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An interview with Wally Olins


Interview by: James Nelson

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Image: Wally OlinsAs corporations become more complex, as their products become more similar, as the inter-relationship between organizations becomes more intricate, corporate identity becomes mandatory as a corporate resource that tells people the who, the what, the why and the whither of a company’s existence.

Like other management systems that operate continuously in organizations, a corporate identity process should be developed which allows for the regular re-evaluation of perceptions of the organization by its important audiences, and for the re-formulation or re-establishment of the company’s vision when it has been forgotten or become outdated. This will contribute to the organization’s ability to remain competitive in a world that is becoming ever more difficult to analyse.

Wally Olins CBE is Chairman of Saffron Brand Consultants of London, Madrid, Mumbai and New York. He is one of the world’s leading practitioners in corporate identity and branding, having advised companies including Akzo-Nobel, Q8, British Telecom, Renault, Volkswagen and Tata, as well as the governments of Poland and Portugal on national brand image.

The author of the seminal work Corporate Identity, his other books include Wally Olins on Brand and most recently in 2008, The Brand Handbook. In 2006 he was the recipient of the Reputation Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

Here in discussion with James Nelson, he talks about why companies should see the identity
management process as a potentially powerful corporate resource.

Q: What’s the biggest difficulty in introducing identity management as a corporate resource?

Wally Olins:

Getting it into the corporate bloodstream. Unless people within the organization at every level accept the corporate vision and are prepared to integrate it into the corporate system, it will crumble. The role of an identity management system can best be described by comparing it to other corporate systems. Perhaps the two most appropriate role models to help people think about identity management are financial management and information technology management. Successful identity management, like financial and information of technology management, cuts across all the conventional corporate structures and influences every part of the company. This is the only way the company will be able to realize its full impact.

Q: You have written extensively about the role of corporate vision within the context of identity. Would you elaborate on this?

Wally Olins:

Many companies develop an identity that emerges intuitively as part of what they are. Often the identity is a manifestation of the personality of the founder and such identities are often characterized by their informality. The company's behaviour patterns, its communications and the appearance of its products, services, offices and showrooms, are a result of the influence of a few people. There comes a time though when this casual, uncultivated identity is no longer appropriate, because the organization has grown very big, or it has taken over other businesses.

That’s when the whole process has to be professionalized. There’s usually a moment of truth – something happens that makes the company re-examine its identity. Some reasons may be:

  • Merger, diversification, re-organization or other structural, strategic or management change
  • Consistent evidence that the outside world misunderstands and undervalues the corporation, or that there is insufficient internal co-ordination and unity
  • Mixed and contradictory visual and verbal messages emerging from the different parts of the corporate world
  • A need to emphasize and differentiate emotional factors – because the rational competitive factors – price, quality and service are very similar. Mercedes-Benz and BMW cars are technically very similar but because of the emotional context that has been created around them (Mercedes is technology, BMW is fun), people react differently to them. Rational factors are similar in an increasing number of industries, including banking, financial services, oil, chemicals, computers and cars. This makes emotional differentiation increasingly significant
  • Economies of scale and successful corporate identity management can help reduce operating expenses when design systems are developed which can easily be implemented internationally.

“ If consumers can’t distinguish between competing products rationally, they will increasingly choose between them on the basis of their emotional reactions to the products or to the company itself.”

Formal efforts to manage corporate identity grow out of some or all of these factors. As emotional factors become more important in distinguishing between organizations, the corporate vision becomes more significant – who we are, what we do, how we do it, and what we want to become.

The vision helps people to answer related questions: Why should I buy from or work for this company? Why should I collaborate with this company or buy shares in it?

Q: What are some of the measureable benefits of a corporate identity programme?

Wally Olins:

A clear corporate identity can bring the following benefits to the company:


  • It enables the organization to tell the people with whom it deals what it stands for, what it is, what it does and how it does it. It enables representatives of the company to explain how their activities relate to each other
  • It encourages tighter and more coherent messages of all types to emerge from the company
  • It enables people who deal with the company to understand its goals and objectives

These advantages can result in other benefits when a corporate identity programme is well organized. Some of these are:

Internal benefits

  • Morale and motivation improve
  • Employee turnover drops
  • Product quality improves
  • The quality of recruits improves
  • People within the organization work together more effectively

Financial benefits

  • Higher share price
  • Acquisitions are made easier
  • Organizations are better protected against predators

Marketing benefits

  • Consumers are more likely to look favourably upon the company and its products and to be brand loyal
  • Suppliers operate more consistently
  • Expenditures are more cost-effective in terms of activities and promotion
  • The company can establish itself more effectively in new markets
  • New activities can emerge faster

Q: What advice can you offer for setting up an identity management project team?

Wally Olins:

Developing a corporate identity is a specialized business, and the identity programme embraces business disciplines that range widely across the company. It influences both internal and external audiences, so it is essential that the programme be set up carefully, and be managed at both the top and middle levels of the organization. As you'd expect, it is crucial for the programme to have strong commitment from the board and CEO. It's best for the programme to be spearheaded by a senior executive from marketing or communications who is given the necessary authority and who will work directly with the CEO.

Since few executives have had experience with developing corporate identity programmes, the creation and implementation of a programme will always require the help of outside branding consultants. It is also vital that the working party represent those parts of the company that will be most affected by the programme. In particular, there should be representation from corporate strategy, marketing, communications and organizational behaviour. It's sometimes useful if purchasing, legal and technical people are also available to lend their expertise.

Q: What cost factors enter into all of this?

Wally Olins:

For what it costs, a corporate identity programme is normally excellent value. The cost depends largely on timing. When an organization is launching a new name and visual identity, it has to make a major impact, so it will have to move fast and the costs will be higher. When, the existing identity is only modified, the introduction can be lower key with a more gradual programme of implementation. So the costs can be lower and spread out over a longer period. Apart from the origination work, corporate identity costs are usually dealt with as part of annual departmental budgets, since money has already been allocated for such things as signs to be painted, stationery to be reprinted, vehicles to be replaced, etc. Costs can generally be divided into categories including:

  • Consultant fees
  • Cost for creating the visual system, typeface, colours, logo symbol, brand guidelines, behavioural policies and so on
  • Sometimes costs for launching the advertising for the new identity
  • Costs for replacing visual manifestations of the organization

Q: Won't some companies opt to begin with a small-scale programme?

Wally Olins:

Sometimes a group of brands, or one or more divisions of a larger organization, may be a good starting point. There is nothing wrong with carrying out an identity programme for part of an operation, provided that its impact on the whole is understood.

“A corporate identity programme must be seen as part of the process by which the corporation explains and differentiates itself.”

Q: What key questions must the corporate identity team be asking?

Wally Olins:

After looking at the way the company perceives itself, the way it is perceived by outsiders, how it stacks up against competition, there are a whole series of look and feel issues to consider:

  • Do we have too many different names?
  • Do we need a new name?
  • How do we relate brand names to the corporate name?
  • Should we strengthen the existing identity?
  • Should we create an entirely new visual identity? If so what should it be?

Then the research and the creative work on which it is based is carried out. When all that is agreed which can take up to 12 months, the programme can be launched.

August 2008.