Bunhill: Image makers reach for the sky

SAY WHAT you like about those corporate-identity consultants who come up with off-the-wall names like "Diageo" and abstruse art such as the multi-coloured designs on British Airways planes, but they don't shirk a challenge. Take Wolff Olins, the firm behind Diageo. Which new client is its creative director Doug Hamilton talking about?

"They've got a great name and a great line-up of products, but they have to find a way of communicating that isn't so blunt."

Here's another clue: "They've redesigned sports coverage: 80 per cent of sport on TV wouldn't be there if it wasn't for them."

That's right: BSkyB. The same BSkyB whose name couldn't have a much higher profile, and the same BSkyB which has already been through one image make- over in the run-up to the launch of SkyDigital last October. Back then the company's whole image was centred on sport - it had a young, male product and was widely perceived as "laddish". The idea at the launch of SkyDigital, as one City analyst noted, was to reposition the product, stress quality and take its programmes to women viewers as well as a new Middle England audience.

"It seems an odd time to bring in a new image consultant," the analyst said. "You should do it three months before you launch a new brand, not three months after."

BSkyB said that Wolff Olins had not been taken on to address any specific image problem, but to look at all channel brands and ensure "we're communicating our key attributes of choice, viewer control and quality programming" - SkyDigital has more than 150 services, including documentary and education channels.

If that message is still not getting across, it is perhaps because BSkyB, as an arm of Rupert Murdoch's global empire, is seen as championing diversity but only as long as it diverges from one source. The latest example of this was the company's agreed bid for Manchester United - a move seen in many quarters as territorial and, according to one critic, likely to turn football into "a ruthlessly manipulated arm of showbiz". With this kind of adverse coverage, Wolff Olins may have taken on a stiff assignment in trying to ensure BSkyB is genuinely respected rather than grudgingly admired. But then again, Wolff Olins is a consultancy that can't say "no".

"If it moves, we'll do it," says Paul Vinogradoss, the firm's communications consultant.

Just to prove the point, one of its most recent assignments was to devise a title for SkyDigital's arch-rival, ONdigital - "a name and brand rooted in the language of TV". So while BSkyB tries to buy a football club, Wolff Olins is playing for both sides; it will be interesting to see how it differentiates between the two.

It will also be interesting to see if the image makers can overcome their own image problems. It is widely held that these touchy-feely creative types simply chuck a few zany ideas in a hat, pick any old one, and then retire to trendy Soho clubs to drink designer lager while comparing polo- neck jumpers. And for this dubious privilege, gullible companies pay them a fortune. If so, there are a lot of gullible people about. Among the high-profile companies that bear Wolff Olins's stamp are Go, Heathrow Express, Orange, Goldfish and 3i. The consultancy also came up with the catchy title for a new cable TV company in Spain - but it has to be said that "Ono" sounds like a hostage to fortune.

But in terms of big assignments, they don't come much bigger than rebranding Germany. Called in by a German TV company to carry out a theoretical "repositioning" of the country, Wolff Olins has been showing off its work at an exhibition in Berlin which finishes today. Mr Hamilton says surveys had revealed that Germans were fed-up with the popular perception of their country as being cold, mechanical, and populated with people who all wear lederhosen and monopolise sun loungers. They wanted to tell the world there was more to them than "vorsprung durch technik".

The timing is also important. Germany, like other states signed up to the euro, has to retain national characteristics while showing that it's outward-looking and an enthusiastic member of the new European order.

"We looked at Germans through the filter of our own set of prejudices and found that wasn't the reality," says Mr Vinogradoss. But then again Germans have done little to challenge this perception. "Inhibition is a national characteristic," he adds. "They don't want to feel good about where they come from."

Wolff Olins's approach has been to turn the stereotype on its head, replacing "cold" and "masculine" with their diametrically opposed brand values of "warm" and "feminine". The firm has even devised a new flag which substitutes an electric blue bar for the imposing black one. "A combination of history and stereotypes had led us to believe that Germans were these appalling robots," says Mr Vinogradoss. "But they're not - they're people."

Try telling that to the German football team.

ALREADY done and dusted, even at this early stage, is the 1999 award for most glorious slip of the tongue. That accolade passes to a guest on Nicky Campbell's Radio 5 phone-in show who, in the midst of an attack on greedy bosses, came to the memorable conclusion that they had their "trouts in the snough".

Much better than what he meant to say, and with snough better spelt as "snoff" to sharpen the surrealism, the phrase could have been plucked from the children's books written by Dr Seuss. In Titles such as Cat in the Hat and The Lorax, glorious new sounds like "snurgle" and "thneed" abounded - words that demanded subjects in real life.

And thus is born a Bunhill campaign. The business world is full of tired old cliches and arcane management terms that would benefit enormously from more evocative descriptions.

First to go, come the glorious day, will be "fat cats" - to be known simply as "scroggles". And, when they say "flat hierarchies", surely what they really mean is "gleeb". Why settle for "just-in-time inventory accounting" when you could sum it all up with "thnostle"?

Whatever, let's get off the backs of our overpaid bosses. Anyone who possesses a snoff, and is prepared to place his trout therein, deserves our thunderous applause.