Solving for ‘x’

Daniel Siders joins Wolff Olins as (what we’re calling) Visiting Technologist. This is Daniel’s first guest post.

I wouldn’t call myself a technologist.

While my work involves developing and exploring technology at a higher level than most, it is fundamentally strategic and analytical. I ask the same questions about a new piece of technology as I do a brand: How are people using it now, Who will start using it in the future and in what ways? and most importantly, What unique possibilities exist because of and for this technology?

The answers to those questions, to the degree that they can be answered, inform discussions about how best to leverage the technology itself and its effects on marketplaces and society (ideally before anyone else does).

What does the future look like?

We’re in the early days of the information revolution, a period of cultural and technological changes with repercussions on a similar scale to the industrial revolution. It’s premature to speculate on the total scope (or sequence which is often more significant) of changes to come, but here’s a few things I see right now:

There are definitely some early leaders in the race to connect consumers with technology. What’s less clear is whether there is a maximum possible extent to their power, and if so what those limits are. Most significant technologies started out in the control of one organization and were later democratized. That process has rarely been smooth or easy for industry or consumers. It’s hard to imagine the rules will be different for information technology. Google and Facebook count their users in the billions. Whenever a company starts thinking about the day that every human on earth will be a user, I start looking for the tools that will replace them.

Entropy usually prevails given time.

Given how fast the world is changing and how many other brands want to participate in these spaces, it seems like the time is ripe for a massive wave of decentralization to hit everything from internet services to traditionally regulated fields like telecommunications and banking.

A variety of forces are lowering or eliminating barriers to entry in nearly every field. Simultaneously dominant players in most markets exercise unprecedented levels of control and influence. This period is marked by both an incredible rate of change and the phenomenal power of network effects. The combination of the two will leave many established companies with an undeserved sense of confidence until they have already been replaced.

What keeps me up.

Everyone is trying desperately to hold onto the power they have over others - governments, religious extremists, brands. What strikes me most is that this struggle seems to come not from lust for power, but the desire to remain relevant. The world changes and we change with it or fall by the wayside. There’s a cycle in human society and in nature — we contribute throughout our lives until we ourselves become obsolete and then someone else takes over. That cycle hasn’t changed, but it does seem to be speeding up. Technology makes the world change faster, perhaps faster than many of us can adapt. If brands are as slow to change as people their untimely demises could either fuel a revolutionary period of innovation or plunge the world into chaos. This is what keeps me up at night — the dual possibility of tremendous innovation and multi-generation stagnation from monopolies, and the inability to determine which we’re experiencing until after the fact.

I can’t imagine a more exciting time to shape strategy for the world’s best brands.

When I first met the Wolff Olins management I was impressed by the possibility to affect change through WO’s relationships with brands. So often I encounter a possibility for radical growth in a market but can’t reach key influencers or convince leadership to dive in soon enough to take advantage of the situation. I’m excited for the opportunity to help speed up that process and make sure possibilities are presented with more weight to the right people. 

The Borg


By Daljit Singh

I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, a Trekkie. However, I would like to introduce Star Trek’s Borg: a malevolent force composed of half-machine, half-organic matter, linked in a hive mind (nothing to do with bees). I find these guys quite interesting and I think we might be able to learn a little from them.

The Borg seek perfection by touring the galaxy assimilating the key features from all other living creatures they encounter. They forcibly mind-meld them into their hive mind through violent abductions and injections of microscopic nanoprobes.

In their daily encounters they exhibit no desire to listen, negotiate or reason, only assimilate. It’s all about ploughing in and taking over. I’d like to see the Borg in a pitch.

These aliens communicate by circulating a collective audio message to their targets stating that “resistance is futile”, followed by a swift assimilation involving a takeover of “technological and biological distinctiveness”, which they add to their own composition. Clever, but hardly embracing of the open-source culture that we humans have embraced. I can’t see these guys sharing a tin of Quality Street at Christmas. Nevertheless, one has to admire their tenacity and single mindedness. Their communication strategy is focused: get in, get all the good stuff out and improve their proposition – perhaps there are some clues here for us all.

Being straightforward like the Borg is not easy and sticking to a single, dedicated approach is hard. The creative human mind naturally leads us in multiple directions, which is necessary to create new thinking. But recognising ‘the right’ idea at the right moment requires commitment, confidence and being a bit ‘hive-minded’.

New business thinking tells us that ‘always in beta’; ‘agile’, being minimal and ‘failing fast’ are useful methods to increase success. And that these techniques can save us time, money and allow us to launch our products whilst minimising failure. That’s good, right?

Or do we just need to connect the bits together better? It’s all at our disposal but we tend to think in isolation, without connection. The Borg connect in a single-minded, un-human way to self-improve and better their network.

Indeed they do learn from mistakes – they just do it differently, by not pausing or relenting, and this is a good attitude for any business. Setbacks are merely instances to be ‘analysed and adapted against’. Think about all those forgotten pitches and ideas that dwell in the bottom drawer. Sometimes our best thinking becomes someone else’s success. Maybe we need to be a little more hive-minded in our approach and add more digital rigour to our hard work so we can be reminded of that valuable thinking.

All businesses need to be on the lookout for new. New techniques, new tools, new methods and just simply looking in new places. That’s important but it’s also essential that we look back at where we came from, what we have done and apply that knowledge to developing the new. Maybe we need to ‘be a little more Borg’ – that sounds far more friendly.

Daljit Singh is a part of our visiting creative director programme, an initiative intended to help us stretch and enhance our creative thinking.

Image: All rights reserved by Photos by Pogue

Experience the festival brand

By Max Rosero

This past weekend, amidst the heat and humidity of a typical Midwestern summer, a small army of people descended upon downtown Chicago to partake in an event that has become synonymous with both summer and the city itself.

Lollapalooza, the music festival founded by Jane’s Addiction frontman Perry Farrell, takes place every August in Chicago’s Grant Park, nestled between the famed Art Institute and the turquoise blue waters of Lake Michigan. This year, the three-day event attracted an estimated 300,000 attendees over the course of its 72-hour run, a record number since the festival first opened its gates in 1991. 

One of the things that makes Lollapalooza, and the similar festivals it has spawned, such an interesting case study, is the allegiance and advocacy of their customer base. In many respects, festivals like Lollapalooza now command the same kind of intense brand loyalty normally reserved for names like Google and Amazon. Not only are attendees willing to shell out hundreds of dollars year after year for tickets, but they do so despite scorching heat, enormous crowds, and the occasional mammoth mud pit (as was the case at this year’s Governor’s Ball). So high is the level of demand that tickets typically sell out in in a matter of hours, if not minutes— leading one online reporter to dub the music festival business “virtually recession proof”. 

This recession proof mojo likely stems from larger behavioral shifts within the young consumer demographic these festivals attract. Not so long ago, a brand’s “value” was simply a function of its quality and cost, but today, access to exclusive or “one of a kind” experiences is an increasingly important driver of purchasing behavior. Couple this with the fact that many young buyers are looking to deepen their connection with their peers and the world around them, and it makes sense that today’s most successful brands are often those that seamlessly blend their product offering with an experience platform that actively engages its customer base. Few players are better suited to do that than music festivals, where the product offering and the experience platform are one in the same.

Where many festivals have succeeded even further is in their implicit (and often unintentional) efforts to brand themselves. In much the same way that big names like Apple and Nike have managed to stand out in the crowd by marrying an innovative product line with a unique and easily-identifiable cultural ethos, so too have many of the nation’s most successful music festivals (Coachella, Bonaroo, and Outside Lands to name a few) carefully crafted a brand experience that’s as distinctive as the crowds they attract.

Hear someone mention a recent trip to Coachella and it’s likely to bring to mind images of fedora-clad hipsters mingling with Hollywood A-listers in the middle of the California desert. Bonarooo, on the other hand, held on a 700-acre farm in tiny Manchester, Tennessee is more reminiscent of a modern-day Woodstock, while Miami’s Ultra evokes imagery of pulsating light shows and ubiquitous rave attire.

Though event organizers have surely played an important role in shaping the overall experience of these festivals, the proliferation of a Coachella or Bonaroo “brand” has largely been the work of its attendees. By tapping into a collective desire to connect with one another, and providing an exclusive, one-of-a-kind setting in which to do it, festivals might point to a new model for successful branding—one where consumers and companies both contribute.


Max Rosero is a strategy intern at Wolff Olins New York.

Image via LollapaloozaFest

(This is the sixth Future Patrol, a monthly series of macrotrend posts. Today’s is a guest post by Kate Welsh. You’ll see Wolff Olins’ established macrotrends called out with a hashtag.)



I. What it is

 “Frankenstorm” probably wasn’t the right nickname for Hurricane Sandy. Sadly, it’s pretty clear that storms of Sandy’s magnitude are no longer fantastical, once-in-a-generation monsters—they are becoming the norm. Frankenstorm implies that there is a certain degree of separation between us and the pandemics, cyborgs, and economic collapses typically confined to the realm of science fiction. However, it looks like we’ve caught up:

What happens when we get a dose of (anarchic) dystopia? Apparently, we buy more stuff—stuff that allows us to operate independently of established systems and outsmart a future that is starting to look like our wildest imaginations. In this autonomous age (#LaissezFuture) there is a greater demand for brands that provide personalized, proactive, intuitive service.


II. Some Examples

Disaster-preparedness retailers certainly took note. Sales figures for The Ready Store, purveyors of self-sufficient, disaster retreats Practical Preppers and Vaughn Concrete Products, and Eton emergency radios have boomed in what the New York Times dubbed the “Mad Max economy.” Wal-mart and Costco now have a purchaseable “year’s supply of food,” much of it freeze-dried.

Smart thermostat Nest, the Volvo XC70, and MIT Media Labs’ Proverbial Wallet model all rely upon predictive data to save energy, prevent impulsive spending, and filter clean air for their users.

Price tags for 3D printers—machines that incrementally “print” layer upon layer of an object—have steadily dropped over the past two decades. The Makerbot Thing-OMatic is an affordable, easy to assemble and operate 3-D printer, which enables people to “fab” whatever they want out of plastic. It has attracted a vibrant online community that trades designs and tips on how to produce shiny little toys in just a few hours. Beyond trinkets, 3D printing holds the potential to turn homes into customized mini-factories—a vision not far removed from the self-sustaining disaster retreats sold by Practical Preppers.

This year, Berlin-based start-up Changers released a portable solar-powered phone and tablet charger. Consumers can transfer energy from the sun to their mobile device, measure their energy consumption by connecting their charger to the Changers website, and accrue energy credits to use as currency on partnering retail sites. In addition to being environmentally conscious, the Changers charger reflects an increasing consumer desire for self-regulation in all aspects of life.

III. What this means for brands

As more people embrace customization and alternative methods of making money or saving energy, brands should act as facilitators as much as producers.

- Make your product a personal service, not a just physical thing (ZipCar and AirBnB). 

- Create a platform for communities, and adapt to the needs of your consumer (Google Crisis Map, Barclay Share Card).


Kate Welsh is a strategy intern at Wolff Olins New York. 

What Startups Need. Part 3: Future

 Melissa Andrada

We recently put together a quick Survey Monkey on what startups need, which we shared with founders and entrepreneurs in our network at Wolff Olins. We’ve been sharing our analysis of the results in a couple of posts on the Wolff Olins blog (see our previous posts What’s the single biggest challenge facing your startup? and Who do you go to for advice?). This is our third and final post in this series, and it’s focused on how startups envision their future.

 “Acquired” was the top response to our survey on what startups need.

“Leading” or “No. 1” came in second, with “Sustainable” coming in third.

Whether your business ambition is acquisition, market leadership, or sustainable growth, you need a strong purpose to get you where you need to go. A strong purpose can help tell a more powerful exit story to investors. A strong purpose can help identify gaps in the market and the most important consumer needs. A strong purpose can help create a roadmap for sustainable growth. 

Every month take some time to sit with your co-founders and/or teammates to ask yourself, the big questions, “Why do we exist? What role do we want to play in people’s lives?” 

By answering these questions, you’ll be able to build a brand that will not only help you reach your business goals, but also, increase your impact on the world.


Interested in getting some outside perspective? On November 26, I’ll be teaching a class with WOLO lead strategist Jemma Elliot on how to develop a strong brand purpose and bring it to life across your business at General Assembly London.  






What Startups Need. Part 2: Advice

By Melissa Andrada

We recently put together a quick Survey Monkey on what startups need, which we shared with founders and entrepreneurs in our network at Wolff Olins.

We’ll be sharing our analysis of the results in a couple of posts on the Wolff Olins blog (see our previous post What’s the single biggest challenge facing your startup?).

Not surprisingly, startups trust their peers more than anyone else. Just over 82% of respondents said they go to other startups and entrepreneurs for advice. Social media came in at second best, with 62% recipients using Blogs, Twitter and Tumblr, etc. for advice.

Some of my favourite resources for startups are General Assembly and Skillshare (full disclosure – I’ve taught at both), two alternative education companies that offer classes for entrepreneurs and those aspiring to be ones. I’m also a big fan of Y Combinator’s Paul Graham’s archive of essays. Union Square Ventures VC Fred Wilson’s also has a great series called MBA Mondays that covers business school basics, such as Profit and Loss Statements and Balance Sheets.

Stay tuned for more results and tips on what startups need.


What Startups Need. Part 1: The Challenge

By Melissa Andrada

We recently put together a quick Survey Monkey on what startups need, which we shared with founders and entrepreneurs in our network at Wolff Olins. 

We’ll be sharing our analysis of the results in a couple of posts on the Wolff Olins blog.


The biggest challenges are creating an all-star team (29%) and making money (32%). You need the first to get to the second.

Finding the right people is a challenge. You might find people with the right skillset but not quite the right cultural fit. One tool we find especially useful for recruitment and retainment is having a manifesto that communicates your vision and key behaviours.

Your manifesto should serve as your rallying cry – it should be a document that inspires people to get on board and work until the wee hours of the night. It should serve as a decision-making filter for whom you hire and what kind of culture you create.

A couple of manifestos I like are Zappos Family Core Values and Google’s “Ten things we know to be true” for their simplicity and calls to action.

Making money is often the white elephant room. Everyone knows it’s important, but no one knows the answer. The assumption is: start by building a huge user base, then money will follow. It’s what Facebook and Twitter did.

At Wolff Olins, we believe you need to think about both from the start. To think through this challenge, we use a range of creative tools like the business model canvas to explore the potential business models and revenue streams.

Stay tuned for more results and tips on what startups need. 

Food is the new music

By Melissa Andrada

I was planning a trip home to NYC and the first question I asked my sister is: “Where should we eat?”

Ten years ago, my first question would have been: “Are there any good shows happening?” Like many Seattlites who grew up in the ‘90s and early ‘00s, I spent my youth seeing Death Cab at local venues before they got big, scouring indie record stores for hidden gems, and creating mixed tapes for my friends

Fast forward to 2012. The closest thing I have to a mixed tape is my Spotify playlist.

Thanks to technology, music is more personalised, democratic and accessible than ever. It began with the iPod, which revolutionised the way people listened to music.  We went from buying CDs and listening to whole albums to downloading MP3s and listening to individual songs. The “Top 25 Most Played” song list became one of the most telling and intimate parts of our cultural identity.

More recently, we’re shifting from downloading to streaming. Through Spotify, I have millions of artists and songs just click away. Through Pandora, I can go on autopilot at work and listen to Phoenix and bands that sound like them. I couldn’t live without Spotify and/or Pandora, but they take away the magic of discovering a new band or musician. Sure, concerts and shows bring back some of the magic, but it’s just not the same.

Hipsters and non-hipsters alike now ask: “Have you tried this new restaurant?” Chefs are the new rock stars. People follow David Chang in NYC, Heston Blumenthal in London, or Tom Douglas in Seattle as if they were the lead singer of the band.

Unlike music, technology has not yet erased the magic of discovering a new restaurant or chef. While Yelp and Zagat have made it more challenging to keep favourite spots hidden, going to a restaurant or eating your way through a food market is such a visceral, multi-sensory part of culture that it has to be experienced in person.

Melissa Andrada is a strategist at Wolff Olins London. She’s passionate about the intersection between technology, social good and brand. Lee Fields is currently at the top of her Spotify starred list. @themelissard

Image via Esquire

Sharing the pie

By Rebecca Goodwin 

In our London office, one of the many ways we stay inspired is by finding learnings in the everyday. This week we held an ideas sharing session for the Pizza Pilgrims, a new Italian street food business. The founders, brothers Thom and James Elliot, sell pizzas from their van, which they brought back from the south of Italy.  For the time being, the van resides at Berwick Street Market, Soho. Before leaving Italy they spent six weeks driving across the country on a ‘pizza pilgrimage’ meeting with chefs, growers, and suppliers to learn the art of creating authentic pizzas.

Street food popularity has boomed in the past couple of years. Low overhead means food prices are comparatively low while the standard is high, appealing to those who want more than the average fast food meal. Customers are excited to frequent an alternative food locale that is not only tastier, but also personable, authentic, and tied to the local food culture. 


Taking it a step further, the Pizza Pilgrims have developed their venture by incorporating social media heavily into the mix. By publicizing their latest location, getting feedback on recipes and even crowdsourcing ingredients through Twitter, they have already amassed a dedicated following. Utilizing social media in this way enables street food vendors to market and promote their products by reaching their target audience without spending vast sums.

Pop up restaurants like 9@TheDispensary and BUKHARA Pop-up also effectively use and rely on this technique to manage and attract huge crowds at short notice.Thom and James talked about digital hype as a new way for food sellers to engage with the consumer, transforming their experiences into memorable, social ones that are more meaningful than an ad. Social media allows the consumer to discover and participate with these small brands, allowing them to feel part of something exclusive and novel.

As they’re growing, how can Pizza Pilgrims expand while staying true to their roots? What can the Pizza Pilgrims learn from the likes of Meat Wagon and Pitt Cue, who both have made the transition successfully from food truck to permanent premises? While each brand is unique, street food vendors who have grown successfully share certain characteristics - they have remained authentic and true to the spirit of their brand throughout. Staying social is another key: Hunting down the location of your favorite slice or the perfect burger is half of the fun and a major part in the customer’s experience of the brand.

After sharing ideas to help the Elliot brothers point in a clearer direction for their future, they then pitched up their van outside our London office and fired up the oven for us to enjoy their tasty pizzas.

Rebecca Goodwin is a creative specialist at Wolff Olins London.

Three Quotes

About the Future

1. If we’re looking to invisible Mayans for the answers to our world-historical crisis, then something, somewhere, has gone very wrong. Against a background of peak oil, protein, attention, and confidence, perhaps we’ve reached peak future… Despite the monsters, this is not the time for retrenchment. Far from it! Instead, post-normal times call for post-normal measures; they urge you to up your game. In the immortal words of Hunter S. Thompson, ‘when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.’

– Futurist Justin Pickard’s The Gonzo Futurist Manifesto


2. At a more human level, I find that I am unable to relate to people who are deeply into any sort of cyberculture or other future-obsessed edge zone. There is a certain extreme banality to my thoughts when I think about the future.…Technology only becomes interesting once it becomes technically boring. Technological futurists are pre-Fieldists. Marketing futurists are post-Fieldists.

– Consultant Vankatesh Rao’s essay Welcome to the Future Nauseous from his blog Ribbonfarm

3. It’s similar to the experience of getting a cell phone call for the first time. “This is weird, this is magic.” It’s not just newness, either—it’s an experience where the previous understanding of the universe is broken. You don’t get many experiences like that if you don’t do drugs or have some sort of meditative practice.

–Hacker Eleanor Saitta in Rhizome’s essay series Guide to Future-Present Archetypes


Images via Damon Zucconi and John Hildell.