The flag debate in the clod (cold light of day)

When we were first asked to submit ideas for a new flag, given an endless supply of digital crayons and the prospect of immortality as the flag designer, I, like several hundred others, launched enthusiastically into a design which I then proceeded to post-rationalise.

I may have been pre-programmed to respond with enthusiasm having spent much of my working life in the advertising agency world where a CEO telling us that he wanted to change the company logo was as close as it got to being given a licence to print money. And as much as the CEO might also cleverly post-rationalise his decision, no-one was fooled; he was seeking corporate immortality. So when the agency came up with the brilliant idea of running a competition to ‘engage the target market in the process’ then it became printing money while getting someone else to do the work. Double bonus. John Key also decided to ‘engage the target market’ but he clearly had his own ideas on what the new flag would look like, if he gets his way.

And so let me review. I went (surprise, surprise) for a black flag with graphic fern front and centre and a token reference to the monarch with the ER emblem. In other words I picked up the very clear vibe of exactly what the CEO (John Key) clearly wanted (something as close to an All Blacks jersey without the sponsors’ logo as possible) and fed it back to him. Well, that is the easiest sell and also the one for which he is unlikely to quibble over the exorbitant bill. That is advertising client relationships 101.

ERI sent it off to the ‘flag  engagement’ website ( for the consideration of the judging panel (in the ad agency world that was usually the CEO’s wife) but I had it rejected for some protocol breach which I assume was to do with the E:R symbol being unavailable. The upside is that I can charge another $50,000 for removing it in version 2. Oh that’s right, I am not the ad agency this time, this is a freebie.

Someone independently looked at it and wondered why I had even put any Royal reference on the design as he was sure the whole point of the referendum was to get rid of royalty from our flag. I hadn’t thought that; I thought John Key was a big fan of the Royals?

So that rejection did give me motivation to sober up (metaphorically) and put it through the clod review. After the white-hot heat of the night, let me examine the brief/design/rationale in the cold light of day. So:

John Keys, on the Paul Henry show, said the big problem with the current flag was you could not wear it as an item of clothing, in the same way you could with a silver fern on black background design. So he is thinking that our political flag should be usable as a marketing tool. I think the Key flaw in the briefing is that the PM is not distinguishing between corporate identity and brand identity. Proctor and Gamble (P&G) owns and markets a number of brands. P&G is the solid corporate structure behind the brands. It gives credibility, through its status on the share market, to the brands that are marketed from underneath its umbrella. Braun, Gillette, Oral B, Pantone, Olay, Head and Shoulders etc.

In New Zealand we promote ‘made in NZ’ in the same way a corporate promotes ‘owned and operated by………….”. Made in New Zealand’  has, since 1987, been presented as a red  kiwi with white triangle border on a blue background. John Key sees the All Blacks as the strongest brand in our national stable and has clearly a preference to simply upgrade the white fern on black background from All Blacks logo to New Zealand’s official flag. But that is no more valid a reason to use the All Blacks branding for New Zealand’s flag as it would be for P&G to use Pantone’s branding as P&G’s corporate branding.

So, let us review the briefing:

Q1:   Do we want our nationhood defined by and restricted to a sports team?

A: I would think even the most avid All Blacks supporter would want our nationhood to be represented on our national flag as being much more than a rugby game.

So let us return to the base question, is there any reason, other than sligning our nationhood with the All Blacks,  for changing our flag? Going back to the critic of my original design who was quite convinced that the main reason for this flag change is to delete any reference to the Royals. Maybe he was right? Maybe it is just a start point towards moving towards a republic. Delete the Union Jack and any association with Britain and we are being conditioned for removing Britain constitutionally. Perhaps John Key is just the smiling lion when it comes to the Royals? Is the ‘popular’ option of adopting the current world champions logo as our official flag merely a smokescreen for an ulterior motive?

Well there are no doubt pros and cons for the republican argument, but changing the flag as a preliminary decision is surely putting the cart before the horse. Flag design change would come after a decision, through referendum, to establish a republic or independent kingdom or whatever John Key has in mind. Certainly not before. But before I vote “No Change” as a protest against the flag change being a Trojan Horse hiding President Key, since we are spending $30 million on it anyway, is there any other reason why we should review our flag design?

Well there might be, actually. Jack Tame for TVNZ ran an informal survey in Times Square New York where he sought respondents from all continents and asked them if they recognised the NZ flag. Only two did (other than a Kiwi and an Aussie), but alarmingly the biggest issue by a U.S. mile was the high number of people who were certain it was Australia’s flag.

So, Q2:   Is there anything wrong with most people confusing our flag with Australia?

A: Well actually, YES!!!!! So in my review of the briefing, the #1 objective would be to distinguish our national identity from that of Australia. But in that case then I most certainly would NOT be advocating an “All Blacks” flag. It would be a humiliating concession to claim that the primary distinction between Australia and New Zealand is our rugby team, which has won about two thirds of the games between the two countries (although are 2:2 in World Cup titles).

So what do we need to review to distinguish ourselves from Australia without conceding existing international status?

1: I think we keep our Union Jack. That gives us the status of being globally connected through the British Commonwealth and the British Royal family. We should not concede that status to Australia and leave us looking like a banana republic. However, I do think that it should not fight our own national identity, so some toning down of the visual impact of the Union Jack could be preferable.

2: We need a symbol that is globally recognised as being typically New Zealand. That comes down to a clear choice between a fern and a kiwi. The fern is a branding device for most of our national sports teams and our national lamb exporter. The kiwi is the symbol, since 1987, of our national “made in NZ” endorsement. The New Zealand people are affectionately known as Kiwis. The fern may be synonymous with New Zealand through the sporting arena profiles, but the people from all walks of life, in all arenas whether science, military, sporting, commercial or whatever are known as kiwis. For me the Kiwi symbol wins the day.

Q3:   Is there anything wrong with the Southern Cross on the flag?

A:  Am I being petty when I tense up explaining to people who the NZ flag has 4 stars and Australia has 5 stars?

Whatever the answer, the Southern Cross is another feature that confuses our flag with that of Australia, and yet I would oppose getting rid of stars; I think they are a good design feature of a flag. And for some reason I wondered about the Matariki star cluster. The rising of this cluster has been traditionally identified by the Maori as signalling the start of the new year. It is the mid-point of winter months and presumably is the time when nature starts its regeneration process.

So I considered the idea of replacing the Southern Cross, a maritime navigational guide, with the Matariki which is a symbolic part of Maori tradition. The seven stars do provide something of a visual distinction, but more importantly, our flag should reference the Tangata Whenua and the influence of that culture in the uniqueness of 21st century New Zealand.

Kiwi flagSo, with all that in my re-briefing, here is the flag I designed. I have submitted it to the official flag evaluation people, and oh joy, my design this time has been accepted for consideration (as one of about 5,700 others). Having looked at the gallery there are a few not too bad designs amongst them. So the first job of bringing that down to four is a bit daunting. Then a popular vote reduces four to one, and then a final popular vote decides whether that is preferable to our existing flag. Something tells me familiarity will rule the day.



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