Born in 1930, Wally Olins is a British designer who created the concept of territory branding. Through his branding consulting work, he brought to Britain and the world the idea that brand identity is of paramount importance, and that it shapes everything that organizations do and say about themselves. He worked with Renault, Orange, Tate Modern, Volkswagen, 3i, Tata, Q8 and many other companies. Since his death in 2014, his agency Wolff Olins has produced, among other things, the new uber and Met Museum logos in New York.
In 2011, we had the opportunity to interview him and ask him questions about territorial branding. This exclusive post-mortem interview is revealed at the end of the article.
The birth of territorial identities
Wallace -Wally- Olins, English by birth, grew up in the capital before studying history at St Peter's College of Oxford. He none the less began his career at the Ogilvy and Mather advertising agency in Mumbai, India, as a director, where he spent 5 years. He quickly became interested in brand image even before the term existed and developed a taste for this advertising branch, consisting in building a lasting reputation for a brand or a company. Wally Olins soon made a name in this field and interested more and more companies and NGOs, for which he worked hand in hand with the directors.
Olins was convinced that companies must be involved in this search for identity, and not just relayed to the level of observer. A keen traveller, he worked in Northern Ireland, Mauritius, Poland, Lithuania and Bengal. He thereby helped regions, communities and states to find their image.
A pioneer genius in territorial identity and brand image, he co-founded Wolff Olins with Michael Wolff in 1965 on his return to London, and Saffron Brand Consultants in 2001. He could thus make his mark in territory design. He worked for instance on the Polish identity campaign or the visual identity of Øresund, the bridge and tunnel linking Denmark to Sweden. But his job as a business consultant mainly involved working for increasingly large companies, with many subsidiaries no longer linked to their parent company. By creating meaning and connection between these subsidiaries and their headquarters, Wolff Olins created what would later be called "brand architecture". No matter if you call it brand design, brand identity or reputation, Olins points out that it all comes down to the same thing, that "it's the way companies present themselves. »
He is said to have found a great source of inspiration in the New York school's abstract expressionist art movements of the 1940s and 1950s, especially the Colour Field (worn by Rothko) with its large canvases covered in full-colour tints. In these paintings, colour brings out its pure qualities in the canvas as a flat field of view, with no subject or central point. The absence of relief and the central importance given to colour contrast with the figurative movements of the beginning of the century.
As years go by, Olins wrote books to address his torments about the future of the world. He is concerned about globalization and the belief that gradually everything in the world, everywhere, will be the same; the planet will turn into a huge airport. Olins, on the other hand, thinks that "a country, a region, a city, will be in competition with other countries, regions, cities, to attract foreign investors, builders, tourists, students... Competition between cities and regions will mean that more and more singularity will emerge in response to homogenization, or apparent homogenization. In a rather curious way, one of the most common reactions to this homogenization is that everywhere around the globe, more and more people are looking for authenticity, for an origin. Because in a world where no one knows the origin of anything anymore, we need to hold on to something, to know where it comes from. Big companies are buying more and more local brands, and can no longer understand what people around them want. These are dramatic changes. That's what I'm talking about in my book "Brand New. The shape of brands to come" which is aimed at anyone interested in how the world is changing. »
Connecting people with colours and bridges
It is difficult to discern Olins' work as a solo designer. All projects are always signed with the name of the agency and its two founders, Wolff and Olins. Without knowing exactly who did what and assuming it is a team effort, let's look at some of their most famous logos to scan successes and failures, in brand and territory branding.
In an interview, Olins explained that a good logo should do 4 things. First, it must be moving and rational at the same time; it must address both the hearts and minds of people. Secondly, it must be relevant for all stakeholders. Thirdly, it must be distinct. The purpose of a graphic identity is to distinguish itself from competitors. And fourthly, it must be true; it must come from the heart of the brand, avoid clichés and highlight a concept that must be recognized as realistic and inspiring for all targets. In theory it seems to make sense, but in reality... nothing is that easy!
orange, the color box
In 1990, the Chinese telecommunications giant Hutchison Whampoa limited decided to set up the 4th largest telephone network in Great Britain. The company called on Wolff Olins to develop a brand that would not be technological but would make simplicity, openness and optimism its watchwords. As the brand strategy consulting firm explains, "we gave the network the name of a colour, not a telecom-related name like Vodaphone or Cellnet. We have created a warm and humane style of communication that has quickly become internationally recognized. "orange was born.
Since then, the company has been acquired by France Telecom in 2000, and its image updated in 2010 (see animation above). At the heart of this new communication, the rectangle - hence the brand - opens up to its customers and the world, adapting to each particular need. This rather simple and effective campaign seems to be quite consistent with the brand's initial communication and the current era.
Øresund, connected and connecting territory
Øresund is the tunnel bridge that connects Sweden to Denmark from Malmö to Copenhagen. Olins was responsible for this major project, which was carried out in the 2000s. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to find any graphic elements on this subject today, apart from the logo, with difficulties (see photo above). We therefore conclude that the project was not sustainable.... The logo that was found presented the two cities as distinct points within a large territory. It also looked like the eyes of a comic book character, but the intention may not have been deliberate.
However, the territorial identity exercice is exciting. Two cultures, two countries, two languages, two elements: air and sea. The explicit political intention behind this project was to help residents identify not with a country but with a region on either side of the bridge. On the Swedish side, in the east, the Skåne region is known as Scandinavian California. The whole challenge of the logo was therefore to highlight this dynamism and to bring about a change in the perception of the territory, both in its delimitation and in its content. Olins explains that territory branding is complicated because it must establish a link and connect the perception of this space to reality. "the difficulty of cross-border brands is the need to unite people from different cultures but also to get the right message to the rest of the world."
Today, it seems that the project has evolved into "the greater copenhagen". We have gone from the neutral name of a bridge linking two countries, to a Danish "invasion" (neutral, though) renaming this part of Swedish territory as a suburb of its capital. It probably took water passing under the bridge to get from one name to another! A sensitive subject with a very local name that may not have touched the hearts of all these people back then.
Tate, artistic blur
Introduced in 1999, the logo of the Tate Art Galleries (in England) was designed to unify 4 diverse artistic experiences and embrace nearly 500 years of British and international art. The Tate's wish was to combine their four galleries under the same philosophy. The agency invites its visitors to "look again, think again" and proposes this tagline as a leitmotif for this new logo. The result is a variation of blurs and bold, recognizable as a unit, but in perpetual movement. Wolff Olins reinvented the gallery concept for Tate, moving from a unique and institutional perspective to a collection of brand experiences with a similar attitude. The 4 points mentioned by Olins seem to have been respected here, being moving but rational, relevant, distinct, and authentic.
In 2016, North agency took over the project proposing a blurred but woven logo, which can be easily animated.
Transparent branding with aol.
In the 90s, Aol. (American Online) was one of the only web surfing platforms in the United States. But with the rapid technological evolution, Aol. lagged behind, without managing to catch up, dropping from 27 million users in 2001 to 6 million in 2009. It was precisely at this time that the company left the Time Warner group and tried to fly on its own by becoming an independent public company. It then asked Wolff Olins to design its new visual identity, in order to position it as a "21st century media company".
The three capital letters change in lower case to visually shape a word, which can still be read as an acronym, thanks to the period. Unlike other brands, the new Aol. logo only exists thanks to its background. This logo is like the Internet: dynamic, changing, and invisible without content. The agency asked several artists around the world to customize the logo to bring it to life; it unfolds on ink spots, a goldfish, scribbles, birds, flowers or leaves, drawn characters, a jumping cat, or paint flows. The purpose of this collaboration was to work with artists, journalists and musicians to create "experiences with extraordinary content" according to the agency.
It was rather to make users forget the brand by focussing all the attention on the background! A name change being non-negotiable, the company had to find a way to get rid of a bad reputation linked to a poor web experience. However, Aol.'s reputation should have evolved along with its image. And it didn't.
Unfortunately, 10 years later Aol. is still not getting any better. As Paul Rand said, "the trademark is created by the graphic designer, but it is the company that makes it". The worm was in the apple, and this new gloss didn't change its taste.
London 2012 Olympic Games, a logo that makes everyone agree
The logo for the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, launched in 2007 for £400,000, quickly became the subject of much criticism, unpredictable and fierce. The 2012 Olympic Games logo was originally designed by Wolff Olins agency to include everyone in a common experience. There was a need for a logo that would appeal to young people, "a logo that was bold, energetic and dissonant like the city of London". The agency therefore designed it without signs referring to a particular monument or sport, inserting the Olympic rings (a rarity for a logo of this type) and leaving some flexibility on the content. Brands, sponsors, or countries could therefore play with it by inserting their colors, or even removing the rings in case of prohibition of use. For the first time, the logo of the Olympic Games and the Paralympic Games were designed identically, with only a variation in the text but not in the shape.
Designed to reach an audience as large as the United Kingdom, it was difficult to get everyone to agree. And yet the brand identity of the London Olympics did succeed in creating consensus: the logo was unanimously considered very ugly. On BBC News, Internet users were invited to vote by giving it a trophy of a silver or wooden spoon: 83% of voters, the overwhelming majority, gave a wooden spoon, signifying their deep disgust for the logo. Far from pleasing the public, it also provoked Iran's anger. The country declared that it could read the letters Z-I-O-N (not 2012), a term referring to the city of Jerusalem.. problem: Iran does not recognize the existence of the state of Israel. "The use of the word Zion to create the logo for the 2012 Olympic Games (...) is a totally outrageous act," said Iranian Olympic Committee President Mohammad Aliabadi in a letter to IOC President Jacques Rogge. They threatened the UK to withdraw from the Games and take other muslim countries along.
As for the advertising campaign, the first spot caused several epileptic seizures among viewers.
With hindsight, however, these games have recorded very strong commitments from spectators, and the "bad buzz" of its debut nevertheless succeeded in getting people to talk about it and make it known throughout the world. Without touching the hearts of the audience, it managed to be relevant and distinct. We wish the same luck to the new Paris 2024 Games logo...
Although he passed away in 2014, Wally Olins continues to be a reference, an icon with a bow tie and round glasses, as he "self-branded" himself.
Our exclusive interview with Wally Olins
Aurélien from Actulogo had the opportunity to gather Wally Olins' opinion on territorial branding during an interview conducted in 2011, which we have never published until now.
You may listen to the interview below, or read the exclusive transcription:
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