Leaders of Norway’s state railway NSB ran into a torrent of angry opposition and criticism on Tuesday when they rolled out their proposal to combine rail and bus operations under a new name. Their marketing and image-building project will cost NOK 280 million, at a time when passengers have been suffering from over-packed trains and unreliable service.
“Madness,” a “waste of taxpayers’ money” and “idiotic” were just some of the characterizations of the plans presented by NSB’s board leader Dag Mejdell and CEO Geir Isaksen to build up a new image for NSB and its bus company, Nettbuss. By midday, their ultimate boss (Transport Minister Jon Georg Dale of the conservative Progress Party) was being called into Parliament to justify what some MPs were calling “blatant misuse of public resources.”
Dale will have to formally approve the name change, and he’s under pressure to block it. “We can’t just throw money out the window like this,” claimed MP Sigbjørn Gjelsvik of the Center party. “I expect a full explanation from the transport minister.”
Mejdell and Isaksen claim that NSB (short for the historic name Norges Statsbaner, Norwegian State Railways, from the 1800s) is outdated, since it’s no longer the sole train operator in Norway and must compete with others to secure lines. They therefore settled, clearly with the help of expensive external consultants, on a “single new brand name” for both NSB and Nettbuss, that will give the train and bus operations “a shared identity” and possibly refresh their image in the minds of passengers.
The name they settled on is Vy, claiming Vy is “a Norwegian word that can mean view, outlook or prospect, and, metaphorically, having ambition and a vision for the future.” It was sprung on the public Tuesday, just 10 days before it will be “considered” at an extraordinary general meeting of NSB’s shareholders on March 22. Mejdell claimed NSB’s board “unanimously” supports the name change, “which it has been working on for a long time.”
It’s unclear whether either Mejdell or Isaksen had any vision themselves of the immediate and hostile reaction the name change received from several Members of Parliament, Norwegian language experts, marketing experts and professors and, most importantly, their customers who often have to deal with serious delays and cancellations. The critics can’t understand how NSB’s leadership could approve spending so much money, the equivalent of USD 33 million, on what they see as cosmetic changes when commuters regularly face challenges just taking the train to work. Personnel shortages and cost-cutting elsewhere have also caused problems, making critics wonder why a name and logo change should be a priority.
“They (NSB’s board and management) should rather have used all this money to fix the product itself, and eliminate all the delays,” Trond Blindheim, an associate professor who specializes in marketing at Høyskolen Kristiania in Oslo, told state broadcaster NRK shortly after NSB’s surprise press conference on the name change Tuesday morning.
Blindheim can’t understand why the state railway shouldn’t retain the word “Stat” in its name any longer, since it remains wholly state-owned and run by people on the public payroll. He notes that name changes always involve lots of drama, which also emerged when state oil company Statoil changed its name to Equinor last year. That move allowed the company to get both “state” and “oil” out of its corporate identity, and Statoil arguably has the money to spend. NSB relies on taxpayer support in addition to ticket sales.
“For one thing, they (name changes) can be terribly expensive,” Blindheim said. He noted that the “shared identity” can save money in the long term, because different graphic profiles for the various entities can be expensive to maintain as well, but even NSB’s new trains will need to be repainted, signage will have to be changed and drawings were already being offered of employees’ new uniforms.
“But NSB is still a good name because everyone knows what NSB is, even though it’s not just a railway,” Blindheim told NRK. “It’s been around for more than 100 years.”
Åse Wetås, director of Norway’s language council Språkrådet, said she and her staff also recommended that NSB keep its name, not least because it’s part of the Norwegian cultural heritage. “They could have simply gone for the initials NSB as the new name for everything,” Wetås told NRK. She’s not at all enthusiastic about the proposed Vy name: “We believe state-owned companies should have a name that is clear, so that users of the service immediately know who they’re dealing with.”
Several Members of Parliament were even more forceful in their response. “There’s no end to the madness here,” claimed Sverre Myrli, transport policy spokesman for the Labour Party. “Now they’re wasting even more millions on creating new logos and so-called brand-building and probably even more director jobs. This is the wrong use of resources.”
MP Audun Lysbakken, head of the Socialist Left party (SV), claimed Isaksen and Mejdell were voluntary giving up their biggest advantage at NSB: its history and role in Norwegian society. MP Gjelsvik claimed the name “Vy” was “pulled out of the air by some consultants who surely were well-paid for it, but for Norwegian train passengers, this is no good idea.”
While Mejdell had claimed it was “an historic day” for NSB, Gjelsvik called it “a sad day for the railway and for all of Norway. I can understand that NSB wants to appear as creative and modern when the government has forced it into having to compete for routes on the railroad infrastructure that’s owned by another state agency, BaneNor (which recently changed its name from Jernbaneverket), but I think they’ve chosen a completely wrong strategy here.”
‘Wasn’t my idea’
Transport Minister Dale, meanwhile, claimed the name change “wasn’t my idea,” and he “can understand that there are lots of feelings tied to the name NSB.” He claimed he had also raised questions about the basis for the NSB board’s evaluation.
“But they’ve had several rounds about this and believe it’s important for the company’s future,” Dale told NRK. “They think they need to change the company in order to attract new customers.”
Asked whether spending hundreds of millions of kroner on the name change is a good use of resources, Dale said NSB would have had to invest in a new profile at some point anyway. “And it’s the board that operates the company, and I have confidence that they do that in a sensible manner.” He said he would first meet with the board and then “handle Parliament when that time comes.”
To read more about the NSB leader’s own justification for the proposed name change, click here (external link to NSB’s website).