Vision, compromise and change in the first edition of the Corporate Identity Manual
The NBC Corporate Identity developed from a series of discussions between incoming NBC chair Freddie Wood, and leading graphic designer Norman Wilson. Wood had been chief executive of Croda International, and had employed Wilson for many years to modernise the company’s image, undertaking a comprehensive rebranding in a clean, modern style, encompassing the Croda’s symbol, marketing, packaging and vehicles. Wood was impressed with Wilson, and the two got on well.
Wood had spent part of his early 20s in the United States, and the American way of doing business fascinated him. He was particularly struck by the extensive network of silver Greyhound coaches which he had used to criss-cross the US during his stay, offering a consistent reliable service and strong uniform branding. So when Wood was asked by the newly-elected Heath government in 1971 to take the role of chair of the relatively new National Bus Company, with the objective of making it a more commercial organisation, he was immediately struck by two thoughts. First, the Greyhound proposition of a uniform national coach network. And second, the need to ask for Wilson’s design advice in shifting the image of the long-distance coach, and the wider industry.
Wilson was actually brought on board by Wood in 1971, before his chairmanship had been formally agreed. It was in this period that Wilson had the epiphany of the ‘N-and-shadow’ arrow symbol. Once appointed, Wood wasted no time in formalising the appointment of Norman Wilson as corporate design adviser to the NBC Board. There was a formal pitch to the Board early in 1972 using design boards explaining the National symbol, graphics and the white coach in preliminary version of the corporate identity. These will form the basis of a section in the NBC Corporate Identity book. It is not clear whether other design businesses were invited to bid – but Wilson’s appointment was announced to the business and its operating companies in a letter from the company secretary to the General Managers of the local subsidiaries in February 1972, stating simply that NBC was appointing a design consultant “to advise on all matters relating to a corporate identity for the NBC Organisation” – and cautioning against overstocking on existing designs of stationery which might soon become redundant.
A public announcement was made in May 1972, with that month’s Design Journal reporting that “Norman Wilson, Manchester based design consultants, have been retained by the National Bus Company to design a visual identity programme for vehicles, signing, stationery and related graphics.”
After being persuaded that – because of production techniques and climate – a silver coach in the style of Greyhound would not last well in Britain, Wilson and Wood wanted the coaches to be purely white, with the National branding of the NBC symbol and the NATIONAL logotype in red and blue. Operating companies were to be solely suppliers to NBC’s Central Activities Group, which took responsibility for the National coach network. Local company identities were not to appear on the white coaches at all, except in the tiny mandatory ‘legal lettering’ identifying the owner at the bottom of the bodyside There was a degree of scepticism, and even push-back against the idea of a uniform corporate identity, particularly from operating companies whose local liveries in some cases could be traced back to the start of motor coaches at the beginning of the 20th century.
Wood was resolute in his determination to apply a uniform white livery. He had been dissuaded from adopting a silver livery, US-style, on the grounds that that bodysides would corrode. When operators next objected to all-over white on the grounds that they would show dirt, Wilson retorted, in characteristically blunt fashion, that “they’ll just have to wash them more often then, won’t they?”
With the overall colour beyond doubt, the use of local fleetnames became the next area of controversy and compromise. The first trial application of the NBC white livery, on an Eastern Counties coach at the Eastern Coach Works in Lowestoft, had omitted the local company’s fleetname, showing only the National brand. General Managers of NBC’s operating subsidiaries were horrified, complaining that their local identities and pride in the service would be lost, and that coach users would be confused by multiple identical-looking coaches and would find it harder to locate their service.
Wood and Wilson relented, marginally, in response to the latter argument and a compromise was attempted. First, a local fleetname was applied as a trial to the Eastern Counties coach used in the initial trial application of the identity, using Wilson’s bespoke National lettering, but at a height barely larger than the legal lettering and in a very light grey. It was almost invisible, and the General Managers were not placated.
Wilson therefore adopted a different, more visible approach for the initial roll-out of the Corporate Identity. Local company fleetnames were applied on National coaches above the wheel arch, set in Wilson’s new National lettering, at the slightly larger letter height and in a more legible dark grey. They were further emphasised by a bold underlining, the line being the same height as the letters giving an overall height of 3½ inches, in the colour adopted by the local company for its buses. This was codified in the first edition of the Corporate Identity Manual of May 1972.
So Eastern Counties and United coaches had a small fleetname underlined in their corporate red; as did Standerwick, a coach-only business which adopted the bus colour of its parent company Ribble. Crossville, Southdown and Eastern National coaches meanwhile appeared with fleetnames underlined in green. Other non-bus coaching businesses were given latitude, so even though their historic colours were eliminated, Royal Blue used a blue line on their National coaches, while Black and White used black.
The result was a bit more colour and variation of appearance than Wilson had intended, and served to differentiate the coaches to some degree. It did not however last long. The small fleetnames and coloured bands were considered both untidy, and were too small to serve the purpose of making vehicles identifiable to customers. Wilson developed and implemented a tidier approach, more consistent with the uniform look he and Wood aimed for, while also going some way to placate the General Managers. From November 1972 a revised livery was adopted, overruling the instructions in the first Corporate Identity Manual issued in May, just a few months earlier. Regardless of the company colour, local operating company names were now to appear in National-red letters 3⁵/₈ inches tall without incorporating a coloured band, displayed more prominently between the wheel arch and the windows. A letter of 9 November 1972 to General Managers from Ron Whitehouse, NBC’s Group Public Relations Officer, formalised the change of approach: “a revision to the specification regarding the size of company name. The name of the operating company should appear over the front wheels in corporate style lettering 3⁵/₈ inches high in National red.”.
This gave much more prominence to the local businesses, but in a style which fitted more consistently with the overall uniformity of the National ‘white coach’. It was this look, rolled out widely through 1973, that was to become the standard for the next two decades, and which was reflected in the 1976 second edition of the NBC Corporate Identity Manual.
At the start of 1972, in the early development of the Corporate Identity, Wood and Wilson focussed largely on the design and implementation of the white coach as the iconic representation of NBC on the roads, and the most urgent commercial challenge to address. Thoughts turned only later in the year to the application of the identity and roll-out to local buses and mixed-use coaches. In the next Corporate Identity Blog, we will look at the early implementation of the Corporate Identity to local buses, how this was described in the first Manual, teething troubles and oddities in the early roll-out.
Photographs from the Bernard Watkin collection appear by kind permission of the Eastern Transport Collection Society. Many thanks to The Bus Archive for access to NBC records and correspondence. This article draws on conversations with Jean Horsfall, John Oldfield and Anthony Dawson – to whom many thanks.
Did you experience the early years of the NBC Corporate Identity? Please post any comments or suggestions using the box below.