‘Must purpose be good?’ It’s a summer evening in a Victorian library in the Science Museum in London, and I’m on the panel at a seminar called ‘Purpose Matters’, organised Hall & Partners, the research agency. Of all the questions we’re asked, this is the best.
It made me think hard about this ubiquitous buzzword ‘purpose’. Every company seems now to have one. There’s even a book now called The Purpose Economy. But has the idea become valueless? Is it just management feelgood? Once we’ve defined our purpose, can we all sit back and congratulate ourselves? Is ‘purpose’ just the latest version of ‘vision’?
I’m a believer in purpose. I’ve always felt organisations do better when they have a purpose beyond profit. And it’s always been in the DNA of Wolff Olins: we’ve always wanted to help our clients make the world a bit better. But a few recent things have got me worrying.
First, does purpose really help in external communication? When British Airways started using its purpose explicitly in advertising – ‘to fly, to serve’ – its low-cost rival EasyJet countered cheekily with ‘to fly, to save’ – which neatly captured what people actually want. So is purpose always a turn-on for customers? No.
And some of our younger digital client companies are just puzzled when we push them about their purpose. We don’t need a purpose, they say, we just need to be clear what our platform helps our users to do. So is purpose always essential to get a new product off the ground? No.
Second, is purpose powerful enough inside organisations? Tesco, like many companies that have been hit by criticism recently, has defined a purpose: ‘to make what matters better, together’. But as a customer, can you feel it in the stores? No. Is it helping the company grow? Judging by last week’s sales figures, no.
Several of our clients have excellent purposes, and believe in them, but everyday life gets in the way. Under shareholder pressure, managers understandably go for safety, sameness and revenue, rather than risk, difference and principle. So does purpose – even in those organisations that believe in it – drive decision making? No.
What this all implies is that purpose, on its own, is not enough. And in fact purpose statements, on their own, don’t motivate people, any more than vision statements used to. Mantras help, but it’s the climate that surrounds them that makes the difference.
Externally, purpose needs to become softer, broader, more diffuse: a climate that you could call attitude or angle or even obsession. Unilever’s excellent Jane Buck, a fellow panellist at the Science Museum, calls it ‘point of view’, like Persil’s view that dirt is good. It’s something you can share with customers rather than throwing it at them. It might even be a question you debate with customers.
And internally, purpose needs to become harder – an honest operating principle, or a bunch of them. We can still learn a lot from the Quaker companies, like Cadbury or Clarks, whose founders weren’t philanthropists but tough businesspeople who saw purpose and profit feeding into each other, in a virtuous circle. Organisations now need to talk explicitly about the ROI on ‘purpose’, and to help their people make decisions that are neither idealistic nor rapacious: decisions that make money by making a difference. And if your goal is simply to make money, that’s fine: that’s your purpose.
So the answer is purpose doesn’t have to be good. Externally, it’s not a great idea to boast about your high-minded purpose, about how good you are. And internally, it doesn’t work to pretend to be driven by goodness, to be a kind of NGO, when you’re a profit-making company. Purpose isn’t enough: what’s your point of view? And what are your operating principles?
Robert Jones is Head of New Thinking at Wolff Olins and a visiting professor at UEA.
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
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.
‘Executive education’ is a phrase I hate. Rather like ‘executive homes’, it suggests a neat, suburban world of hierarchy and aspiration: not one I want to live in. Luckily, that world is turning itself upside down – not least because of the democratising effects of online learning – into something much more anarchic. At Wolff Olins, we hosted a breakfast seminar to explore what’s happening. Two mornings ago 22 participants gathered at our London base: people from startups, big companies, retailers, universities and think tanks, a mix of enthusiasts and healthy sceptics.
We kicked things off from the learner’s point of view, and talked about the times when we learn best at work. The answer was it’s overwhelmingly informal, almost accidental. It could be my boss acting as mentor, giving me (to pick up Daniel Pink’s words) both autonomy and mastery. It could be peer to peer, particularly when I’m learning from someone with a totally different skill or background. The most powerful learning is often from making mistakes. And timing is everything: the right moment matters more than the best teacher.
We talked about why things are changing now, and explored the evolving relationship between organisation and individual. Recent Wolff Olins research on the new mainstream – today’s more powerful, more creative consumer – applies to employees too. As employees many of us are looking for a new kind of exchange with our companies: in return for time and commitment, we want a sense of purpose, and learning that goes beyond our job role, learning we can take with us to our next job, or to the rest of our lives.
Next, the breakfast participants shared some of the things they’re currently working on. Three themes emerged. First, projects where companies are giving employees new kinds of experience, like Exceed at the University of the Arts London, which gives support staff a taster of the things students learn, shifting subtly some of the power relationships inside universities. Second, the growing trend for companies like Net a Porter or The Guardian to encourage internal startups as the best route to both organisational and individual learning – learning by doing (and making mistakes). Third, projects where companies teach outsiders, like Google’s Squared Online, and the learning for jobseekers set up by Enternships, where employers give potential applicants training way before they join.
Out of this grew a lively discussion about what the new learning needs to feel like. What’s the role of online? Are new approaches helping reframe the cultural tendency to over-celebrate extroversion, articulated by Susan Cain? Does learning need to be onerous to be effective? Is there a correlation between great teaching and great learning? How far is it about metaskills, things people can take into their non-work life? Which of the five types of exchange, described in Richard Sennett’s book on cooperation, are at play between educators and learners, and employers and employees?
We finished with the beginnings of a manifesto for learning at work, which seemed to have three main tenets. First, the importance of a shared sense of purpose, as a foundation for learning, a magnetic north for people at every level in the organisation – together with a sense for each person of the progress they’re making. Second, the need to give people time and space to do things, try things, make things, maybe start up a business, to learn – as part of every company’s role in continuing people’s learning beyond formal education. Third (and this clause of the manifesto needs more work) the demand for organisations to build trust internally and externally, by being generous with, rather than protective of, their intellectual property: to spread what they know.
This doesn’t feel much like ‘executive education’, buttressing the power of managers and their mini-empires: it’s more like boundaryless learning, breaking barriers of hierarchy, silo, organisation – and that fascinating boundary between who we are as people, and the subset of ourselves that we bring to work.
Robert Jones is head of new thinking at Wolff Olins and visiting professor at The University of East Anglia.
In the spirit of rethinking learning we’ve set up a school of our own, Kitchen. Sign up to hear about classes here.
Branding keeps changing. The way brands work – their role in the world – is constantly evolving. But it’s possible to simplify this complex story into five distinct stages: five versions of brand.
Brand v1: marking ownership
The emergence, centuries ago, of the idea of private property meant people needed to mark their property – to say either ‘this is mine’ or ‘I made this’. People used painted marks, written signatures, watermarks, hallmarks, stamps – or marks burned onto things like cattle. Though this practice goes right back to the ancient Egyptians, the mark wasn’t called a ‘brand’ until some time in sixteenth century.
Brand v2: guaranteeing quality
With the industrial revolution, and the emergence of mass production, came a new insight: if you were a factory owner, you could put a mark not just on your property but on your products. The mark would mean ‘this is a product you can trust’. In an era of shoddy products, and often adulterated foods, these marks could command higher prices.
The great pottery entrepreneur Josiah Wedgwood was a precursor of this idea, with products labelled ‘Etruria’ from the 1760s. The technology of branding shifted: burned marks evolved into marks stamped onto products like pottery, and then printed on packaging. By the 1820s. the word ‘brand’ was being used in this new sense. The focus was on brand names and on brand reputations, and a new expertise emerged: the new breed of artists behind trademarks and packaging design.
Brand v2 turned direction, and gained huge new power, in the 1870s, with the idea that you could protect these new assets as ‘registered trademarks’. Design and law made a potent combination, and many of the earliest registered trademarks are still effective value-creators now, like Kellogg’s, Campbell’s or Bass.
Brand v3: promising pleasure
Around the start of the twentieth century, mass production was amplified by mass media. Factory owners realised they could combine with media owners to give their trademarks even more power: that through advertising in newspapers, then cinemas and radio, they could associate their products with powerful emotions. Brands could do more than guarantee quality: they could promise pleasure.
The chocolate entrepreneur George Cadbury anticipated this new version of brand. He associated his products with a big idea – purity – and gave that idea emotional power through advertising that used images of children. Once again, the technology of branding shifted, into the new arts of advertising and public relations. Cultural forces like psychoanalysis played a role in this: Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays was a founding father of PR. Brand makers defined brands through a proposition (or ‘unique selling proposition’, USPs) and a personality, in order to create powerfully persuasive communication. Large manufacturers of consumer goods – Coca-Cola, Procter and Gamble, Ford and many more – became masters of the art.
Brand v3 turned direction, and grew in power, in the 1960s, with the arrival of television in almost every home, and the ‘creative revolution’ in advertising, which produced hugely more sophisticated brand messaging. Increasingly, advertising appealed not only to people’s sensory pleasures, but also to the deeper pleasures of self-image: by choosing the right product, it suggested, you would look good to your friends, or feel better about yourself.
Brand v4: inviting belonging
Through the mid twentieth century, a new force emerged: the post-industrial corporation. Companies became huge supra-national centres of power. Big corporations, and their institutional investors, saw that they could broaden the impact of brand, from their individual products to the company itself. Brands could now be corporate brands, and could do more than promise pleasure: they could invite all kinds of stakeholders to feel a sense of belonging. By feeling they belong, employees would work harder, and customers would stay loyal for longer.
Early pioneers of what was originally called ‘corporate identity’ included Peter Behrens at AEG in Germany before the first world war, then London Transport in the 1920s, then IBM in the 1950s. The technology of brand shifted into defining an organisation’s purpose (or vision or central idea), expressing it through visual design – the logo and its supporting paraphernalia – and sharing it through the various mechanisms corporations use to build their internal working cultures. And a new kind of expert took centre-stage: the design-based brand consultant.
Brand v4 turned direction in the 1980s, when two contradictory things happened together. First, Reaganism and Thatcherism glamorised the corporation still further, and created a new cohort of privatised companies. Second, the PC gave individuals a new sense of power, culminating in the Apple Mac, and the 1960s generation started identifying with a new kind of apparently anti-corporate company, like Apple, Virgin or Southwest. These new phenomena felt like consumer brands, and the old terminology of ‘corporate identity’ switched to ‘corporate brand’.
Brand v5: enabling action
At the end of the twentieth century, patterns of consumer behaviour were transformed by the arrival of the Internet. Writers like Alvin Toffler were talking about the producer-consumer, or ‘prosumer’, back in the 1980s, but the Internet made prosumers mainstream. Suddenly, people had more knowledge and power than ever, and gained huge new scope to make and sell things, as well as buying them. Entirely new businesses transformed industry after industry: Amazon, eBay, Google, YouTube, Skype, Facebook, Wikipedia. None promised pleasure, or (in any deep emotional sense) invited belonging, but they all offered people a platform on which they could do new things: they enabled action.
The technology of branding is therefore changing once again. These new platforms think in terms of their role in people’s lives, and of the principles behind the user experience – and their success depends on how well that experience works. The old arts of advertising and logo design are much less important in this world, and expertise lies with the tech companies themselves, and with new kinds of specialists like service designers.
Where we are now
All five versions of brand still exist, side by side. Probably v3 brands are still the most common, and advertising agencies are still the most powerful force in the brand world. Most big corporations now take their brand v4 very seriously, and brand consultancies are still very influential. Brand v5 is still very young: it’s impossible to predict how it will play out, and it’s unclear who the new breed of experts will be. And the story isn’t linear: it may even be that the biggest v5 brands will start to look like big corporations, and behave much more like v4 brands. What’s certain is that evolution never stops, and v5 isn’t the end of the story.
If you’re in London, the Museum of Brands offers you a journey through the evolution of brands, with a particular focus on v2 brand packaging. For a good insight into the thinking behind brand v3, read David Ogilvy’s Ogilvy on Advertising (1983). Liz Moor’s The Rise of Brands (2007) gives an historical account of brand v4. And Adam Arvidsson’s Brands: Meaning and Value in Media Culture (2006) offers a cultural analysis of brands v3, v4 and v5.
Robert Jones is head of new thinking at Wolff Olins and visiting professor at The University of East Anglia.
In the digital world, what’s the role of brand agencies? What value can they bring? Does anyone really need them?
For Wolff Olins these are not abstract questions. In fact, almost 40 of us have just spent three days in New York exploring them in workshops about our industry and our company’s growth. That’s just the start of a project that will involve everyone in the company, and the Wolff Olins that emerges is unlikely to be the same as the company we work in now.
So why are we agonising about all this? Business is good. We still offer great value to our clients, by helping them define their purpose, wire up their customer experience, and equip their people for change. And we hope we’ll carry on doing this for years to come.
But we also know that digital inevitably disintermediates. Authors no longer need publishers. Filmmakers no longer need studios. Companies can negotiate advertising space without media buyers. Will the corporations of the future need brand agencies? They can already get freelance designers to bid to meet their logo and web design needs, through platforms like 99designs.
More specifically, most digital brands don’t seem to need brand consultancies. The big traditional consumer brands depended on ad agencies (and still do). The corporate brands that emerged from the 1980s onwards needed brand consultancies (and still do). But the new digital brands – everything from Google to airbnb – don’t rely on advertising or logos. Contemporary brands work differently.
And the economic engine – certainly the innovation engine – at the moment is small businesses, start-ups often, who can’t afford a conventional brand consultancy, even if they wanted one.
So where will the value come from?
Partly by making more things for our clients, not just offering strategic advice and strategic design. We’ll get much deeper into the tactical detail, particularly in service design and the creation of digital user experiences. Indeed, we’re already doing this.
Partly by broadening our offer to reach small and even micro-businesses. We’re exploring a new model called ‘minimum viable brand’. Like a minimum viable product, a minimum viable brand does the job, proves the concept, and is open to future development, by both the company and its users. And it’s quicker and cheaper.
Partly by offering our clients things we don’t currently sell, like access to our skills through a brand school, access to our original research, and access to our network of clients, past and present.
And we’re also shifting our focus from corporation to individual. Our latest research shows there’s a new mainstream among consumers (which is itself an increasingly unhelpful word). These people are sidestepping big companies, making things themselves, and expecting to get everything on their terms, not the corporation’s. People are taking power, and are looking for a new relationship with organisations: a more adult relationship, one that admits there are conflicts of interest, and one that therefore looks for some kind of fair exchange. Brands, rather than being gadgets owned by companies, will be the markers of these relationships.
One future value of brand agencies will therefore lie in serving these individuals, alongside our corporate clients, and through those corporate clients. Using our brand-making skills, we’ll be providing tools and platforms (as yet undefined) to ordinary people, and to the informal groupings they belong to, enabling them to gain the maximum benefit from something that isn’t changing: the amazing power of brands to help change the way people think, feel and act.
If you’re starting out on a career in branding, or if you work in a related area – like strategy, marketing, innovation or organisational development – or even if you just have an interest in branding, then this course is for you. The course will reveal the secret powers behind brands - the most potent commercial and cultural force on the planet.
You’ll learn directly from practitioners at companies like Virgin and Google, and watch brand experts in action. You’ll get a rich mixture of powerful theory and practical tools. With branding changing so rapidly, you’ll get the very latest insights and methods from the converging worlds of technology, design and brand.
The course ends by setting up the next stage of your journey. We’ll be opening up the many topics in branding that still need research. And you’ll learn how to define your own personal brand, and plan the next steps in your life in branding.
We hope you enjoy it.
Robert Jones is head of new thinking at Wolff Olins and visiting professor at The University of East Anglia. Melissa Andrada is a lead strategist at Wolff Olins.
September is here, which of course means back to school. My students at the University of East Anglia, in Norwich, have finished their coursework, exams and dissertations and are now entering the world of work. Through the year, they work hard, learn a lot, and have a great time – and all of that is true for me too. In fact, I’ve learned tons in the last four years of teaching and they do say, the best way to learn is to teach.
Our course 15-20 students a year, from all over the world. About half come from the west, half from the east – a good reflection of the future balance of economic power in the world. Around 70% have taken a career break, and the others come straight from their first degree. They’re a bunch of very different people, but every year they bond within hours of meeting – and the thing they have in common is the brands they love. Brands are today’s lingua franca.
I teach two modules, my colleague Peter Schmidt-Hansen teaches two more, and other faculty members teach the rest. I’m particularly proud of the module that brings in teachers from outside the business school, making connections between brand and economics, semiotics, politics and so on.
But the whole thing depends on what we call the family – the nearly 100 business people who contribute to the programme. They come from companies, like First Direct, Google and Virgin. And from brand and design agencies, like FITCH, Pentagram, VentureThree and, of course, Wolff Olins. Some of them act as mentors to the students – hugely rewarding to both mentor and student. Others give masterclasses, invite the students in for visits, or offer work experience. They’re amazingly generous with their time.
It’s this closeness to the front line of branding that makes the course so exciting for the students. And that helps them get jobs.
But as a teacher, what have I learned? Or, more accurately, what am I still learning?
1 I’m learning to be an entrepreneur
Creating the course was like starting a mini-business, and we’re constantly trying to work out the best way to attract students.
I had the idea for the course back in 2008. For companies like Wolff Olins needing to recruit brand strategists, there’s a huge gap: there’s no professional education in branding. I wanted to try and fill that gap. Plus I love teaching, and liked the idea of having time to read, think and write. I approached several business schools with the idea: most politely suggested I go away and get a PhD. But UEA, with its spirit of ‘do different’, said yes – and I’m very grateful to Nichola Johnson, Shaun Hargreaves Heap and Nikos Tzokas for making it all happen.
We had to pitch the course right, and decided it would be high value, relatively high fee. To help convey the value, we changed its name (at the last minute) to ‘brand leadership’, partly because the course believes that brand can be a tool to lead a whole business (not just its marketing communications), and partly because we want to teach students leadership – to become brand leaders.
And obviously, we have to sell the course. All year round, we’re recruiting students for the following year. It’s a mini-business, and we’re mini-entrepreneurs, and I now have first hand experience of the anxieties (and pleasures) of the entrepreneur. We’re gradually getting the word out, and we’re appreciating the power of search engine optimisation, of video (our film on YouTube has 315,000 hits so far) and networking.
But we’re still learning. We get close to 200 applicants each year – but we know we’re only scratching the surface of the potential demand.
2 I’m learning to be a scientist
My background is arts – my degree was in philosophy and English. But the business school at UEA sits within the social sciences faculty, and the Brand Leadership degree is an MSc. So suddenly I became a scientist.
In a way, this affirms how we do things at Wolff Olins. Science, it turns out, is actually not research-led, any more than Wolff Olins is. Research is essential to science, but it’s not the starting point. Science starts with an hypothesis – a (testable) theory. Science, in other words, is just as creative as the arts, but with added rigour. Wolff Olins, it turns out, is a bunch of scientists.
But scientific thinking has also led me to question the ways brand practitioners tend to think. Science is also sceptical, and deals with the world as it is, not the way we’d like it to be. Brand practitioners are often wishful thinkers – in particular, we imagine that brand is at the centre of everything, and that being brand-led is the only way to be successful. Scientific observation shows that neither of these is true. Practitioners also usually think of brand as the cause of the things organisations do: dispassionate observation suggests actually it’s more like the effect. Communications professionals tend to think about communication as a simple act of transmission from sender to receiver: academic experts know that it’s a much more complicated shared process of meaning-creation. Again, brand people tend to think organisational change as a simple event, but social scientists know that it’s a complex and unending process. All of this has changed the way we think at Wolff Olins.
And the course itself is an experiment, a product in perpetual beta. Every time I teach a class I discover a dozen ways it could be better next year.
3 I’m learning to be clearer
Teaching forces much greater clarity than consulting work. Students ask tougher questions than clients. And this clarity plays back into our client work at Wolff Olins.
For example, we know that there’s more than one kind of brand in the world. I teach a class about five versions of brand, which have played out over the last 200 years – and it helps to be clear, for any given client, which kind of brand we’re after.
We also know that the ‘big idea’, which I wrote a book about ten years ago, could be (at least) three different things (purpose, proposition or personality), and that we need to be clear in project work which we’re trying to define.
And we know that brand identity has four dimensions – not just the (familiar) visual and the verbal, but also the (relatively uncharted) sensory and the interactive.
For me, there’s a constantly rotating wheel between theory and practice, which is incredibly intellectually stimulating. For example, the theory of brand identity I teach helped shape the work we’ve been doing for Virgin Media – and the creative leaps my colleagues have made on that project have in turn improved the theory I teach.
In the other direction, the practice of branding at Wolff Olins is increasingly about social as well as commercial impact – and that’s now reflected in the way I teach the ethics of branding.
Plus there are amazing moments of learning that happen during classes – when students, sometimes unwittingly, land on important insights. Last autumn we were looking at the beginnings of some famous brands – Cadbury, Apple and Innocent. It’s easy to imagine these brands come fully formed out of the heads of individual people, but as one of my students pointed out, each comes from a value-laden social context – in these cases, Quakerism, 1970s eastern-influenced new-age thinking, and the contemporary advertising industry.
4 I’m learning how people change
Teaching changes people – particularly when it’s practice-based. Each year, I see my students grow in confidence, which is probably much more important than their parallel growth in competence.
They all have to present work each week. In teams, they do a ten-week real-life project – which could be anything from getting artisan chocolate into the USA, or branding the city of Norwich. And each year as a class they do a brand-building project for a local charity. Out of this, they form their own theories, models and methods – and that’s how they change as people.
We also teach a mini-module called ‘brand me’, helping students to define their own personal brand, and to take it out into the careers marketplace.
The result is that around 90% of our graduates are now working in branding - for big companies, for start-ups, or for agencies.
Ana, for example, from Mexico, is now a consultant at a brand agency in Detroit. Another Anna, from Russia, runs her own organic farm brand. Graham, from Canada, works at Google. Jaime, from the USA, is working in PR in London. Karen, from Hong Kong, is at VentureThree. Lenora, from the Netherlands, is working in a tech startup in Norfolk, branding near-field communications. Varya and Anna, from Russia, and Anika from Britain, are rising stars at FITCH. And so on.
One of these students, summing up her process of change, emailed me: ‘Thank you again, for the dissertation, the teaching, and the life I have now.’
5 I’m learning how our world needs to change
In many ways, the course is a success story. But it’s unusual – it’s not common practice. And I think there are lessons for both universities and businesses.
For universities in general, I think it proves the value of having practitioners teach. It’s the norm in other fields – doctors teach medicine, artists teach art – and I believe businesspeople should spend much more time in business schools, teaching business.
The course also shows that business schools can, and should, teach creativity as well as rigour, nurturing the right brain as well as the left. And that business classes should give as much space to social and cultural issues as to commercial and economic ones.
Increasingly business schools are under threat - in particular from alternative providers like General Assembly, Hyper Island or Kaospilots or Aalto University whose approach is more practical, more creative, more ethical or more tech-infused. We must respond.
For businesses, the brand leadership MSc shows the value of getting involved in education. As a matter of course, in my view, businesses should sponsor further education, their senior people should mentor students, and their junior people can teach classes. They may want to turn their knowledge into education, as the publishers Faber do with Faber Academy, where Faber authors teach aspiring writers.
All of this is partly commercial - there’s money in education. In fact, education (and healthcare) are probably the two big next growth sectors. It’s partly about a particular kind of sustainability - setting things up so that the next generation can understand, and buy, and do, and improve on, what you do as an organisation. And it is partly just about expanding knowledge: by seeing teaching as part of their business, organisations of every kind can learn.