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Wolff Olins Offers Branding Lessons For Would-Be Game Changers

Co.Design sits down with Wolff Olins CEO Karl Heiselman, who embarked on a study of game-changing companies and netted smart insights on how branding must change.

For the last couple years, Wolff Olins has been globe trotting, talking to leaders at some of the world’s best companies and trying to learn exactly what separates the best from the merely good. Today, they’ve published their analysis of everything they learned, in a report called Game Changers. Recently, Co.Design sat down with Wolff Olins CEO Karl Heiselman to talk about exactly what they found and how it applies to businesses aiming to grow faster and do better.

The report revolves around some basic ideals pioneered by today’s high-growth companies, ranging from Apple to Amazon. No single business embodies them, but each one reveals a different tool that companies are using to carve out their own place among competitors. Let’s go over a few of the most interesting.


Ideally, every company should provide a service or product valuable enough that people willingly pay for it. But Heiselman argues that the bargain has changed, with the rise of social media and the constant dialogue with consumers it enables: It’s not enough that a product be well designed. It also has to be responsive: In the course of its lifespan, every new product or service has to change based on the way people actually use it, rather than how it was intended to be used.

In that sense, products aren’t finite and they might never actually be finished. In fact, the product is less important than an experience of dealing with a company. Companies are only valuable if they prove themselves useful, time and again. Viewed with that lens, most companies come up short. "What’s interesting is that, on the client side, it’s never anybody’s job to own the customer experience," says Heiselman. "Some people think about pieces of it, but it’s nobody’s job to think about it in any kind of joined-up way."

Value Creative

In figuring out how to create a company that’s more useful to its customers, Wolff Olins argues for involving customers more closely in the development process—that is, making it into an open-ended experiment. Likewise, they’re in favor of prototyping new business-models themselves.

Heiselman again offers his own experience as an example. Mercedes came to Wolff Olins, looking for help on creating new lines of business. Rather than focusing on the company’s brand assets as most branding firms would, Wolff Olins instead tried to tease out what the company was trying to become. In so doing, it became clear that Mercedes was trying to break free of being just a dad’s car, and become more appealing to kids and mothers.

Reaching them would ordinarily be a matter of marketing, but instead Wolff Olins helped them create new businesses that would speak to those demographics. First, they started a "Kinder Class" subscription service where a technician comes by to ensure your car is fitted properly with a car seat—even if that car isn’t a Mercedes. Eventually, that business will dovetail with a Mercedes-branded car seat.

Second, and even more successful, was a Mercedes driving school first rolled out in Europe, which is coming stateside soon. There are different courses aimed at different age groups, but the education is progressive, and there’s a particular focus on teaching younger drivers a more refined set of skills than they might learn in driver’s ed. For example, in one exercise aimed at making students more aware of their myriad driving decisions, students drive around a track blindfolded, with their only guide being a passenger who’s telling them when to turn.

"When you think about the future of the Mercedes’s branding, and you realize they have to be more relevant to mommies, you could put advertising out, or you could just start a new business," says Heiselman.


"The entire language around branding is martial," points out Heiselman. "We take a 'position’ and we 'defend’ it with a 'campaign.'" But if a company is to be useful to an actual person, then that antagonistic rhetoric leads you down the wrong path. Instead, Wolff Olins is advocating something they call boundarylessness—that is, the flexibility to be something different, and to absorb ideas from an ecosystem of partners.

On a basic level, Wolff Olins points to tighter linkages within a company—for example, according to a McKinsey study, highly networked companies are 50% more likely than other organizations to report market share gains. Point being, there’s value in fostering greater bonds between traditional business silos.

But Heiselman also points out that companies can also arrange themselves differently, to better learn from the world outside their walls. Here, he offers Wolff Olins as an example. "We’re purposefully understaffed, because we want to work with a whole bunch of partners and freelancers, because the most interesting people in the world don’t want to be locked into a job," he says. Here, Heiselman suggests that scale might ultimately be the antithesis of innovation. "If you wake up thinking that you have to scale, you end up codifying a process. And that’s the idea of mass manufacturing," he adds. "If you wake up saying 'How do I create the best work of my life,' then the process ends up being a lot messier."

Translating All That Into Branding

"The occassion of a rebranding is an opportunity to tell a story about a new strategy," says Heiselman. "If you don’t have that, then why would you do it?" He argues that the focus on branding as merely external communications is shortsighted. Instead, companies should focus on defining their purpose, so that there’s a clearer vision to guide everything else, from traditional communications to product development. For example, Wolff Olins has been working with Skype for almost three years now, but Skype doesn’t have any advertising. Instead, Wolff Olins has focused on giving them tools for evaluating their own business, so that they’ll have a clear sense of what makes something a Skype product.

"Advertising isn’t dead," says Heiselman. "But when you change the focus to helping companies deliver on what they say they are, it changes what branding agencies should be doing."

[Image: Johny Keny, nicemonkey, and Picsfive via Shutterstock]

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  • Matthew Kopytowski

    Great article. You can always count on Fast Co. Design to inform and inspire at the same time.

  • Brett Strouss

    Interesting, but actually a lot of common sense.  It just makes sense that strategic direction changes should be followed by rebranding, or at least an evolution of the brand, especially if the strategy is taking the business beyond where customers see the brand.  With Mercedes, the new businesses make sense because of what I call "market permission" --- what people associate wth you and believe you can do.  One might not think of Mercedes as more than a company that makes vehicles, and from a US perspective, luxury vehicles, despite their truck business and a bunch of other things they do.  I think what many companies need to do to achieve the flexibility to move into different businesses is to become a brand that is associated with innovation and new business models.  Google has earned a reputation as an innovator, so they have market permission to dabble in just about anything (although sometimes to their detriment).  The other thing that can work against a brand is the perception that they're just providing new services to trick people into buying their products, so it can be a delicate balance when changing direction.

  • RedSlice

    I enjoyed this article. Reiterates my whole philosophy about brand being more than a logo and brand management being required from the inside out. Branding is not an either/or proposition as stated in some of the comments. It's both what you offer (internal) and how to package it up (external). Some of the best products have died on the vine because they didn't create a clear brand niche or communicate a strong enough external message for anyone to care. Likewise, we've seen brand "flashes in the pan" with slick external packaging and ads - and the company went no where because the (product/customer service/buying experience) was awful - and by that, I mean did not deliver the brand promise. You can;'t look at the product. business and brand in isolation. Just as someone's reputation is made up of what they say, how they act, how they dress and what value they deliver - it;s the same with brand. You can't have one without the other.

  • Naviger

    Yawn . . . standard B-School. Value proposition, listen to the customer, don't just sell the name. All said with more fluffy words. I like what Nosybear says below, but I would add that it is also important to know which customers are important and ignore those who aren't . . . in other words, segmentation. CHoose your market and serve it well.

  • nosybear

    Screw branding.  I'm tired of hearing about a "brand" as a proper noun you can somehow manipulate.  Your "brand" is an emergent property of the interactions and services you offer customers, an abstraction and a proxy for the experiences your customer has using your product or service.  Work on those.  Develop great products, price them fairly and service them like they were your own. In the words of my rural upbringing, don't do nothin' to nobody you wouldn't want them to do to you.  Be honest with your customers in every aspect and obsess on their outcomes from the idea to final disposal.  Then your "brand" will emerge and you will be managing the manageable, the processes and products, the interactions and the experience.  Screw your "brand."  Concentrate on what you can actually manage.

  • GiDesign

     i like the article but i agree with nosybear, your "branding" efforts should be nothing more than a recognizable element that you carry across the board so that people become aware of where these awesome products/services are coming from. All other energy should be spent on providing what you client/customer needs and wants, nothing less.  

  • GrantWtf

    Branding is emergent, and the effort is not in manipulating the brand perception, the effort is in being conscious of how it emerges. Just as all plans are wrong, but planning is essential, brand equity comes from careful consideration of how a companies value proposition is communicated. Time spent getting the language ( visual, form and linguistic) sharpened and honed is time well spent. Alignment of thinking, alignment of effort and ultimately an  aligned and consistent explanation of the companies values become embodied in the product/service = brand equity.  

  • Mark Von Der Linn

    Perhaps as progressive and big picture as biz thinking gets. Great stuff.