The Good, the Bland, and the Ugly: Branding Stalwart Robert Jones Shares His View On Brands Today, and Hopes For Tomorrow


8 Mar 2024

Emma Pendleton

16 minutes


Robert Jones dismisses the notion that branding is exclusively a realm of the marketing department. “Marketing is a subset of branding,” he asserts. Beyond the communications, a brand is truly built by every department of a business that a customer interacts with, from customer service, to product design.

Robert Jones, Founder of Brandland and brand strategy expert, joined Borne head of strategy Chris Bosher in a conversation delving into Robert’s impressive 30-year career, from his early days as a brand strategist with Wolff Olins  – where he helped over 70 organisations build their brands, including Barclays, Oxfam, PwC, National Trust, Tate and Tesco – to his current role as the founder of Brandland, and as Professor of Brand Leadership at the University of East Anglia.

Here, Robert shares reflections on the language we use around branding, its role within a business (outside of the ‘colouring in department’) and his no holds barred appraisal of the current landscape.

Moreover, he posits a compelling vision for the future, suggesting that while it may not unfold drastically differently, branding will endure as a timeless cornerstone of society. 


When you think of your time at Wolff Olins, is there anything that you are particularly proud of, a pinnacle client or project?


I think it would probably be the National Trust, the conservation charity, partly because I was already a big fan of the National Trust. It was a dream client to get. But also because I think the work we did was good and it’s really stood the test of time. This was probably 12, 13 years ago, but when you go around National Trust places now, they just do it so well. Not just the graphics, the visual identity, but the tone of voice. All of those things are done so brilliantly and so consistently and so coherently. 

Only last week somebody from National Trust got in touch and said they’d just done a sonic identity. It’s so great when you see a client taking something that you started and making it much better and they’ve [animated] that oak to grow from a little branch up into its full form. So something that was quite a nice logo but always looked a bit dead is now living. For me, it’s a little bit like why I enjoy teaching. It’s not so much what you do, it’s what you enable other people to do and where they can take it.


You were one of the first people to talk about ‘The Big Idea’ – you’ve even written a book about this – but what are they, and why do you think are they are so important?


That came from a notion of the central idea and how interesting that was, and how most of us don’t realise that ideas play a role in business in that way. 

I interviewed lots of CEOs about what their organisation’s ‘big idea’ was, and where it came from. It was amazing how people were prepared to do that. I got to interview lots of big business names: the weirdest was Ingvar Kamprad, who is the founder of Ikea, who said he would do an interview but only if we conducted it by fax machine.

And the woman who founded Go, Barbara Cassani, talked to me about how increasingly consumers would want not just value for money but values for money. And she was totally right about that, quite farsighted. 

I also interviewed John Browne who at that point ran BP and he was talking about how the branding work that he was involved in for BP was aimed much more at employees and future employees than it was at consumers. They don’t have a problem selling petrol, they have a problem attracting the best talents because people don’t want to go and work for what’s seen as a bad oil company. He talked about people increasingly needing a sense of purpose beyond profit. So those are the two foundations of the book: values for money for consumers and purpose for nonprofit, for employees.


In your experience, it sounds like an obvious question, but why is that so important for an organisation?


To have an idea? Because every organisation is complicated. Even an organisation of two people is complicated and full of conflict. So a big organisation is massively full of these things and probably 70 or 80% of its activity is wasted, disappears, unless there is some kind of guiding thought that people get. 

And ideally it’s a guiding thought that isn’t here really [in the head], but it’s felt here [the heart] that helps people know what to do and what not to do. The big idea was actually only ever a working title for the book that stuck but, in reality, it’s not necessarily an idea – it’s more a spirit, and it might not even be written down in words (in the best cases). It’s not a purpose statement. It’s spirit, it guides people. Ikea is a great example. The big idea in Ikea is written down, which is, ‘A better everyday life for the many people.’ It’s in Swedish English. And that is so clear and a big idea that anybody, even if you are thinking about how to design a room set, can think about.


It feels that you’ve gone from childhood fascination with logos to understanding that a logo can have an idea to understanding that idea actually can govern an organisation. One of the things that I love that you talk about is that brand is a form of leadership, not a subset of marketing. That feels like quite a big journey from: a logo, to a logo with meaning, to a governance of an organisation. Was that something that had built through your career? Did you have your spark of inspiration moment? 


I don’t think there was a spark of inspiration moment. I think your ideas clarify themselves when you have to write something. Doing that book, they clarified themselves – the same when you have to teach something. I think writing the book and creating the course, a big part of the philosophy is exactly what you said: most people think that branding is a subset of marketing. We really firmly believe that marketing is a subset of branding. 

Branding affects the whole organisation. The brand team in the marketing department is really only doing the communications part of branding, and the rest of the organisation is doing everything else, which matters more in building a brand. What builds the Ikea brand isn’t the logo. The advertising plays a role, but it’s the experience that you get as a customer. And so it really isn’t a subset of marketing.


“The fundamentals of branding go back to what it is to be a human being, that there are objects around us we want to make more valuable by giving them extra meaning.”

Robert Jones Founder, Brandland


What else have you learned about the work that you do and the idea and the role of brand since leaving the London agency, and the large corporate environment?


I think it’s only once you’ve left it that you can see it for what it really is. Although I had a fantastic time, I think we didn’t really use the term ‘brand strategy’ correctly. It was just positioning, ‘What’s the story?’ 

It’s not the connection between the story and the business. That’s what brand strategy should be: the investment case for brand, and what we are going to invest in and what we’re not going to invest in. 

I can see more clearly now that this is also why probably the big idea shouldn’t really have been called the big idea: that branding is not fundamentally an intellectual activity, and more focus is quite an intellectual place. 

I think also there’s maybe be another thing about being out of the hurly burly of London that lots of things about branding don’t really change that much, perhaps particularly a London thing, but it’s also agency consultancy thing of pretending that everything is changing so rapidly that you’ve got to have constant thought leadership and constant stuff on LinkedIn in order to even keep up. I don’t think reality is like that. It doesn’t change that fast.


That’s interesting, if you believed your LinkedIn feeds then you’d think that way. And there are certainly things that we are talking about now that we weren’t talking about a year ago, but I’m interested then, what are the things that you think about brand that are fundamental that won’t change, however much the world around them does?


The world has always changed really quickly and I think the world changed probably faster in the 1870s, 1880s when things like telephones, for example, electricity, those things came in. I do think AI probably is quite a big thing because chatGPT made it so mainstream, so quickly – but AI has also been around for a while. I watched 2001 A Space Odyssey last week and that tells you everything about artificial intelligence, and it was made in 1968.

I think the fundamentals of branding go back to what it is to be a human being, that there are objects around us we want to make more valuable by giving them extra meaning – and that’s what branding does. It takes ordinary objects, themes, products, companies and makes them enchanted. And although it is true that product branding as we know it, I’m pretty sure this is true, was invented in Norwich by Jeremiah James Colman in the 1850s. The activity of creating symbols and meanings around ordinary products goes back way before that: the mediaeval merchants who made their marks.

But before that, the Roman Empire that wrote SPQR everywhere that it went, that was their strapline, really. And then before that ancient Egypt where there are iron things that they branded cattle with marks to say, this is my animal. And then before that, maybe 4,000 years ago, there are still seals that were made to seal products with a symbol – a bit of logo. It’s just a natural human activity, I think. 

So we will always carry on in different forms. The technologies by which it’s created and communicated change but this essence of almost magically adding these to things is just very human. 


Do you have a perspective on what the opportunity for regional brands is versus some of the Goliaths that you’ve worked with over the last 13 years?


I think there’s an opportunity for regional brands to be more real. They probably don’t have to reach such a broad audience, so they can be more themselves. I think often smaller brands are family owned or quasi-family owned and maybe therefore are able to take a longer term view of their business rather than thinking about next quarter’s results all the time. 

All of these things are good for brand building. I think that long-term view and being grounded in the place that you come from, this is all great stuff for building a good brand. Do the smaller and medium-sized businesses of Britain really capitalise on that enough? No, I don’t think they do. That’s something for us all to work through because if everybody did then that would be fantastic for the economy because so much of the economy is smaller businesses.


Most, indeed. So my ultimate question is, looking back over your career and the change in thinking and this movement from design into meaning and ideas and leadership, how would you characterise the state of branding in 2024? How do you feel about it as an industry, as a practice now?


There’s an awful lot of really bland and uninteresting design around at the moment. And I think underneath that, either a not very interesting central idea or no idea at all. 

There’s some fantastic stuff, as well, that really does what branding is meant to do. I think the transformation of ITV hub into ITVX, for example, brought some energy to the whole ITV brand. That’s a very good bit of branding.

I think it’s very sensible that Burberry has rediscovered its original horse and all that imagery has been brought back. So there is some good stuff going on, but there’s a lot of the new Johnson and Johnson. So lacking in character. 

I think we talk about the background personality, but I think really what we’re interested in is character, meaning where’s the integrity here, really? The thing at the moment of course is Golden Syrup, and I know there are mixed views on this, but I think the new golden design is really bland, actually, and designed to upset nobody but not really just stand out. It doesn’t bring anything to the world. So there is good stuff going on, but for all sorts of reasons, there’s a lot of caution and conservatism among clients, which leads to a lot of bland work.



Despite the fact it’s never been more important to be able to stand out or stand for something…


Yet so many organisations are rebranding in a way where they emerge looking exactly the same as most of their competitors. Why does this happen? Because there is this, ‘that looks familiar, therefore I feel comfortable’, therefore this is what we should do – which is absolutely the opposite of doing something different.


If you were going to give someone advice at the beginning of their career or indeed advice to anyone who is involved in designing a brand or making a brand or managing a brand, what would it be?


I think it would be to just push a little bit further. Don’t stick with the comfortable, familiar, safe thing, but always push a little bit and then you create something that will last. One of the things that we used to say, and I still say to my clients is: the zone of comfort and the zone of opportunity are never the same thing. So always try to move towards that zone of opportunity, doing something new and exciting, which may not feel comfortable.