A letter from Michael Wolff

On creating brands and cultivating desire

Dear Reader,

I’m a fortunate man. I’m lucky to have this opportunity to write to you personally and if you read this letter I hope that you’ll find some thoughts or inspiration in it that you can use yourself.

I’ve now worked as a design advisor and creative director for companies and organisations around the world for many years. Some of these companies consist of hundreds of thousands of people and some, just a handful. Except for the time it takes, the size makes little difference. The principles remain the same. I’ve also been able to collaborate with a wide range of brilliant designers some of whom I now count as my closest friends. That’s true for some of my clients too. These friendships are one among the many reasons I feel so fortunate.

As you might expect I’ve drawn a few conclusions that have enabled me to develop and sharpen the value of what I bring to my clients. One of these is what I want to share with you in this letter.

Before I do, why do I write these letters to you? Of course it’s partly because the Editor of this magazine has invited me to write them, but mostly it’s because I feel that I write to each individual reader and that each one of you reads this letter differently. So I’m writing as many letters as there are readers and I write them because I hope, that by sharing my experiences, I can be useful to you.

The conclusion I want to share with you is that few clients grasp that my work for them is ultimately about sending out enticing invitations. These are invitations (like grains of sand) to the people who buy, work and invest in those companies and organisations, so that their brands can be created and developed (like pearls).

Many people still think that it’s companies and designers that create brands. It isn’t. Brands are created by customers from their experiences of the variety of invitations including those that designers and their clients create together. In this sense I see products and services as invitations and just like this letter each person internalizes these invitations personally.

Brands are a response to a look, a feel and behaviours (invitations). These invitations enable what we now call brands to form in the mind. Brands are built from moments of experience and how these are judged. That judgment is a comparative one with an idea that’s often already in the mind—in other words do these moments exceed or fail to match an expectation.

For me the point of these invitations is less about selling and more about creating desire. Creating desire is more practical and far more fun. Desire is achieved by awakening curiosity, then bringing people the pleasure of anticipation and finally enabling them to take the decision to buy. This sequence is achieved by sharing countless moments of coherent and consistent meaning with people to create empathy, respect, satisfaction and delight. More or less in the same way that human beings make relationships with each other.

I’m not brought in just to assemble and lead the best creative teams, nor am I just there to inspire and co-ordinate coherent and attractive self-expression for my clients. I’m fundamentally there to support my clients to create, agree and sustain a context in which all the brilliant work created on their behalf, is also re-created in the thoughts and feelings of those with whom they communicate.

My work implicitly includes my client’s vision and purpose, and their intention and commitment to embody and express these in what they bring to the world.

Apple, Amazon, Coca-Cola, Google, Harvard, Ikea, Jaguar, Ralph Lauren, Gap and many other leading companies may not know that people create their brands for themselves, they may still think that they and their designers are responsible. But they’re only responsible for the quality of the invitations they send and the consequent and palpable desire these invitations engender people to enjoy, just as these confident organisations clearly enjoy being themselves.

Few of my clients even aspire to this level of enjoyment when I start working with them. I feel that I’ve failed if I don’t manage to establish that mutuality and shared enthusiasm between my clients and their customers. I see it as my job to ensure that this happens. Sometimes my clients don’t realise how great their potential as brands actually is, or how substantial their brand’s financial value could be and as a consequence they fail to fund and manage brand-building effectively.

Few companies and organisations appreciate that provoking desire is about using every conceivable medium, from the qualities of their products and services through to all the subtleties of details that these embody. Few appreciate that all the accompanying communications that support these products and services down to the nuances of every single detail of style, language and behaviour matter.

Everything communicates something to someone and the more coherent and consistent these ‘multi-media’ invitations are, the more convincingly they will perform to stimulate brand building.

If clients don’t like or love their own products and services they shouldn’t expect their customers to either. Equally, if they don’t treat their own people with respect and affection, then their people are less likely to give their customers respect and affection.

Today, communicating by ‘broadcasting’ and hoping for results is insufficient. As I’ve said, it’s not about selling; it’s about being desired and bought. In my view what’s required is being in the shoes of those we invite—customers, those who buy and create brands. Today clients need to re-create their customers’ feelings and thoughts as if they were actually those customers. Paying for research, as a kind of proxy for this experience, is no longer adequate.

This sensitivity to others is the key to effective brand-building. It can’t be done mechanically, or by some arcane methods of enquiry, it has to become an intuitive kind of second nature in which the frontiers between a producing company, their designers and the customers dissolves.

What makes building brands much harder is that when people see brave new concepts, they often don’t know whether they like them or not without someone else confirming their opinion. That’s the kind of word of mouth with which popularity is generated. The gossip of approval.

I’m surprised how little we designers understand about, or even study, the nature of liking. I feel we often work in agreement systems in which we feel safe about what we like. Some people like what their parents liked and some others can’t stand it. What counts is what people want to have in their lives and for us to understand why.

Turning back to how I work, it’s my good fortune that often my collaborators are among the best writers, art directors, designers and coaches in the world. Each one excels and it’s my job, as the conductor, to ensure that they do.

I’m responsible to my clients that the resulting music is what the audience will enjoy and will want to ‘listen to’ again and again and again, each time experiencing greater and greater pleasure as they become aware of the enjoyment in more of the details when these become familiar. That’s the way that brands get built. It’s like hearing new music for the first time and then, as it becomes more familiar and you like it, finding yourself humming it.

The challenge I have and the value I aspire to bring is creating the whole from the parts. Usually a piccolo player isn’t a French horn player or a violinist a trombonist, but I know if each one enjoys and knows the music then the mutual respect all the players have for the music combines with their desire to embrace the audience in what makes a memorable concert.

The same is true for a successful brand. Store designers understand stores, graphic designers understand graphics, digital designers understand the digital world and advertising people understand advertising. These different realms are independent and interdependent but few can pull them all together successfully. If you haven’t heard Itay Talgam’s exceptional TED talk on conductors and how people who lead companies can lead them like great conductors I strongly recommend you check out the video.

What I set out to do for my clients is to ensure that all the instruments are harmoniously playing the same music.

I charge for my time, but time is really a metaphor. My work really exists, like a brand itself, in moments of inspiration, moments of improvement, moments of discovery, moments of satisfaction, moments of practical advances and practical solutions, moments when a whole variety of disparate communications coalesce into coherence and sometimes moments of unforeseeable breakthroughs for the brands I work with.

My definition of design is an all embracing one. It’s like looking through a multi-sensory zoom lens, and that’s usually beyond the scope of any individual designer or design company.

My definition is this: Design starts with a vision. A picture of an imagined future of whatever it is.

Then it becomes the process of bringing that vision to life and all that this implies, basically manufacturing things or designing a service of some sort.

Finally it’s an embodiment of the idea.

A delightful park, a new kind of toothbrush, a beautiful wheelchair, a clear set of instructions, a multilingual physical and digital way finding system for a city, a new electric engine, a perfect artificial limb, a simple driving license, an effective poster, an inspiring book, a compelling computer game or anything you can imagine.

The results that all good design should achieve are improvements, progress, quantum leaps and ultimately happiness. Not forgetting rewards for the organisation, company or individual involved, and hopefully all of us, including you.

Time to make my dinner now. Grilling a freshly caught sea bass and tossing a sparkling salad.

With my best wishes for your tomorrow and, as ever your future,



Recognised as one of the world’s most experienced practitioners in establishing corporate identities, Michael’s body of work has spanned more than 30 years. He enjoys encountering situations where he doesn’t know what to do or think. That’s when he needs, and so far, can count on, his creativity. Most of all, he enjoys old friends and new ideas.

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