Diageo: you know it makes sense

No one knows what Guinness/GrandMet's new name means. Never mind - the Orange and Goldfish guys are behind it. Matthew Rowan reports
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The Independent Online
"I haven't got a pony-tail. I haven't even got much hair," says Doug Hamilton, following an eventful couple of weeks which will at least have caused him to scratch his head, if not wrench at his follicles.

Monday after the clocks went back, the creative director of Wolff Olins was picking up a Design Effectiveness Award for the corporate identity consultancy's "Give me 5" campaign, which helped to launch Channel 5. On Thursday, Mr Hamilton and colleagues were picking up hostile press notices for christening the combined operations of Guinness and Grand Metropolitan "Diageo" - a name viewed as the obscure ramblings of creative types with suspect haircuts and too much money.

Turn the clocks back further, and you'll find that this mixture of acclaim and abuse is nothing new to Wolff Olins. BT, Orange and Goldfish are among the companies to have featured on its client roster, and in many cases the naming or repositioning of a brand has been greeted with incomprehension and ridicule. Over time, however, the image makeovers have generally done a lot more good than harm. This time last year Wolff Olins picked up the same award, from the Design Business Association, for its work with Orange.

All of which lets Mr Hamilton view the criticism of Diageo with some detachment. "All new things here are subject to scathing comments," he says. "Orange started off with tremendous derision and it's since been talked about as the brand of the decade." Wolff Olins, he adds, was also heavily criticised for choosing the name Goldfish - "now the fastest-growing credit card in Britain" - and for its work with Channel 5.

Mr Hamilton, then, is happy to play the long game and stick to his belief that, in time, his judgement will be vindicated. But how far away that day seems at the moment for Diageo, derived from the Latin word for "day" and the Greek word for "world" with the message, Guinness and GrandMet say, that "every day, all around the world, millions of people enjoy our brands". For critics, it stands for something more like: every day millions of people ask, what on earth does Diageo mean?

To which Mr Hamilton can say: "Orange? What's Orange? Goldfish? What's Goldfish? Over time the story unfolds." So flick back to the start of the story when a company called Microtel asked Wolff Olins to help build consumer awareness of what was then the fifth mobile phone network in the UK. Microtel had one huge advantage; it billed users for the exact call time rather than rounding the charge up to the nearest minute, like its competitors. "It was the same as being in a pub and paying full whack for two-thirds of a pint," says Mr Hamilton.

Wolff Olins played to this by giving the company the attributes of honesty, innocence and optimism. "When the market is crowded, you have to think of ways of describing not just what the company does but the way it does it," says Mr Hamilton. "We took the view with Orange that it had to be future-proof, so we'll come to this as if we were children, seeing things optimistically." So was born the bright orange logo, the name and the slogan, "The future's bright, the future's Orange".

The same brand of ingenious - some might say bizarre - logic was applied in the christening of Goldfish, a credit card that British Gas was pitching at average income earners and so did not want to be viewed as elitist. By some deft lateral thinking, the Wolff Olins creative team defined the card's key qualities as "classless", "inexpensive" and "domestic" and came up with a fish.

Both Orange and Goldfish were viewed as obscure titles at the time, but it soon became clear that this didn't matter. The ad agencies had enough raw material on the companies' philosophies to devise memorable TV campaigns - the Orange ads that harnessed children's voices and bright splashes of colour, and the surreal though humorous ads for Goldfish featuring the comedian Billy Connolly. In both instances, you suspect that whether or not they made literal sense was of little concern to the buyers of the products; they stood out from the crowd and had the right connotations of warmth and friendliness.

In any case, the impression on consumers is only half the story for corporate identity consultancies. The other half is how the company comes to view itself. When British Telecom hired Wolff Olins at the start of the 1990s it had two concerns: first, it wanted to be seen as a global and not just a domestic player; second, it had to shake off its image as, in Mr Hamilton's words, "Britain's most loathed institution" - a communications company that couldn't communicate.

The result of the rebranding exercise was the much-criticised "BT" acronym and the ridiculed "pied piper" logo, a symbol designed to cross language barriers and portray the company as more in touch with customers. However, according to the consultancy, it had told British Telecom that the bold new image could not be an end in itself, but had to be a catalyst for change in the way services were delivered. Rather than being bureaucratic and slow- the popular perception at the time - BT's management and staff had to show they were genuinely responsive to customer needs.

The philosophy took root, inspiring ads like "It's good to talk" and "It's you we answer to" which received as much acclaim as the rebranding had been criticised. While these campaigns have sometimes been a stick to beat the company with when its standards of service have fallen, it is also fair to say that consumer perceptions have changed: BT may not be universally loved, but it is no longer the big bad wolf.

Wolff Olins has other triumphs. For instance, there was its work with First Direct - "the fourth telephone banking network in the UK but people think of it as the first," says Mr Hamilton - and Channel 5, where the "Give me 5" slogan and bold colour bars brought massive market awareness.

But past successes were no buffer against the "pony-tail" taunts that greeted the new name for Guinness/GrandMet. Diageo was a slightly unusual assignment for Wolff Olins in that the two companies are essentially just stock market vehicles for a range of celebrated names, including Burger King and the black stuff itself. Had the brands themselves been affected by the rechristening we could have looked forward to people ordering pints of day-glo and diggle burgers. Seeing as only the company name is changing, what's in a title if consumers won't notice the difference?

Not much, say the critics, who argue that Guinness and GrandMet have wasted money (pounds 250,000, reportedly) on an obscure name that will only cause confusion. Mr Hamilton counters by claiming that staff at Guinness and GrandMet will be motivated by the clearly expressed idea of world coverage, and he has support for this line in the City. "It is very important that the new identity communicates a new vision to the employees," says a drinks industry analyst. "Diageo may work in giving staff a sense of the enormous number of people who buy their products."

This is a debatable point - communicative managers are probably more significant in terms of motivation - but there are other relevant interest groups, including investors. "The name itself is of relatively minor importance," says the drinks analyst, "but it's important that the stock market knows this is a new ship with new ideas." Guinness, he explains, is still remembered for the Distillers scandal, while GrandMet is misunderstood by some investors because it moved out of hotels - 90 per cent of its business at one point - and into food and drink. As long as the company can deliver on the implicit philosophy behind Diageo, he believes the new title will prove its worth.

The remaining question is whether consultancies like Wolff Olins are worth the money. Exercises like the Diageo assignment and the pounds 60m British Airways facelift - the work of design firm Newell and Sorrell - have led to speculation that anyone could come up with this stuff, so why pay "experts"?

But Mr Hamilton points to Orange - "it floated at pounds 2bn and a lot of that value was in the brand name" - and tells people to wait and see. "What we do is to tell big, true, beautiful stories," he says. Will we be able to put Diageo down?