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Sunday , April 20 , 2014
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The Big Brand Guru: Wally Olins

Wally Olins and (below) with the author

Wally Olins epitomised the think-global-act-local tag when the challenge of branding our state brought him to Bengal, with a young and peppy Bong CEO in tow. For anyone in the business of advertising and public relations, Wally Olins, described as the “world’s leading practitioner of branding and identity”, was a brand unto himself. He looked the part too, with his signature round glasses and his bow tie, but more than this physical manifestation, he took the business of branding and identity to a new creative and constructive stratosphere.

About a decade ago, when I was writing my second book on public relations, it was Wally Olins’ book The Corporate Personality: An Inquiry into the Nature of Corporate Identity that gave me vital inputs to write on establishing corporate image. (“The launch of a new brand can represent a rite of passage.”) Olins doesn’t leave your psyche so easily, and fortunately I got to know more about him through S.V. “Bobby” Sista, the head of Sista’s — a renowned advertising agency which has been around since the 1930s — and who is now the executive trustee of Population First.

India never left the Olins psyche either. For it was in the 1950s that Wally Olins was with S.H. Benson, and Sista reminisced to me, after the passing away of Olins on April 14, how their relationship had spanned more than half a century. Olins’ India stint was in several stages, from being account exec to manager to heading up the O&M operations. In his own words, India challenged him and it is here he “learned to advertise to people who speak 13 languages, can’t read or write and haven’t any money anyway”. But big money subsequently did get to be spent on redesigning of corporate identity in this country.

Germane to our interest in Olins as Indians is the fact that he came back to India (after starting up the design consultancy Wolff Olins in London) at the invitation of Sista to give the Tata Group a brand identity. So the very recognisable Tata logo that you see today is the combined contribution of Wolff Olins and Sista’s. It was obviously not an easy exercise at the time, with so many group companies wearing their individual identities. It took a couple of years of interaction and interviews with 40 CEOs to understand their thinking and psyche and also to take the branding viewpoint convincingly to them. Sista looks back on it now and feels that it proved to be a golden opportunity for Ratan Tata to have an outsider with an objective approach to come in on the identity creation. It worked, didn’t it?

I found an attachment in my mail sent some time ago with the title: “Tata: A Love Letter” in which Olins, who had had been asked by a blogger to share his views on Tata, talked about the innate qualities of the group in glowing terms. Here’s one sentence where he praises its “ elevated honesty, modesty and good behaviour linked to immense courage, self-confidence and the sharpest eye for an opportunity that it seems entirely appropriate that its head office should be almost ostentatiously unostentatious”.

Wolff Olins was sold in 1997 and Saffron Brand Consultants was set up in 2001, and it was this agency that came with a pioneering ardour to recreate Brand Bengal. Saffron is an independent global brand consultancy specialising in business transformation, brand strategy and design.

I remember the time they descended on us. Dramatic moments. Calcutta had lost the opportunity to host a major World Cup cricket match at its own holy of holies. But there was another set of people who seemed to have resided their faith in Bengal. Saffron Brand Consultants chairman Wally Olins and his CEO, Avik Chattopadhyay, who had been contracted by the Bengal government to give the state a special identity.

What a Bangaliana presentation they made! A logo using the anushwar alphabet, the circle of it lending itself to pictorial showcasing, and a soft power approach to the innate strengths of Bengal was the essence. Participating in the interactive session was the Bengal department of information and culture, and a clutch of professionals from advertising, public relations and the performing arts, apart from government officials.

Wally talked straight—Challenge the Formula, Change the Conversation. They came with a mission—to re-shape a Bengal renaissance, by leveraging its strengths in a multitude of areas, including, uh oh —bringing back FDI, tourism naturally, and an intangible—injecting self-belief in the local populace. So that the state could say brazenly: Bengal is Open for Business.

Talking to Sista about this, he felt that this would have been one of the first states in India to have branded itself. More’s the pity.

We were curious about the name Saffron, and somebody did ask Olins whether it could have any political connotations in India. Saffron, he said, is a premium spice and grows in Spain, where the company originated with Wally Olins becoming chairman of Saffron and his friend Jacob Benbunan managing director. In fact, the branding of Spain as a country (from Franco to Flamenco, Football, Food, Feisty industrial regeneration and the use of a quirky logo symbolising the country by its most famous artist Joan Miro) was done by this group. He helped the governments of Poland, Northern Ireland and Lithuania define their country brands.

Another occasion, same city, Calcutta. Olins gave a stunning presentation at a programme organised by Harsh Neotia, where he had invited us to be panelists. If he had been around in India, in these last few months, in the midst of what is the most bountiful and bizarre and breaking news show in the world, he might just have been pulled in for individual politico makeovers. But he was busy launching Brand New, the latest book from his prolific stable to discuss not just about branding but about “the way the world is going”. And busy keeping his date with Brand Almighty.

The writer is a public relations professional.