ANC ‘funny’ in first FNB logo may have been a plot – but not ours, says then-CEO
The original logo with an outline inserted around a map of Africa, the insertion of which is still refuted by those who initiated the early brand identity. Original digitization of the logo: Carlo Kaminski.
- Chris Ball, who commissioned First National Bank’s inaugural acacia tree logo in 1986, says the ‘funny’ like an AK-47 and map of Africa in the branches weren’t deliberate .
- Ball claims a state security official said the suggestion of ANC symbols in the tree was part of a government disinformation campaign.
- He says the logo sat on board members’ desks for two weeks and no one noticed – not even the map of Africa. Instead, it required audiences to point out the obvious and less obvious symbols that eventually forced its changes.
- And the policy shaped much of the company’s identity — it blocked Ball from using the National Bank name and forced changes to the logo.
- Although he loves and approves of the iconic acacia logo, Ball thinks it was time for an “upgrade.”
- For more stories go to www.BusinessInsider.co.za.
First National Bank (FNB) first CEO Chris Ball, who commissioned a New York design firm to create the bank’s inaugural logo in 1986, said symbols like a gun, a map of the Africa, a crocodile and a hare allegedly hidden in the branches were unintentional.
The FNB logo returns to center stage thanks to its latest incarnation – which some think it looks like electricity pylon or wifi logo.
Ball claims that bank officials did not inform the company, Siegel+Gale, to insert subversive imagery in branches. They also didn’t notice anything unusual when they first unboxed it.
“The management team had this image of the tree in front of them for about two weeks before we published it. We were obviously looking at it all the time, and nobody noticed,” Ball told Business Insider South Africa. . “It wasn’t until the public started talking about these things that we got to see them. There was no talk of putting the map of Africa in the branches.”
Ball says that when Barclays sold its stake in the bank during SA’s divestiture due to apartheid, it gave the new South African management six months to change the name and brand image.
“We started by getting feedback on what the new name might be and very soon we had a list of about 15 usable names,” says Ball. “At the top of the list was the obvious name, and we already owned it – the National Bank – the name of the original bank in South Africa that Barclays had bought decades before.”
Ball says he approached the Reserve Bank about the possible use of that name again. The Reserve Bank agreed the new bank had the right to use it and said it would not object to it doing so, but Ball says politics intervened.
“The ether in South Africa at the time was dominated by the dramatic tension between the National Party, which formed the government, and the African National Congress, which was still a banned organisation. I was a staunch critic of maintaining apartheid and I had come to be seen as an opponent of PW Botha, the president, and because of this it has been suggested that the use of the name The National Bank would mean that the bank was stating that it supported the ANC,” Ball says.
Ball says the opposite was also possible – that people might perceive the name as the bank aligning itself with the National Party.
“I was in favor of using the name and argued that we should make it clear that we wanted to provide banking services to all groups in our country. administration sounded like something out of a movie, but it became clear that the clutter was real in people’s minds, so we softened the name by adding the Prime.”
Once the name was decided on, Ball hired a major New York firm to develop the new identity.
“We had decided to contact Siegel+Gale in New York to make suggestions on a logo for the bank given their level of global expertise and experience – at the exchange rate at the time, the cost would not was not a hardware issue,” he said.
Siegel pitched logo concepts that Ball and his team rejected, but when they came up with the acacia, they immediately liked it.
“The board approved the design and we published it. Almost immediately suggestions started appearing in the media for shapes drawn in the tree – a machine gun, a crocodile, a women’s bra and many more. ‘others – to the point that it quickly seemed like every kid in the country was looking for funny ones in the tree, and if they turned it around, they might find some more,’ says Ball.
The most serious charge was that one or more of the tree’s symbols supported the then-banned ANC.
“We consulted the Wits University professor, who was considered the ANC’s expert, and he assured us that was not the case. Privately, I asked for comments from senior ANC officials, and the response was that the ANC was very amused, but there was no validity to the suggestion and we should ignore it,” Ball says.
Shortly after, Ball says they were visited by a senior security consultant employed in the government’s communications division – a man he describes as “not a lightweight”.
“He assured us that he had been informed by a then current employee of the plan that the suggestion about the contents of the tree was misinformation, disseminated by the government to embarrass the ETF because of my bias towards the ANC We didn’t believe or disbelieve him, but noted that what he told us had a real possibility of being correct,” Ball says.
He says they “tweaked the logo tree a bit to hide the funny ones, and the noise from the audience died down.”
But the controversy wasn’t over yet – an ‘aggravated’ Nelspruit illustrator has come forward claiming FNB plagiarized her acacia design. This prompted a visit from Ball, who agreed to pay him “a reasonable gratuity as a sign of goodwill”.
Ball eventually left FNB to take up a job in Europe, but soon returned to South Africa. He served on the board of Nedbank for 12 years before retiring to the Eastern Cape.
He reserves all judgment on the new FNB logo but can see parallels between the controversy of earlier and later iterations.
“I agree with FNB that it needed modernizing, especially for a bank that is a leader in the use of technology in financial services. The important thing to keep in mind is that names and logos don’t normally determine the success of companies that are service providers – their reputation is based on their perceived integrity and the opinions of customers about their interactions with the company, its people and its products. FNB will no doubt gauge the public’s feelings for the logo from time to time,” Ball says, “Maybe it will be changed again at some point in the future.”