last ten Monday afternoons, as winter turned into spring, I’ve been working with my 22 brand leadership students on three real-life client projects. Classroom 2.03 is a bit of a hothouse, literally and metaphorically, so it’s been heady stuff. And week by week, it’s become clearer that the method I’ve been teaching is a million miles away from reality. It’s time to rethink that method – and to learn from the very different world of software development.

I’ve been teaching a linear model: first define your client’s goals, then imagine the brand idea they should stand for, then make an action plan (innovation, communication and internal change), and finally make sure they’ll live happily ever after. I’ve always known this neatness is artificial – but then, as the statistician George Box said, ‘all models are wrong, but some are useful’. For many years, it has to me felt useful.

But the eight weeks this term were very far from linear: cyclical, iterative, even (in a good way) chaotic. Ideas would be pounced on, enthused about, developed, dropped, and then reappear later. Occasionally, the clients’ needs would change. Every week, the three teams would learn something. Some weeks, they would make a huge creative leap forward. Other weeks, they would be seriously stuck. As one student said, ‘We were stuck on stage two… the philosophical thinking… for a very long time… Our ideas only flourished when we moved to stage three… actionable ideas.’ It felt as if moving to practical ideas sooner would make the thinking faster and better.

So as term moved on, I asked myself: can we make a more useful model?

At the same time, back at base at Wolff Olins, we’ve been facing new client pressures. What used to be a 12-month project is now 12 weeks. For clients we’ve been working with in China, this could even be 12 days – that’s their product development cycle. Our old linear method is just too slow.

And over the winter, we’ve started up a new business at Wolff Olins – a school of branding, called Kitchen. Doing a start-up has taught me an unforgettable lesson: get on with it. Don’t wait till the theory is perfect: try something and learn something today. Kitchen is now a live business – and whatever method we followed wasn’t linear.

So the student projects, our clients and Kitchen demand a different model. Maybe the alternative is in front of our noses: the agile software development process used by our tech clients.

‘Agile’ has been around for a decade or more. Its method is rapid prototyping – make something quickly and test it, rather than spending your time planning and designing. Its aim is ‘proof of concept’. Its rhythm is fast: ‘sprints’ of activity. Its management style is ‘lean’: self-organising teams that include the client, rather than formal hierarchies. And its philosophy is the opposite of the traditional top-down ‘waterfall’.

I’m not talking here about capital A agile, but small a: not the full, formal process of the Agile Movement, but agile thinking. Not the letter of the law, but its spirit.

You can sum it all up in a simple diagram. 

So here’s a better way for the students and for us. Not linear but cyclical. Not just thinking but doing too. And there’s a central role for testing, for getting data, for assessing ideas against reality – in a word, for learning.

How would the method work? Imagine something like this: every week, we start with our best hypothesis for the brand idea – the bunch of things we want our client to stand for in people’s minds. We then quickly turn it into some kind of ‘product’, which could be in any of the four quadrants we use (presence, culture, capability and offer). We then test this product, with consumers or client people or external experts, and formulate what we learn from the testing. Finally, we improve the brand idea for the following week. And we repeat until the brand idea feels solid.

The method should be faster than the linear model. It should be more practical, because it forces us to give our ideas form – to break away from the lofty and abstract. It should be more persuasive, since it’s constantly building proof of concept. And it should also be more rigorous, since our ideas are put to the test every week. (In fact, the process is very similar to the scientific method, where the cycle is theory, experiment, data).

So this is how I’ll teach my student projects next year. At Wolff Olins, we’re already using it when clients ask us to do innovation work – we’ve even written a very neat manual on the process for one client. We now need to apply it to brand creation work. Or at least (in the spirit of agile), we need to try it out and learn from it.

There are some big implications. We’ll have to make the client into a full member of the team, not just a workshop participant. We’ll have to be clear what kinds of things we can ‘make’ every week – it won’t be a new piece of software every time. And we’ll have to learn to love data – and yet also not to be ruled by it, not to let it limit our imaginations.

Excitingly, though, this approach could create a new weekly rhythm for everything, speeding up the whole Wolff Olins machine. It’s a way to achieve what I suggested in my post last month, ‘What’s wrong with brand thinking’: to ricochet constantly between architect (‘think’) and handyperson (‘make’). And it’s a way to add a third role to that list, just as essential: the perpetual learner (‘test’).

Thank you for help on this Camilla Grey (@CamillaStore) and Tom Petty (@tp).

Robert Jones is head of New Thinking at Wolff Olins and visiting Professor at the University of East Anglia. Follow him @RobertJones2


Leapfrogging the West.

By Stefano Ferro

Too often in the Middle East, we see locally born and bred companies trying to copy successful international brands or using them as the only benchmarks for successful branding. What they fail to realise is the opportunity they have to use brand much more strategically by drawing on pre-existing deep cultural instincts that businesses should do good. They might even have certain strategic advantages that allow them to leapfrog the West.

Doing good, social impact, giving back are all terms that have recently become a focus for businesses in the West with a plethora of different models for social impact appearing across all sectors.

In our 2012 Game Changers report we looked at how “more and more businesses are choosing to explicitly link their economic decisions to the value created through environmental, social, labour and governance efforts”. Unilever, IBM, GSK, Nike, Little Sun and FutureLearn are all investing heavily in actively creating positive social impact.

The Scandinavian model of social ‘alignment’ is probably one that has shown most promise. VELUX is a fair example of the kind of philosophy that drives them. They say: “our solutions create better living environments. So does our way of doing business. By engaging respectfully with the people we work with; by giving back to the societies we do business in; and by working responsibly with the natural resources we all depend on… We create value for society and a profit for our business”.

Another model – favoured by politicians, rock stars and some big businesses – is to set up foundations that give back and do good. “We focus on big problems where we can make the greatest impact. To bring about the kind of change that can give all people the opportunity to live healthy and productive lives, our investments must be highly strategic and focused on results. We take risks, we push for new solutions, and we believe in the transformative power of science and technology”, say the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

While these models for social impact are still getting off the ground in the West, Middle Eastern businesses have actually always had a strategic advantage in this area - driven by Islamic principles. It is fundamental to the DNA of Middle Eastern businesses to do good! The challenge for them now is to use brand strategically to take ‘doing good’ from a passive obligation to a more active, purpose driven outcome.

Noor Bank is using brand to spearhead a number of initiatives in order to deliver on its vision to be a catalyst of the Islamic economy. The Deputy Group CEO of the Noor Investment Group, Dr. Ahmed Al Janahi, recently said: “The cooperation with AMAF, which is aligned with Dubai’s vision to shape the future of the Islamic economy, is in line with our strategy to give back to society through support for charities and foundations in the UAE. We will provide expertise…”

Then there’s Majid Al Futtaim, a leading shopping mall, retail and leisure business across the Middle East and North Africa, which has a very clear mission: ‘to create great moments for everyone, every day’. But this goes beyond the shopping malls or leisure parks and through the Majid Al Futtaim Foundation the business plays an active role in giving back to society.

“Majid Al Futtaim is engaged in creating a better future for the UAE by providing healthcare and education assistance to underprivileged and marginalised sectors.” They will work with leading international academic institutions to help develop the first national level institution providing best in class education and training for the sector.

And there are many more organisations like Noor Bank and Majid Al Futtaim going beyond their core business and working with society on all levels. The challenge for others in the region is how they can make this natural propensity to do good an integral part of their brand platforms. If they succeed, these brands can spearhead, champion and deliver on those principles as part and parcel of their brand rather than a behind the scenes afterthought.

Ultimately, there is a huge opportunity for Middle Eastern brands to draw on deep local, historic, and cultural instincts about playing a positive social role to create a sustained strategic advantage across all their key stakeholders.

What this means is that people at the very top of these businesses need to embrace this more strategic view of brand as a way of attracting and keeping talent and as a way of guaranteeing their companies’ longer-term legacy. If they can do that, they can then become authentic global brands, and can leapfrog the West in the process.

Stefano Ferro is managing director of Wolff Olins Dubai. 

Image via Theneweconomy.com

Do the right thing


By Neridah Leembruggen

Recently I got a dog, well a puppy actually. He is a bundle of bounding energy, cuteness and curiosity.

He still has his baby teeth and he likes to try everything by tasting it with his mouth (it also eases the pain in his gums). Everything is new to him and there is no shortage of things for him to try. Particularly when we are in our communal garden or walking down the street. Not just sticks, grass, leaves, rocks but cigarette butts, wet wipes, chewing gum, empty fast food containers, cans, plastic bottles and on and on it goes.

It’s not that I didn’t notice it before, but when you hear yourself saying “no” and “drop it” every three seconds or less you begin to realise that there is an astonishing amount of rubbish out there. It made me wonder, where is this all coming from? Why isn’t anyone picking it up?

It would probably be true to say that more of the things we consume these days come in containers that become rubbish – salad, soup, sandwiches, ready meals, water, wipes, cans, bottles, even simple fruit and vegetables. I mean I only need to look in my own bins after a delivery from Ocado to see that practically everything I have bought has come in some sort of bespoke packaging.

But despite all the bins and recycling bins the councils now provide us, the streets are still thoroughly littered. It can’t be all the fault of urban foxes, can it?

I grew up in Australia in the 1980s and as such have been affected by one of the most successful cultural movements of all time. It was catchy tunes like this that we heard time and again in TV adverts urging me to “Do the Right Thing” and put it in the bin. I felt and still feel personally responsible for my rubbish. I wouldn’t dream of leaving something in the street.

Given how fragmented our media consumption now is, I don’t think throwing lots of money at some big ads will be enough. And signing a petition online feels too passive - this requires real action from individuals.

So what is our modern day equivalent to inspiring a movement? And who should we look towards to instigate it?

In the age of austerity with funding cuts to local councils I can’t help but think it is the FMCG brands that create the packaging that becomes the rubbish could have a genuine role to play here.

Why not think of the life cycle of the packaging as their responsibility from its creation, to the shelf, to our homes and finally how we can dispose of it. I am not talking about a well hidden little line on the packaging that says “please dispose of this responsibly” (which is about effective as saying ”Mum, please don’t read my diary”) but some real initiatives that are funded by the brands. 

Why would brands do this? Well, becoming a platform for a genuinely responsible approach to our environment in a way that improves our daily lives will make these brands so much more useful and valuable to us. They’ll become authentic, which might just make us love them a little more. And we all know how powerful love is.

Neridah Leembruggen is a senior account manager at Wolff Olins. 

What’s wrong with brand thinking?

By Robert Jones

It struck me one grey winter’s morning at the end of last year: is my whole way of thinking wrong?

We’re starting a new business at the moment in Wolff Olins – a kind of school of branding. We’re getting advice from the experts in start-ups. And on that winter’s morning, the advice arrives, in black and white: don’t think about vision or strategy or any kind of Big idea, but get something out there fast and learn from it. Just do something small that will prove the concept. Make a product, any product, of the minimum viable kind. Big ideas are just a distraction, a kind of procrastination. The way we all instinctively do things at Wolff Olins – sort out the idea first – may just be wrong.

We followed the advice and, as the winter comes to an end, we have a real business, with real paying customers. We’ve learned a lot. The advice has worked.

Which has made me think about the drawbacks of traditional brand thinking. Is what a lot of us do too theoretical? Do we too much live in a fantasy world where we set out beautifully clear, idea-led futures for our clients that are a million miles away from their daily reality? Are we – as Liz Moor suggests in her book The Rise of Brands – control freaks, imagining we can turn our clients’ world into neater, better things? Do we kid ourselves that brand is at the centre of the universe? Are we too perfectionist, and too slow?

Maybe, in fact, there two completely different ways of looking at the world: the brand consultant’s view, and the start-up expert’s view. One is about thinking, the other about acting. One is idealist, the other realist. It’s one big idea versus many small ones. It’s designing versus making. It’s neatness versus impact. Cleverness versus usefulness. Control versus chaos. Brasilia versus Lagos. Anxiety (‘we must pin everything down now’) versus trust (‘it’ll work itself out’). Apollo versus Dionysus. One is like an architect, the other a handyman, a bricoleur. One sees brand as the cause of everything, the other sees brand as the eventual result.

As a neatness-loving control freak – like most people who’ve worked in corporate identity – I find myself challenged by all this. I teach a lot about brand-led innovation and brand-led change: are these ideas illusions?

And yet… There was one moment over the winter when our new business took off. It was when we decided to name it not Wolff Olins Academy – the obvious name – but Kitchen. Two of us were talking at the green armchairs near my desk, and the name just seemed right. Very quickly, a whole story about kitchen flowed. This would be a school that metaphorically took customers behind the scenes of Wolff Olins, from the restaurant into the kitchen. Its style would be like sitting round a kitchen table, not a lecturer addressing a theatre. And it would be totally practical: we’d be making something good. (Plus it might get a bit messy.) In two or three minutes, we’d defined our experience principles. We quickly spread the word. Colleagues began to get it, to want it, and to sell it to clients.

And that was a brand moment. It was a (fairly) big idea. So brand, whatever exactly that is, does have a value, even in a start-up. Brand thinking has a role. It wasn’t just the name, but being clear what you want to stand for in people’s minds. Somehow, that changed everything.

So brand may not be the centre of the universe, but it somehow gets the planets moving. And – to switch metaphor – our practice needs to ricochet constantly between architect and handyman.

Sign up to hear more about Kitchen. 

Robert Jones is head of New Thinking at Wolff Olins and visiting Professor at the University of East Anglia. 

Made in India


This article follows on from Designed and Made in India, by Zia Patel head of strategy, Wolff Olins India and principal, Wolff Olins Dubai.  

By Yelena Ford

How does an Indian company make the leap from a homegrown, national entity to an internationally recognised player? This was the question (and challenge) posed to us by Indian business leaders at our CII/IBF breakfast workshop on Tuesday 18 February.

When an entity (whether that be a place, an organisation, even a person) is something of a mystery it’s a natural human reflex to resort to basic visual or sensory cues – colours, smells, images, style – to interpret and make sense of what we’re seeing. The result is a string of unhelpful, clichéd adjectives that don’t necessarily reflect reality but bring us a degree of relief for being able to put that ‘mystery’ to rest.

In the same way, when we think of India a specific image is conjured up informed by a narrow slice of content that is peddled out on the cultural, media roundabout. At best - colour, Bollywood and spice. At worst - chaos, poverty and corruption. Whether true or not, they’re either conventional or misinformed answers. And with little to counter these perceptions, they become unquestioned truths – dangerous and superficial. And it’s not just India. From Taiwan to Poland, many markets find it difficult to combat the raised eyebrows provoked by the ‘Made in [place]’ tag.

So how do you begin to unravel these perceptions and assert a new and more accurate reality? Historically, the first global ‘national champion’ brands from a country often bring their country’s baggage with them. But over time, they can leverage perceived strengths about their country, and also redefine how their country is perceived.  For example, Sony and Toyota built their global brands in the shadow of perceptions that Japan was a producer of cheap, copycat goods that could only compete on price. As the two companies went upmarket they redefined themselves, and Japan, as benchmarks for engineering excellence and innovation.

Such brands nudge and push perceptions but also do something even more powerful. They stand for something. They rise above the clichés, the stereotypes, the prejudices and the cynics to answer global needs that they are uniquely placed to address. They are valuable and recognised because they play a significant role and enrich the lives of customers and our culture, society and systems.

For example, Toyota brought reliability, design and safety to an industry lauded over by American GM muscle. More recently it has done it again by pioneering sustainable automotive innovation. Similarly, HTC shifted perceptions of China’s ability to design and make intuitive, smart, mobile products. The HTC Desire was one of the first serious contenders against Apple and, amongst most die-hard techies that know their stuff, the preferred option. Other examples: Samsung from Korea, Uniqlo from Japan, even the likes of TweetDeck and Song Kick have arguably shifted perceptions of Great Britain and put the silicon roundabout on the map.

However, the hitch here is that these are all consumer-facing brands – higher profile and innately consumer-centric. Their value, innovation and contribution are far more visible. But it’s not impossible – GE’s Eco-imagination has captured the hearts of consumers and business customers alike.

Back to India. It’s multilayered, multi-faceted, multi-everything. So, what are the truths about India that Indian companies can champion and represent? What is it about their Indian origins that make them uniquely placed to play a particular role in the world? Here are some thoughts.

Firstly, The Indian market is dominated by B2B – their main international exports are machinery, chemicals, outsourcing services, transportation equipment, building materials, and pharmaceuticals. Critical, systemic products and services that are play a significant role in industries, societies, and economies.

Secondly, India is a market where need is not only great it is overwhelming. As such, there is an innate social consciousness that runs deep in Indian businesses. For example, Dr. Reddy’s – an Indian pharmaceutical company – was created to bring generic drugs to the Indian market at a fraction of the cost. Today, they are at the forefront of generic drugs and biosimilar innovation that few can keep up with. Fuelled by need they have designed an approach to pharmaceutical creation and manufacturing that makes social and commercial sense.

Thirdly, the frugal movement – Jugaad – has gone from being a technique used my Indians everywhere to improvise solutions in the face of glaring necessity, to a lean, management technique adopted increasingly by Western companies. The likes of Infosys and Wipro have built their entire offer around designing disruptive outsourcing solutions so you can literally buy and insert Indian ‘jugaad’ processes into your own company.

That’s just a starter for ten. There is much that an Indian company can leverage about their origins to be a respected, valued and loved brand both at home and abroad. The key point is that Indian companies don’t need to borrow, steal or imitate the paths of other companies who have successfully internationalised. They can adapt, adopt, advance and forge their own path.

And it won’t be long until ‘Made in India’ – conceived, crafted, engineered, and implemented – will quicken pulses rather than raise eyebrows. 

 Yelena Ford is a Lead Strategist in Wolff Olins London.

Making brands stick

By Dan Greene

Once the critics lose interest in the comments section, the brand video stops getting hits and the all-agency briefings come to an end – this is when the challenging realities of getting a brand into the world begin.

Whether a charity, telco or banking institution, the following five post-launch considerations and actions can help make your new brand stick (and hopefully prosper).

1. Alignment between brand and propositions

No new news on this one, but if the business isn’t organised to deal with a new brand, the road from here on in gets bumpy.

A big win is getting the propositions and brand teams in the same room to figure out if the stuff in the pipeline can deliver against the ambition. If the brand is geared to engage through amazing new services and products, but your customer offers and experiences reflect the old brand, then no amount of new wallpaper is going to distract customers from spotting it.


Consider updating the briefing tools. By putting the brand ambition front and centre in the briefs, planners and proposition mangers have tangible ways to judge new products, services and offers.

2. Consistency of quality

A common challenge when launching a new brand (and in fact, maintaining momentum with an older one) is ensuring the content is right. The natural inclination is to make sure the visual bits are all in the right places, and so they should be, but this won’t make the brand connect with customers.


Invite staff from across the business to brand surgeries to teach them the role of the new brand. Help them understand how the brand must engage, what sort of offers it must create and why this brand is different from the old one. With this sense of understanding and empowerment, they can live the brand and ultimately drive up quality throughout the business.

3. Shift focus from visual and verbal to experience

If your new brand is focused on how it sounds and looks rather than how it feels, you’ll end up with handsome posters, but little else.

In order to create a coherent story for customers and to deliver more engaging experiences beyond typical media touch points, brands must evolve to adopt high level experience principles. These philosophies not only inform the visual, but the behavioural, across both the physical and digital estate. And when partnered with a new proposition, should create an experience that starts to shift customers perceptions of the new brand.


Once the foundations of the brand experience are defined, workshop with product, technology, service and operational teams to develop and flex these principles, ensuring any channel specific challenges are considered. Ultimately it is these teams that create and deliver the experience, and engaging them in the process can be commercially smart and also personally rewarding.

4. A consistent team within all partner agencies

It’s understandable that teams change and people move on. However, brands move so fast that the quality can suffer if the new team doesn’t properly understand the ambition. Remember, people need more than to be shown the latest guidelines to ‘get it’.


It’s always a good idea to grab a coffee with the new team and speak openly and informally about targets for the brand, areas of weakness and what you need specifically from them. Everyone feels better when they know where they stand.

5. Digital doesn’t end at .com

Once the new website has launched you have to consider the role your brand plays in the broader social conversation.

It’s pretty well documented most brands aren’t great at this. The all too familiar Twitter scenario plays out something like; customer needs help, brand doesn’t answer but starts random # chat about something that happened two weeks ago, customer gets angry and tweets about rubbish company.


If you are going to enter the conversation, you must have a dedicated team readily available to engage with people. And as important as having the infrastructure in place – you need to have an opinion. If you’re giving it the c-suite acceptable chat, you’ll be found out very quickly and no one wants their Dad at the disco.

These are only five super top-line watch-outs to be aware of as you go into the post-launch phase and, as every brand is different, I’m certain there are hundreds more. If you would like to talk to us about some of the challenges you face, please get in touch, or you can critique this article in the comments section below ;)

Dan Greene is a design director at Wolff Olins London. 

What does a visiting creative director do?

By Alex Bec

Hello there! 

Having reached the half way point of my stay as visiting creative director here at Wolff Olins, I thought it was only right to tell you what I’ve been upto. If I was sitting where you are, all I’d want to know is what a ‘VCD’ actually does. Is it all just free lunches and half-baked critique, or does it have real, tangible worth to a business as beautifully put together as Wolff Olins?

The cynical among you might think a visiting creative director just prances about looking over designers’ shoulders pointing out things they probably already know, but I’ve found out that definitely isn’t the case.

My role here has been a full-on journey of creative thinking and scheming and I’ve tried to extend it beyond my original brief to bring an outside perspective to the work being created here at Wolff Olins. Sure, I’ve sat in meetings, shared some ideas, delivered second opinions, suggested some collaborators, and much of the bits and pieces you might expect. The real excitement though has come from digging a little bit further into the process to try and really start to understand the process of making brilliant work.

So, intertwined into my visits I’ve started to organise day-long working sessions with creative thinkers I know from the wider world, and used their expertise and my understanding of the projects on here to really try and make a difference to client work here. With it we’ve brainstormed, dressed-up, disrupted and even devised hypothetical new customer service departments to solve our clients’ briefs. These little ‘creative grenades’ have of course given those working on the specific accounts a chance to create some output to impress and challenge their clients, but almost more importantly the opportunity to change the pace of their working week.


I was desperate before I started to make sure my time here wasn’t a ‘nice to have’ but something that brought real worth to the business and that I was held accountable for that ambition. The day-long sessions are my attempt at that, and in my final six weeks I hope to run two more of these one-day ‘grenades’ with a ceramicist one week, and a film maker the next.

Whether the output is successful or not, I’ve learnt that the power of change, deviation and breaking routine is as important and trying to improve the actual work, and if that process can be enjoyable along the way, then even better.

Without doubt, the incredible openness and desire to create brilliant work engrained in the culture here has definitely made the process of coming in more valuable than it could have been, and I hope I can repay that support in bundles on the home straight.

Alex Bec is a visiting creative director at Wolff Olins London.