GMG buys Wolff Olins the first round and the session begins

Wolff Olins has just won the biggest job in its history – to create a name and identity for the 24bn merger between GrandMet and Guinness. Design Week looks at how the project came about and how Wolff Olins will tackle the brief

“Happy as I am, I’m afraid it’s all confidential,” says Charles Wright, managing director of Wolff Olins. He should be very happy. The design consultancy has just landed one of the highest profile international business briefs which will emerge this year.

After a pitch believed to have been against design megagroups Interbrand and Landor Associates, Wolff Olins has walked off with the job of defining the corporate identity for the food and drinks giant that will emerge from the 24bn merger between Grand Metropolitan and Guinness.

GMG Brands’ official line is that Wolff Olins was appointed on the strength of its international branding. However, both Landor and Interbrand, with offices worldwide, can claim to have had more experience in the field, so perhaps creativity won the day.

When first mooted last year, the merging of these two industry behemoths was dismissed as “boardroom fantasy”. This month the fantasy became reality as each side announced their decision to form a combined group known as GMG Brands. For Wolff Olins, however, the task of defining an image for an international giant could be a nightmare brief.

Its first problem is that it is working to a brief rather vaguely described as “wide-ranging”, but it is not entirely clear what it will range to. GMG Brands seems more keen to rule things out than in.

There will be no renaming of individual brands. “We are hardly going to start changing names like Johnnie Walker, are we?” says a GMG Brands spokesman. The core businesses – Guinness Brewing Worldwide, Pillsbury, Burger King and United Distillers and Vintners will not change.

Wolff Olins’ work is likely to consist of designing a new United Distillers logo and dreaming up a new identity for the conglomerate that will result from the merger.

The consultancy is expected to come up with a new name for GMG Brands within the next two months, and, indeed, much of the proposals pitch is believed to have been concerned with this naming process.

Just sticking the initials of the two companies into one title hardly conjures up the sort of world-class branded force which is being created. It also robs Guinness of the chance to finally drop its flawed policy of having a core brand which doubles as the title of the plc. This has led to the drinks giant becoming synonymous only with its success in the stout market – ignoring the world force it has become with the IDV spirits operation it owns, or the strength of its non-stout brands such as Kilkenny and Harp.

But any attempt at defining a new corporate identity will be made that much more difficult because it is not yet entirely clear what is being created. There is no doubt that the resultant company will be a major international force in branded food and drinks. It’s just not entirely clear which ones.

Guinness and GrandMet shareholders probably laughed all the way to the bar last week at the prospect of owning 10 per cent of the branded international spirits market, together with world-class food brands like Burger King, Häagen Dazs and Green Giant.

In reality it seems unlikely that the vulture-like regulators will be able to resist picking at the company bones before they approve the deal. Some spirit brands and the Burger King chain may have to be divested to get the deal through. There is also talk of a possible demerger of the Guinness brewing business.

Guinness and United Distillers operate design rosters or have preferred groups and at this stage we can only speculate on the future for those on the rosters.

So wily packaging specialists should keep their eyes on the merged group’s brand managers and any roster shuffling which may go on.

For Guinness-owned United Distillers it is “too early to say” how a merger would affect its preferred design groups or its design procurement process, says a company spokesman.

But whatever difficulties it faces in creating a definitive identity from such a nebulous brief, for Wolff Olins winning the deal is a landmark.

Although it has other international brands to its name, such as Concert and BT, the GMG Brands brief is an indication of faith in the second generation of management. It is just weeks since the announcement of a management buyout and Wally Olins’ decision to step down from the group.

In an era when design briefs are increasingly being fought for and operated on a global, rather than a local basis, it is an indication that the new management is considered fully capable of defining a UK-created giant for the international stage.

As Charles Wright puts it “We’ve always been confident. We’re on a roll.” But as it drinks to its latest success it can only be hoped that not too many hiccups will follow.

Wolff Olins won the job on the strength of its international branding experience, according to GMG. Recent international projects include:

a new identity and positioning for Swiss bank Credit Suisse co-ordinating five ad campaigns

a name and identity for Finland’s two biggest banks which merged to form the Nordic region’s leading financial services group, Merita

a new name and symbol for Italian company Italcementi Group, the world’s fourth biggest cement manufacturer

a corporate identity for Tata, India’s biggest industrial group, and development of the Tata brand – work in progress

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