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Wally Olins is one of the world’s leading authorities on branding. He was co-founder of the Wolff Olins agency (which under new leadership caused a media storm recently in Britain with its design for the London Olympics logo) and remained chairman of the company until 1997. Today he runs Saffron Brand Consultants with offices in London, New York and Madrid. His company is currently working on branding projects for Poland, Rio de Janeiro and Spain. He has forthright views about the need for all nations and states to have clear, truthful images and shared some of these with Monocle over coffee at his London HQ.

Monocle:The Polish Chamber of Commerce recently appointed you to help with branding the country, but where do you start?
Wally Olins: We interviewed people at all levels inside and outside the country to get a perception of how the nation saw itself. Broadly speaking, older people were pessimistic and lacked confidence about the nation and younger people – a simplification – were more confident about the nation and not so chauvinistic. Poles, we found, are extremely individualistic – they find it hard to work with each other – but there is a certain stubbornness and a huge level of creativity and entrepreneurship that gives them their particular personality and character. We tested this core idea and Poles recognised it and said: “Yes, that’s what we’re like.”

M:Does Poland have an existing image?
WO: Yes, it’s grey and anonymous, but that’s changed a lot because all the Poles working abroad have helped create a clearer impression. They are hardworking and they have a sense of humour.

M:What will happen next?
WO: Our relationship is on hold for the moment but we are at the stage where we need to make the brand work visually by producing a symbol. We have an idea for something infinitely flexible. We haven’t told them what it is yet, but we’ve got it.

M:Which country already has a symbol that you think works successfully?
WO: In the late 1980s, Tour España’s sun logo for Spain – painted by the artist Joan Miró – was very successful. It’s been copied too many times now.

M:Where else?
WO: New Zealand has done really well with its theme of “pure”. It takes the country’s unique characteristics – being far away and remote – and turns them into an advantage. Most perceptions of most nations are grotesque and out of date. Ask people about Britain and you’ll still get a lot of stuff about the royal family, tradition, even empire.

M:How do you help create a clearer picture of a country?
WO: You have to inform people about what the country has. One of the reasons behind Spain’s incredible success is that after Franco, Spanish companies began to emerge as powerful entities – the Spanish film industry blossomed. Spain began to show a new face – the architecture with Calatrava and Bilbao. Some of it was managed, some not. Now what does Spain stand for? In a funny way it’s passion – it doesn’t look stylish like Italy but Spain is much more vibrant.

M:Are you working with Spain?
WO: We are currently working on one area of Spain that within 10 years will be seen to be a key element of what Spain is about, and that is technology, especially in the IT sector, railways, and sustainability. We are working at making this understood around the world.

M:How can you spread this idea?
WO: Not through the sort of advertisements you see for places like Macedonia. They are a complete waste of money. You don’t change people’s perceptions of a country with advertising. You change people’s perceptions by finding the truth, finding an idea that embraces that truth and putting it through everything they do.

M:Do nations look at branding issues just to make more money?
WO: It’s partly economics, partly peer group pressure and partly because they think there’s some kind of mystery to be understood. In South Africa, it’s about getting people to feel they all belong to the same country.

M:What mistakes do countries make?
WO: That it can be done in 10 minutes. It can’t. It takes 10 or 20 years. They think it’s an advertising campaign; they think it can be done with a quick phrase. They want to say things that are not true.

M:Should nation branding be an ongoing process, like having regular check-ups?
WO: Countries should have a creative director. In 20 years, it will be standard practice to have a government department looking after the country’s image: reputation management, tourism, foreign direct investment.

M:You helped do some of this for Portugal?
WO: We started helping them with tourism in about 1992. Then we got involved in brand export and foreign direct investment. All went well but when there was an election and a new party got in, what did they do? They chucked out anything the previous government had done. These projects should not be run by people who are in power for five minutes.

M:Has Portugal suffered from not following a clear line in nation branding?
WO: Yes, Portugal’s image has suffered. I was in Lisbon not long ago and they were talking about nation branding again and how Portugal should be seen as the IT capital of southern Europe. Do me a favour. What are they talking about?

M:Where would you like to get your hands on to rebrand?
WO: Turkey for a start. And Portugal. And almost any central European country. Who the hell knows the difference between Slovenia and Slovakia?

M:Anywhere else?
WO: The Baltics. When you get there, you find there is a pecking order. The Estonians are on top – “we are not the Baltics, we are Nordic”; the Latvians in the middle are not quite sure what they are; and the Lithuanians are more central European and slightly Polish except they don’t want to be Polish. Those three countries deeply dislike being stuck together.

M:City and place branding is also booming. Why?
WO: Globalisation. The more nobody knows where anything comes from, the more they want to identify with a place. Some cities have done amazing things – Barcelona, for example. But why not Naples? What do you think of Naples – theft, crime, rundown – but it’s a lovely city with wonderful food and nobody has done anything with it. Naples could have an image like Barcelona but it doesn’t.

M:Barcelona’s reputation changed because it won the 1992 Olympics. Can an event like that be a quick fix for a city’s brand image?
WO: It can be a fix. But it’s not quick.

M:Would you encourage cities to consider bidding for the Olympics?
WO: Perhaps, but the question is whether they need the Olympics. I was pleased London won but it doesn’t need it. Paris does because it’s not as cool as it once was. We are working for Madrid for 2016. If they get it, it could really help them.

M:Is it more difficult working for a country or a company?
WO: Working for a country is 50 times harder than working for a company.

On the Rio brand

Why would Rio de Janeiro, a place with more popular songs about it than Paris or New York, need an image enhancement programme? I was about to find out, as I’d been invited to Brazil to weigh in on the newly launched, innovative and, in my opinion, best-of-breed project called 1Rio.

Flávio Azevedo, an ex-creative director at Ogilvy Brasil and one of the brains behind 1Rio, gave me the short version: “When Brasilia started in 1960, Rio lost its job as the nation’s capital, and with it, a lot of its stature.” Yet although favelas burgeoned on the hillsides, crime surged and civic pride waned, the mystique, charm and singular character of Rio endured. “We want to leverage these now, while they’re still strong,” he explained. “For tourism, for investment, and especially for our own self-confidence and sense of identity.”

With an initial annual budget of 20m reais (€7.7m), coming 50-50 from the state government and private business, 1Rio’s status – independent yet with patronage from on high – perfectly suits its mission to be both a repository and developer of Rio’s multi­faceted image locally, throughout Brazil and globally. “We want 1Rio to become a move­ment,” says Azevedo, “not a talk-shop with a logo.”

In fact, it is the slogan – Só existe um Rio (There’s only one Rio) – that will be the key identity element. Designs will be solicited from noted Brazilians (architect and carioca Oscar Niemeyer is high on the list) and non-Brazilians with the intention of creating a brand with commercial legs – an I ♥ NY for its time.

Azevedo claims that 1Rio “is place branding 2.0. We’ve reverse engineered what’s been done in South Africa and New York and applied that creatively to our own case.” I wouldn’t be surprised if in 10 years’ time, people are doing the same with 1Rio.
Jeremy Hildreth is head of place branding at Saffron

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