Last word: brand

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  • Picture of Sairah Ashman
    Sairah Ashman
  • Design
  • Arts and society

What lies beneath the surface in a world awash with logos?

When I grow up, I want to be a brand expert. Said no one. Ever. And why would you when you could be an astronaut, a magician or Beyoncé?

As a brand expert, I spend a lot of time demystifying what we do by explaining what we don’t do. Like beauty, brand is in the eye of the beholder. If you’re a baby boomer, your first experience of brands may have been on supermarket shelves. If you’re Gen Z, or an entrepreneurial Gen Alpha, then you’re probably honing your personal brand on TikTok, and maybe your business model, too.

When I talk about brand I’m talking about corporate, cultural and institutional brands such as Unilever, Tate museums, Uber and the BBC, all of which we’ve worked with at Wolff Olins. Many see brand in this context as simply a logo, but that’s just surface level. What sits beneath is a philosophy that drives the organisation, a positioning that differentiates them from their competition, a role that makes sense of what they produce and an expression that embodies how they behave and relate to others.

At a very basic level, brands help you make choices faster: maybe you’re more Aldi than Waitrose. Others make you see the world in a new way: think Patagonia. Brands can also behave in a strange and dissonant fashion, of course – I’m looking at you, Tesla, with your sustainable vehicles pedigree for the planet and your CEO’s ‘40 hours a week in the office or go elsewhere’ attitude to workers.

The twin opportunity and challenge is how to create this seamless alignment across what a brand stands for, how it drives an organisation internally and how it delivers an experience externally. This has always been the case but, these days, the margin for error is painfully narrow. The most successful brands of the future will be conscious brands: those that are responsible, yes, but also highly responsive to the environment and world around them.

I know what you’re thinking. Is this just another name for corporate greenwashing? Far from it. Being a conscious brand is about the entire organisation, inside and out. It is as much about the employer brand as it is about the external experience that customers are buying into.

Research we conducted last year suggests 57% of consumers believe brands need to do more to positively impact society, while 62% are either less likely or won’t buy from a company that does not have a positive ethnic diversity and racial equality policy and record. The stakes are high, and the opportunities for those who get it right are huge. And, while few companies get it all right (hello again, Tesla), we believe the qualities of a conscious brand – to be empathetic, multisensory, habitual, reformist, collective and moral – are worth fighting for if you want a brand with a firm foothold that thrives in tomorrow’s world, for tomorrow’s generations.

So, while children around the world might not yet be dreaming of becoming brand experts, chances are a lot of them aspire to change the world – and branding might just be the job that helps them do it.

Sairah Ashman is Global CEO of brand consultancy Wolff Olins. She is a regular TEDx host and speaker, Forbes columnist, and trustee of The Childhood Trust supporting disadvantaged children

Follow Sairah Ashman on Twitter here: @SairahAshman

This article first appeared in the RSA Journal Issue 3 2022

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