The following case history covers the 1960s revitalization of the Canadian National Railways (CN) corporate image. It was delivered by Charles Harris, Director of Public Relations, CN.

Case History Subject:
Revitalization of a Corporate Image

Name of Company:
Canadian National Railways

General Considerations

Canadian National is a public utility whose activities, in one way or another, touch regularly the day-to-day lives of most Canadians. In addition to the movement of people and products by rail, it operates trucking lines, a coast-to coast chain of hotels, an extensive telecommunications network, a fleet of coastal ships, and a variety of related services in such fields as industrial location, customer research, physical distribution, real estate and urban renewal. Through its wholly owned United States subsidiaries, notably the Grand Trunk Western Railroad and the Central Vermont Railway, CN’s operations reach into twelve of the American states, and it maintains sales offices in Europe and the Far East as well as in Canada and the United States.

It is also a company which for the past 15 years or so has been going through a period of rapid and substantial change, embracing new technology, new facilities, new marketing techniques and a whole new organizational structure.

By 1959, when this process had been underway for almost a decade, virtually the only thing about the company which seemed unaffected by change was its reputation. In April of that year, Canadian National received the results of a comprehensive public attitude study based on field interviews with 4,000 adult Canadians. This survey indicated that the public had a rather poor impression of CN and of the railway industry in general. Specifically, railways were regarded as being rather old-fashioned, slow to experiment with new ways of doing things and relatively unconcerned about improving their services to the public.

This study clearly showed that Canadian National was getting little public credit for its extensive modernization program. Many millions of dollars had been spent on the changeover from steam to diesel motive power, on the construction of new electronic classification yards, centralized traffic control, integrated data processing, new training programs, improved facilities for employees and a variety of advanced telecommunications hardware. All of these innovations had been described in speeches, press releases, the annual report, films and other publicity media. Why then did the public still persist in looking upon the railway as unprogressive?

The company’s public relations department decided that a large part of the answer could be summed up in the adage, “Seeing is believing.” Canadian National had done a great deal to improve its pant, but most of the improvements were behind the scenes, largely hidden from public view. Little or nothing had been done to improve the package in which the product was being sold. In its outward appearances – offices, equipment, signs, uniforms and graphics – the railway presented a drab Victorian façade, composed of countless unrelated and uncoordinated designs.

What Canadian National needed was a fresh modern package to suit and do justice to its product. As a start, the Public Relations department sought and received authorization from the president to explore the practical alternatives that were open to the company and to develop specific proposals for a program of corporate redesign.

Courses that were Open

The first step, it seemed obvious, was to develop a new company trademark. But was a new symbol enough in itself to provide the basis for an effective corporate identity program, or was a more comprehensive plan called for?

Should the transition from the old symbol to the new one be quick or gradual? Should there be an abrupt break with the past, or in the interest of continuity should certain traditional elements continue for a while to be reflected in the new forms?

Associated with this was the question of whether Canadian National should discard the maple leaf it had used to long as an essential feature of its corporate symbol.

Evaluation of Advantages and Disadvantages

There was little difficulty in deciding that what Canadian National needed was a comprehensive design program embracing every aspect of the face the company presented to the public. The objective was to develop a unified design approach aimed at giving CN a distinctive, easily recognizable identity and making it stand-out in an increasingly complex and competitive business environment.

In setting the terms of reference for a new corporate symbol, the essential starting point for the program, the public relations department realized that abandoning the maple leaf would offend some of the more traditionally-minded “patriots” both in and outside the company. To eliminate it would also mean discarding an established mark in which the company had built up a consideration advertising investment over the years.

On balance, however, the arguments against retaining the maple leaf appeared to outweigh those in its favor:

  • The chances of building a truly unique corporate symbol around the maple leaf were slim, considering the large number of other organizations in Canada already using it in their own trademarks.
  • Natural forms such as the maple leaf were judged to be out of keeping with the mechanized character of a contemporary transportation company.
  • In any case the leaf insignia was associated with the “old” CNR.

Course of Action Determined

For these reasons, and taking into account the sort of image problem it faced, Canadian National ruled out the idea of a gradual transition and decided upon a bold and abrupt break with the past.

Personnel Involved

Following discussions with several design firms, the Public Relations department engages James Valkus Inc. of New York as a consultant to help CN organize a broad program of visual redesign, including a new corporate symbol. The task of creating the symbol itself was assigned to one of Canada’s outstanding graphic designers, Allan Fleming of Toronto.

The design team was given six months to prepare its proposals, working under the direction of the public relations department. Other interested departments were invited to participate in the planning and lend expert advice on the practical aspects of the projected new design applications.

When the proposal was ready – it was now December 1959 and the development work had taken precisely six months – CN’s director of public relations, Charles Harris, worked with Valkus and Fleming to produce a 75-minute slide presentation, outlining in color and sound (tape-recorded quotations and effects were introduced at several appoints) current public attitudes towards railways in general and CN in particular, typical examples of existing railway décor, the importance of good design in building a favorable corporate image as reflected in what certain other companies had been able to accomplish, and finally, the proposed new symbol for Canadian National, shows as it would appear on a broad variety of railway applications, along with related new designs for color schemes, signs, uniforms, office interiors and other items.

The slide presentation, backed up with scale models of trains, stations, trucks and other pieces of company property painted in the proposed new color schemes, was shown first to a small but influential audience consisting of the president and the executive vice-president. They liked what they saw. A few days later, the president called together all headquarters vice-presidents and heads of departments, and the presentation was repeated for this larger group. While some reservations were expressed about the wisdom of such a sweeping series of changes in the company’s “look”, the consensus was strongly favorable.

A few weeks later, early in 1960, the director of public relations presented the redesign proposals to the company’s board of directors. The directors were unanimous and enthusiastic in their approval of the program.

Then began the painstaking task of transforming the designs from a set of attractive and imaginative concepts into practical and economical realities. Valkus was again retained as the company’s design consultant for the project’s implementation phase, on a contract renewable annually. A new senior position was established in the public relations department, carrying the title Supervisor of Visual Redesign, to provide for close and continuing liaison between the consultant designers and the various CN personnel involved in carrying out the program. This position was occupied by Robert Ayre until his retirement in 1963, when he was succeeded by the present incumbent, Lorne Perry. A full-time assistant rounds out the PR design staff, although members of other sections of the department (art, photographic production) and of other departments (such as the Chief Architect’s) also contribute materially from time to time.

Initially, the choice of Valkus as design consultant threatened for a while to become something of a PR problem in itself. It was suggested at the time by some critics that the selection of an American demonstrated a lack of confidence by CN in the talents and abilities of Canadian designers.

Looking back at the situation, Charles Harris explains:

“What we were looking for initially was someone who had been directly associated with a comprehensive program, the scope of which would extend far beyond just development a new trademark, important as that particular aspect of the program was. It should be noted that this was undoubtedly the biggest redesign project any company in Canada had ever undertaken, and probably one of the biggest in North America. We were simply unaware of any Canadian designer with the sort of broad experience were looking for.

Jim Valkus appealed to us for two reasons. First he had a very good background of training and experience. A graduate of the Pratt Institute, he had worked for both Raymond Lowey and for George Nelson and Company before setting up his own design firm. He had been associated with a number of large corporate design projects for such companies as General Foods and the Aluminium Company of America, among others. Secondly, he was young, flexible in his approach and quite willing to agree that as a condition to entering into a contract with Canadian National he would undertake to set up an office in Montreal and give preference to Canadian designers in choosing people to carry out Canadian National’s program. Most of the work has in fact been done, and is being done, in Canada by Canadian designers. The line of least resistance would have been to pub the whole program in the hands of one of the big American design firms and let them use their existing staffs to handle the work.”

Implementation of the Program

The basic point of departure was the symbol itself. During the early discussion phase of the project, Canadian National had asked the designers to create a symbol that would be expressive of the company as a whole, that would emphasize that Canadian National, in addition to being a railway, was many more things as well. A symbol that would readily lend itself to the needs of all of the company’s major divisions – rail, hotels, transport, telecommunications, marine, etc.

This, along with the need for a bilingual mark, led to the conclusion that the symbol should be built around, or incorporate, the letters CN rather than CNR. The R, in addition to limiting the uses to which the trademark could be put, had meaning only in English.

The result was the now familiar symbol which spells out CN in one simple flowing line. Tests conducted in several Canadian cities showed that it was remarkably legible, intelligible and memorable. It worked well in any size, and remained legible even when distorted by corrugated surfaces or when viewed from behind. And it symbolized the one thing common to all of CN’s principal activities: motion – the movement of men, materials and messages from one place to another.

Other elements in the massive face-lifting operation were to include standardized type styles, the systematic application of bright primary colours, careful attention to form and format; in short, a concern for the excellence in design of everything that was to come before the public eye.

It was agreed at the outset that the new designs should be functional. First of all, they had to reflect the uses to which they were to be put, which meant, for example, ruling out such devices as trying to make a train look lie an airplane by painting falcon wings on it. It was also clearly stipulated that pure aesthetics could not be allowed to submerge practical considerations. Should conflicts arise – and between designers and engineers there were bound to be a few arguments – it was understood that the proposed designs should always recognize and meet the practical needs of the situation.

The objective was to produce a handsome, straight-forward, undated look, realizing in the process as many economies and safety factors as possible.

Canadian National, at this stage, was an ideal candidate for a major program of visual redesign. Most of its visible features were as square as the box that enclosed the old maple leaf insignia; its corporate grooming had nowhere to go but up. The company. Had already improved its plant and techniques, but its appearances had not kept pace. In a company with operations as wide-spread as CN’s, there were countless opportunities for new design ideas – its design consultants were confronted with a much greater variety of challenges than would exist in most other companies. And because of the many ways in which Canadian National impinged on the every day life of the Canadian people, the impact of any comprehensive design program was likely to be felt almost immediately.

The task was a formidable one. There was much to be done, and since not all of it could be tackled at once, priorities had to be established. The PR department asked the designers to concentrate first on items or areas where redesign would have the biggest, quickest impact – boxcar exteriors, letterheads, telegram blanks and other high-volume applications.

Meanwhile plans were being worked out for the public unveiling of CN’s new corporate symbol and related designs. It was decided that details of the program should be disclosed first to the company’s own employees and then released to the general public a day or two later. To this end a lengthy photo story was prepared for the December 1960 issue of the employee magazines, Keeping Track and Au Fil du Rail.

But by November it was becoming increasingly difficult to keep the lid on the story. About three weeks before the publication date of the magazine, the Director of Public Relations received an urgent phone call from the Chief of Motive Power and Car Equipment. The latter explained that some 400 boxcars were almost ready to roll off the assembly line and that the manufacturer was asking for instructions as to how they should be painted. The cars were due to go into circulation as soon as the paint was dry.

To apply the newly approved boxcar design to this equipment order would mean that the new symbol would into public view – and perhaps be spotted by a newspaper photographer – in advance of the official announcement. Harris decided to take the risk, rather than have the old insignia applied to several hundred brand new cars.

It wasn’t long before the lid was off. A few days before the internal publications were in the hands of employees, a photograph of one of the new boxcars appeared in a Montreal newspaper. The caption suggested that this was probably the first public glimpse of Canadian National’s new trademark. It was. The press kit that was being held for later distribution was released immediately.

One of the first items to be given attention in the early stages of the program was advertising. Some problems arose here. The advertising agencies and design consultations didn’t always see eye to eye. At first the agency people accused the designers of approaching everything in terms of pure aesthetics. They point out that they – the advertising experts – were trying to do a selling job. The designers in turn were just as insistent that good design in itself was part of the persuasive process and that effective ads didn’t have to look as though they were designed by printers’ apprentices. These conflicts were gradually resolved as ground rules were established and the two groups discovered that they could work together with a reasonable degree of harmony toward a common objective.

This was one of the areas in which the question of continuity during the changeover period provoked serious discussion and some differences in opinion. One of CN’s advertising agencies recommended that during the transition phase the new symbol should be presented with a stylized maple leaf enclosed in the first letter. This idea was rejected in favor of a clean. Break with past practice.

At the same time it was realized that the problem was more acute in terms of American advertisements. Initially and for some time to come, “CN” in isolated wouldn’t mean much in the United States. Finally it was decided to accompany the new symbol with the words Canadian National Railways and to continue using a stylized maple leaf at the bottom of each U.S. ad for some time after it had disappeared from Canadian advertising.

Many aspects of the design program require constant attention and involve a continuing search for fresh and creative approaches. The format of billing forms, letterheads, envelopes, credit cards, hotel and train menus and such documents as the Annual Report must fit in with the overall design and yet be fresh and distinctive.

In other fields the design approach had had to be more durable. In working out exterior color schemes for passenger and freight trains, for example, the objective was to develop, document and distribute to all concerned a consistent design pattern that would be carefully followed for years to come.

The new paint schemes were applied on all rolling stock in accordance with normal maintenance schedules, as the locomotives and cars were shopped for their regular overhauls. New interior schemes for passenger cars have been worked out with the aim of creating a pleasant contemporary atmosphere while keeping the materials practical and durable. The old uniforms of the passenger train crews with their heavy nav-blue material and brass buttons are being replaced with lighter-weight cloth fashionably tailored in charcoal greys, bright blues and reds.

A number of design challenges were encountered in the application of the program to freight trains. Special color and lettering schemes were required for such specialized equipment as tri-level auto transporters, cylindrical covered hoppers, refrigerator cars, container cars, piggyback units and other cars assigned to special services. Each application had to fit into the basic design framework. The same was true of motor vehicles. Whatever the size and shape, whether for freight, express, telecommunications or stores, every vehicle has a standard design and color scheme and the specifications are now laid down in manual form, as they are for rail rolling stock of all types.

A system of standardized illuminated signs, adaptable to a wide variety of surroundings, has resulted in low-prices, easily installed, effective and flexible signs. A detailed signs manual has been distributed to key offices in all regions and areas of the CN system.

Interior design is a specialized field in which CN’s architectural staff acts in co-operation with the corporate design group on many projects. An important part of the visual redesign program has included the cleaning and painting of stations and office locations and the elimination or disguising of dated features in older buildings. Cn has hundreds of stations built in the latter part of the last century or the early part of this one. It would have been prohibitively costly to attempt to replace all of these, but within the framework of the redesign program, simple contemporary paint schemes have been used to play up good architectural features and play down the bad.

What is the total cost of the program? According to Harris, it is much less than some people assume, and substantially less than that of similar programs undertaken on a comparable scale by large U.S. companies:

“Obviously it would have been very expensive to do everything on a crash basis – to repaint all equipment, redesign all form and replace old trademark applications all at one. This has not been our approach.

“Canadian National’s program is geared to normal maintenance schedules. The new designs and colors are applied to freight cars and locomotives only as they come up for repainting in the regular cycles. New telegram forms were not introduced until stocks of the old forms had been almost completely used up. Such items as dinnerware, menu covers and signs have to be replaced, and forms and stationery re-ordered, in the normal course of events. Good design usually costs no more to apply than bad design; often it’s less expensive.

“It is difficult to place a precise price tag on the program, for at least two reason:

  • First, the program covers some activities on which Canadian National has always spent money in the past, e.g. design and art work for the annual report, system timetables, leaflets, calendars, ticket envelopes, menu covers, packing tour kits, matchbook covers, soap wrappers and so on.
  • Secondly, development costs are offset by savings realized through simplification and standardization of designs and color schemes.

In summary the CN’s approach has been:

  1. Comprehensive, touching every major aspect of the company’s operations;
  2. Consistent, both with respect to its own elements and other developments going on within the company. A unified design approach, aimed at establishing a clear, recognizable “identity” is one thing; it was also considered essential that the program be carried out in conjunction with, no in isolation from other major activities and programs in which the company is engaged. For example, running concurrently with the design program have been a series of training programs for employees to improve standards of courtesy and service. Again, the package and its contents must retain a discernible relationship.In the field of graphics, aesthetics have been carefully related to function. As the designers began to review and reshape the hundreds of forms the company was using, it was discovered that some hadn’t been looked at for many years and were in fact no longer needed. Coincident with the redesign of rail tickets, Passenger Service offices launched a program of their own to reduce the total number of forms in use. As a result, 9 basic tickets were produced, replacing more than 250 which were in use before the program began. At the same time, IBM cards were introduced to simplify and speed up ticket accounting.
  3. Continuing, Canadian National has discovered that design isn’t a static thing. If the program were to terminate now, and things allowed to coast for a while, the company would inevitably find itself back at the point of having to undertake a new program within a few years. Canadian National itself keeps changing, and design must keep pace.

Results and Evaluation of Results

Not all of the results lend themselves to precise measurement, but a number of benefits have been quite obvious.

On the financial side, the simplicity of the new designs has produced definite economies in a number of areas. For example, when passenger cards come into the shops for refurbishing, it now costs up to $75.00 per car less to apply the new exterior colors on the first application than it did to repaint them in the old scheme, and there is a saving of up to $100.00 per car on the second application.

Certainly the redesign program has served to draw attention to the company in a dramatic way. Not everyone liked the new symbol when it first appeared, but at least a lot of people talked about it. Some described it as a bent paper clip, a tapeworm rampant, printed radio circuit, tortured snake and so on.

Happily, however, in this case familiarity didn’t breed contempt. Acceptance of the new symbol, and some of the uses to which it began to be put, great steadily from the outset.

The program has won a variety of major international awards for design excellence.

A number of other large companies, both in Canada and the United States, have come to CN for information and advice in the course of developing their own corporate identity programs.

Unquestionably, it was given a lift to morale within the company. Senior union officers from Winnipeg reported that when the first boxcars bearing the big CN symbol rolled west, the effect on employees was visible and immediate. A typical reaction, they said, was the feeling that management wouldn’t have bothered launching this sort of project if they really felt there was no future in the railway business.

Six years later, the program was still attracting editorial comment. On November 4, 1966, Ron Haggart had this to say in the Toronto Daily Star after trying out CN’s new Rapido service between Toronto and Montreal:

“The Rapido is proof that the railways still have travel to sell and can merchandise it into convenience, pleasure and excitement.

“Partly, it is the equipment: the strawberry carpets woven with Allan Fleming’s squiggly little CN insignia, the while low-slung and intimate ceilings (trains do not have to be built like cathedrals) and the big, airplane-type parlor car seats, so wide that only three fit in a row, and with more leg room than in the first class cabin of any jet.

“Partly too, it is the élan of the CN’s employees, who, as snappy as their new uniforms, do not seem to feel that passengers are a nuisance who get in the way of running a train….”

On December 13, 1966, the Vancouver Sun commented on the new look in CN uniforms:

“If it’s the CNR objective to gall its competitors to throttle themselves with the gold chains of their tummy-ingersolls – and its recent airline-type passenger service amenities must appear fratricidal enough in this conservative industry – it has taken another long step in transforming its passenger train conductors into boulevardiers.

“The company’s decision to shuck its conductors of their traditional blue serge and gold buttons and slip them into something more comfortable, single-breasted stylings in charcoal grey to be explicit, sounds to us like the wickedest railroad merchandising weapon since the Winnipeg Goldeye….

“In an age when highball refers to concoction rather than a brakeman’s signal, retirement of the engineers’ cap and striped coveralls as that of the conductors’ blue serge suit, may be apt with the times. The Canadian Pacific, and the U.S. railroads which have been looking wild-eyed at the CN promotional antics, soon may have to seek a bespoke tailor of their own.”

With respect to the general public, a comprehensive study of attitudes conducted for CN by ORC International Ltd. In 1966 confirmed that Canadian National had (since the 1959 findings) substantially improved its corporate images. Specifically, it had enhanced its reputation in terms of being “progressive, efficiently run, trying to serve the public well, providing job security and having good morale.”

There is of course no way of determining how much of the credit for this improvement should be given to the redesign program. In the seven years between the two surveys, the company had done many things to improve its plant and equipment, operating and sales methods and organizational structure. But certainly redesign was one of the key tools used in reflecting and communicating these other changes to the public.

It is the CN’s believe that the new symbol stands as a visible mark of progress to remind people of the real and continuing improvements that are taking place behind the scenes in Canadian National, and that the whole visual redesign program is in fact helping to build and extend the company’s reputation for providing good service and merchandizing it with modern marketing methods.

C.A. Harris
Director of Public Relations

14 September 1967


A physical copy of this document is part of the federal identity archive.