He’s been creating brands for four decades, but as Garrick Webster discovers, the co-founder of Wolff Olins is still hungry for fresh challenges
Just around the corner from Michael Wolff's home, near King's Cross station in North London, a house bears a blue plaque. It says: 'Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov [Lenin] stayed here.' No doubt the Bolshevik leader would have had little time for concepts like corporate branding - although he did create a new identity for Russia and a new brand of politics. By all accounts he had a pretty good grasp of symbols, colour and storytelling to boot.
So with thoughts of Lenin's blue plaque lingering, it seems a spooky coincidence to sit down with Wolff and discover that Russia is currently one of his favourite topics. In a career dating back to the 1960s, the branding expert has worked for the likes of Audi, Volkswagen, Shell, BP, WH Smiths, 3i, Bovis Homes and many other big-name clients. But rather like Lenin, he prefers looking to the future and talking about change rather than gazing backwards. His current fascination is with a Russian bank, for which he's working on a complete rebrand: name, visual identity, retail decor - everything's up for debate.
In any branding exercise, the client's customers are of critical importance to Wolff. For him, the identity of a company is not found in its logo, its advertising or the product or service it delivers. Identity is constructed in the minds of customers. As he pours a mug of tea and breaks up a slab of ginger Green & Black's chocolate, Wolff starts by talking about Russian attitudes to money.
"Take a hard-working couple in Russia," he begins. "Shopping once a week makes an enormous difference to their life. If their fridge breaks, they have to shop every day. Shopping every day means a lot of logistics. Having to walk to the shops, drive to the shops, take a bus to the shops - or whatever - changes the pattern of life. So, I've got to get a new fridge and I can't afford it. What am I going to do? Go without a fridge? Have the wear and tear until I've earned enough money to get one? Or, since I am earning money, if I borrow money to get one and I repay it with a bit of interest, is that a sensible way of making my life easier? Yes."
There are hundreds of banks in Russia, all using various colours as a means of distinction. For Wolff, however, superficial distinction just isn't enough. Difference is what matters, and a designer aiming to create a successful identity has to be extremely inquisitive.
Accordingly, he spent a lot of time trying to discover what it is that made this bank different. It had already been given the English name 'Life' by another Western branding consultancy, but to a Russian speaker, 'life' is a meaningless phonetic sound. The bank's branches, Wolff reflects, were like Job Centres, with low-cost interiors, slightly slippery floors and no toilets. It was not visibly different from its competitors.
So he asked the management what they really wanted it to be. Their answer? More sympathetic. Their customers can get a loan within an hour, which is unheard of in Russian banking. Qualification for a loan is decided upon by female credit managers in branches, who listen to why each customer wants to take out a loan, assess their means, and decide whether or not to give them money.
"These women - and they're all women - listen to these stories and decide whether this is a person in a situation where they can cope. So they don't get a 'No, we're not going to give you a loan,' they get a 'Maybe this isn't the right time,' or 'Perhaps you should try another bank,' or 'We don't feel comfortable because I personally, as the person giving you the loan, am putting myself on the line.' So it's always a case of 'We're doing this loan together.' I soon realised that this 'togetherness' business was what made them different from other banks."
Michael Wolff co-founded Wolff Olins, the branding agency that still bears his name, and later became worldwide creative director at Addison. Today, however, he is his own company and sees his role as akin to a film producer, bringing together other talented studios and agencies from various fields to collaborate on his projects. For this particular client, he contacted Ben Stott at NB Studio for his graphic design skills, and the architectural and design studio Urban Salon to help create the banks' interiors.
"We started to think we didn't want a Western presentation; we wanted something that Russians would feel at home in," he explains. "It wanted to be authentically Russian, and not some superimposed Western branding idea. It wanted to be about mutual respect - not extravagance. Not a power talking to a poor little individual, but a place where something happens together with people who are not dissimilar from you."
The bank also needed a name. Here, Wolff could really relate to his Russian client. Although born in England, his parents were Russian and he spoke the language at home when he was young. He thought hard, needing to find a name that expressed this sense of 'togetherness' that would be critical to the bank's new branding strategy. In the end he tapped into his own personal childhood memories, and put a little bit of himself into the final moniker.
"I was six and I hated school," he recalls. "My father would remonstrate with me, and what he did was he'd put his arm around me and he would use a very familiar Russian word, which is pyjom - 'let's go'. As he said pyjom, I found myself not complaining in the front hall but out in the street on my way to school. It was a word that transformed me from a resistant six-year-old standing like a donkey, into a kid in the street on the way to school. So pyjom has a together implication, but it means 'let's go'."
Wolff loves the awkward silence that follows the unveiling of a radical concept to a client. A past favourite experience was showing the Bovis Homes logo, complete with its hummingbird, to a board of executives expecting a symbol more closely related to muscle-bound builders. The Russian bank weren't quite as shocked at the notion of pyjom, but argued that there aren't many brands that are verbs in Russia. Wolff felt certain it was the right route to take because, in Russian, the word expresses the 'let's do it' sentiment his team wanted to develop. Once they'd agreed, a logo solution fell easily into place. A credit manager wrote the Russian word and a handwriting-based logo was developed.
The human touch continued into the decor. "We then produced an interior, which was, in a way, domestic. It was warm - big lampshades - but the main quality was that it had traditional Russian paintings done by one of their people who did wonderful murals. Folk art. But it didn't look synthetic and it wasn't done cynically, it was done because people like this," says Wolff. "Each store would have a painting, and we would turn the painting into a miniature version of a silk scarf. That was really the only uniform. They would wear a silk scarf of the painting."
Next, a symbol was created for the bank to work alongside the handwritten logo. This was a cat character. Again, it was based on Russian culture: the koshka, a female cat, represents comfort and good luck. They drew the cat, made it into a matryoshka doll, with cat inside cat inside cat, and also had it animated for the commercials.
For the print work, developed by Ben Stott at NB, they wanted to maintain the authenticity they'd been developing. "We had to produce the leaflets, and we didn't want to make them all about percentages and selling. You go around London and you see millions of attractive women with their mouths open smiling. We had none of that," says Wolff. "We wanted to get photography of ordinary Russian people, which we did. There's a wonderful picture of a grandmother on the back of a motorbike that her grandson had had repaired and she was proud of. Really authentic stories. The story of a reluctant husband and how a wedding is financed by the credit manager and the husband doing it together. The story of an illness. They're all nicely written true stories."
The Pyjom project continues, and Wolff is the creative director of the bank. In the past he has been the design consultant for WH Smiths. He is used to having a very senior role within big businesses, but one of his concerns today is that not enough designers have access to decision-making at the highest level. Whereas he and his partner Wally Olins would usually work directly with a company's board of directors when branding was a new concept, today's designers usually work for the marketing branch of an organisation.
In the same way that he unpicked all the issues relating to Pyjom's identity, you do get the sense with Michael Wolff that his mind is always working on the bigger picture, unpicking the problems the design industry faces as a whole. "Now, it's tough for a young, inexperienced designer to think that they're going to meet the leader of a very big company, because they probably aren't," he reasons. "But it's the job of people like me, who have been in the business for 40 years, to be context changers - not simply leaders of repeat-order service businesses."
Despite the fact that most CEOs are finance directors or lawyers, for Wolff there's a great opportunity for designers to step forward. The lawyers and accountants that run businesses may be good at managing risk, but have been frozen in the headlights of the recession. Designers, he believes, bring innovation, and by being risky, good designers can help companies to leapfrog risk. But at the same time, he advises some agencies to take a less process-based approach, and allow their clients into the design sphere.
"If a designer comes along and absolutely knows what to do, and it's stage one, stage two, stage three - that can blind the client," argues Wolff. "That, in a way, says 'Don't you come into my territory, just pay me.' The result of that is you don't get into their territory. And so you do a symbol and a colour and all the rest of it, and don't really get into the choreography of how people understand their business - you just send them a look."
So what does the future hold for Michael Wolff? "I don't honestly know," he admits. "But I do know that I'm constantly sharpening my blade, and increasing the breadth of what I know."