Recent ‘shock’ headlines should encourage action

Even we were surprised by the Financial Times assertion last Friday that Wolff Olins is moving away from identity work. This, the report maintained, was the reason why the supergroup was laying off 40 staff. But identity – or branding as it is now known – is the consultancy’s lifeblood, and what is more likely meant is that it is just changing emphasis to follow the work and weather the economic storm.

The mergers and acquisitions that has fuelled many a big identity project may be at a low ebb, despite Enterprise IG’s findings otherwise (DW 9 August). You only have to look at design, where the acquisition of Wolff Olins by Omnicom in June was arguably the last of the big ones for the time being, after a frenzied period of buying and selling.

Companies across the world still need to align themselves under a clear banner and communicate with staff and customers, and branding is key to this. When times are tough the tough seek out new markets where their message may have to be restated in a coherent way.

Then there are social and political pressures on businesses. Ethics and social responsibility are currently high on the international agenda, with companies looking to address the issues and communicate their stance. Williams and Phoa, for example, produced a series of stunning, but honest documents for oil company Shell early this year on this theme.

Social responsibility was highlighted by Wolff Olins founder Wally Olins when he stepped down this summer (DW 5 July). His vision lay behind the consultancy’s prowess in corporate identity from the 1980s onward, so it is likely his projections will set its agenda now. In the 1990s downturn, Wolff Olins sensibly turned to the detail of identity – overhauling clients’ literature suites – to keep up the contacts (and the staff fed) until the big jobs returned. This is what it’s doing now, but it’s hardly a move away from branding.

According to the FT report, Rita Clifton, UK chairman of Wolff Olins Omnicom stablemate Interbrand, blames the media for the decline in branding activity. She is not the first to do so. Yes, companies are cautious about taking on a massive makeover when the future is uncertain. But the media is only as good as its sources and while design fails to explain its position clearly, industry players may be unhappy with the coverage. The ‘shock horror’ tabloid headlines could have ended years ago, when, in the early 1990s, BT’s spending on the Wolff Olins-generated ‘prancing piper’ logo hit the press, showing just how little was understood of an identity programme, if design had found a public voice as well as a new-business one and answered its critics more roundly.

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