Global brand consultancy Wolff Olins wants to define brands of the future, but it has a rich history that’s hard to ignore.
Its first client was The Beatles, Forest Young reminds me. In the ‘60s. The CCO, who has worked at Wolff Olins for four years as head of design North America and was promoted to the global leadership team this week, is just as starstruck as I am when he teaches me this history lesson over Zoom. The Liverpudlian idols came to the team - initially just designer Michael Wolff and strategist Wally Olins - with the idea that they wanted their own record label. So the pair helped them come up with Apple Records, an iconic brand to fit an iconic band. Forest nerds out on the specific detail that is most satisfying about that brand - “that idea of the apple slice as the reveal between side A and side B of the vinyl. The rest is history.”
Branding didn’t really work like that back then. Forest thinks of it as “the advertising sledgehammer”, hitting people over the heads repeatedly with the same idea until they believed in it. “If I say ‘home fresh’ like 50,000 times, you'll think that this [product] is home fresh!” Wolff Olins realised that brands could be successful and advocate on behalf of people, not just their products and services. “They shouldn't feel like giant monolithic expressions coming down as a monologue; they should feel like dialogues.”
That’s a large part of the attitude which Forest comes to his new role with. He will focus the design agenda of the business on four areas:
“pursuing ideas that spark change”; “designing for what’s around the corner”; “seeking inspiration beyond the boundaries of the branding space”; and “collaborating with client teams to deliver powerful results, underlining the consultancy’s c-suite role of trusted advisor.”
Some of the consultancy’s historic work is less obviously laudable than its founding project. “Who wasn't upset about the 2012 Olympics, right?” says Forest, speaking about the brand that became infamous in the run up to the games. “Everyone remembers when that logo came out. It received so much shade that it was unimaginable. The designers had to get a security detail because we got death threats.” That was before Forest was involved with the consultancy, but he begs to differ with the haters.
There’s a strong strategic core to that logo, he posits. The 2012 brand wasn’t conservative, that’s for sure. It was designed for the next generation, for younger people who “don’t care about the Olympics”, urban youths who are “out in the streets tagging walls. And what they want to do is they want to see a language that speaks to them. They don't want to inherit their parents’ recreational activities or hobbies. And so the idea was that it was the everyone's Olympics.” The 2012 brand included those disenfranchised young people, and it also welcomed Paralympians like never before.
“Paralympians totally embody Olympic spirit more than regular Olympians,” says Forest. “You see somebody on a wheelchair sprint, you can actually see the Olympic spirit at work and this person, because they're in phenomenal shape, they've also had to overcome so much.”
It wasn’t the Games that came before, about “the stadium, the torch, the tears and the nationalism”. The logo was based on street art, “which is about speaking to the language of the alienated audience. And 2012 turned out to be the most financially successful Games of all time.
Those are two historic brands that demonstrate Forest’s passion for strategic thinking and design thinking working in dialogue - a key focus for Wolff Olins moving forward. “Creativity is looking at a series of constraints and understanding how to operate within those,” he says. “That tension of ideas and form, that's really where branding should have its centre of gravity.”
Tension and dialogue are vital to this way of thinking. Forest has no time for the Don Draper salesman type, sauntering into a pitch, making a speech and walking out with a “ta-da reveal”. He sees his brand consultancy as a trusted partner to clients that actually listens and has a two-way relationship. “Now more than ever, it really is an embedded partnership, it really is like going into the deep waters with your client teams and seeing each other as equals. There's an incredible amount of trust because we're working on usually very sensitive information.”
But it’s not easy to get transformative ideas through. Forest recognises that “people would prefer almost anything to change.” His answer is to imagine, together, what the future might look like in a best-case scenario and then lay out a practical route to get there. He loves speculative fiction, not science fiction, when it comes to brand strategy. Like some thinking Wolff Olins recently did with Uber trying to think seriously about flying cars. “We kept showing images of roads from 2000 feet above the road, so that we could eventually have a conversation about, flying above the roads. In order to do that, you have to keep talking about it as if it's real. Because the moment you mention a flying car, it starts to feel like we're going to science fiction, with blasters and lasers and spaceships. But if it is an electric vertical takeoff and landing craft not unlike a drone that we see that our kids play with. [It will] probably will take off from rooftops and be on-demand aviation, just like we have on-demand cars with on demand planes, and will be an easy way to relieve traffic congestion. They'll be electric. So we'll be cutting down on our fossil fuel dependencies, much more efficient. So all of a sudden this starts to sound really exciting.
“And then ‘oh… this, by the way, is what it'll look like’. And then let's have somebody create a prototype, a 3D image, because when people can have an image that they can start a conversation. That that image gives them the confidence that what they're talking about is real. A lot of times half of our job is just loaning our conviction or courage momentarily so that other people can have a moment they need to make those decisions.”
Forest’s keen to think about thinking differently. Like the concept of a logo. Why does it have to be so static? “A logo can move,” he asserts. “At one point that was wildly controversial, a logo should be something that is a stamp that is replicated again and again, again, with a nine-tenths margin of error, and it shouldn't deviate from its silhouette, it shouldn't become something else.”
Wolff Olins doesn’t abide by such apparent truisms. Brands, to Forest and his colleagues, are living assets. In the future, he predicts brands “behaving in a much more synesthetic way.” Designers will need to understand which sense they are privileging. Is touch important? He imagines a brand that might be much stronger in its haptic identity than in its visuals, or maybe how it sounds is more important. “Is it a combination of two or more? Is it sound accompanied by a haptic sensation?” That’s, as Forest sees it, what brand consultancies will need to work out with their clients.
Forest gives the impression of a realist, but with a strong urge to find optimism when he looks to the future, despite the horrors of 2020 that none of us want to expend more emotional energy on. He was thinking about the 1970s recently. Some things about that decade are easy to idealise. Donald Trump wasn’t on television. You’d be met with a quizzical look if you mentioned social distancing to someone. But Forest found reassurance in thinking about how comparatively naive ‘70s people were in some ways: “And then I started to realise that in many ways, the ‘70s had the same fault lines of 2020. The same issues of haves and have nots, the same issues of democratically elected governments being toppled. They had the same politics of race and gender and all these intersectionalities. But somehow, there was almost like an American escapism that made America feel like it was unbeatable and touchable.
“I'm actually really excited because 2020 has been so incredibly painful. But if we actually looked at 2020 as a learning opportunity, the types of authenticity that we've been able to experience by me seeing like your kitchen [technically, the kitchen-looking half of my studio flat where I’m Zooming Forest from] and you seeing the ridiculous basketball behind me [it’s bright yellow with a smiley face on it], cats walking in front of cameras, bad lighting, good lighting, everyone's attempt to try to understand what is professionally acceptable. And in that we've realised that it's just people.
“We're people talking to people about things that we need. There's no longer that LaCroix or the ice water in the meetings, it's just ‘Does your camera work? ‘Can you hear me?’ It's like a return to such an elemental set of basics. I'm very excited.
“On the other side of this year, do things need to be in high resolution? Or do they need to be in like human resolution? And is that a different type of resolution than pixels? And fidelity? It's more about what is required for us to proceed. It's going to be a very helpful reset on the things we need to invest in. The things that are actually required for great work and the things that we believed we needed for great work, that were maybe just part of a bloated apparatus.”