Flags & National Identity

17 August, 2015 Share socially
‘Vexillology’, if you have not come across the term, is the study and understanding of flags: form, function and meaning. As New Zealanders get ready to vote on alternative flag options for the nation next month, the outcome may well have many vexillologists, well, vexed.

What symbol is appropriate to represent the nation? Well, in the current long-list of 40 flag alternatives there are two main themes emerging:

1. Representations of multicultural identity or place

2. Adaptations of an existing country ‘brand mark’

In FutureBrand’s Country Brand Index it is common to see country ‘brand marks’ being created from national flags. The USA, UK and Canada serve as good examples of this. Very rarely though, does a nation have an opportunity to chose an existing country ‘brand mark’ as its national flag.

As the great flag debate rages on over New Zealand dinner tables one thing to consider is the purpose of national flags versus more commercially focused country ‘brand marks’.

A national flag symbolises a distinctive, unified story of a nation’s history, culture and social construct to the world. It does not need to influence choice, or change opinion, because it should transcend any one moment in time. It exists as a long-lasting symbol of a nation.

In the long-list there are flags telling stories of New Zealand’s location in the world, its community and values. There are symbols of a pacific nation, under the watchful eye of the Southern Cross, and visual references to the Maori name for New Zealand Aotearoa: ‘the long white cloud’. Through koru and tukutuku shapes, we see visualisations of Maori heritage and a multicultural present and future.

A country ‘brand mark’ has a more commercial purpose, to ‘sell’ a country story to the world. It operates very much like a product or service brand – seeking to influence choice, purchase or investment. Like many commercial brands, the meaning behind it can be refreshed over time. Like many commercial brands, current reputation can influence perception of the brand, positively and negatively.

New Zealand’s country ‘brand mark’ is the Silver Fern and its use predates country branding to World War I at least. However, today you are more likely to find the Silver Fern on products, sports team shirts and government websites. It is imbued with stories of sporting success, business innovation and tourism. Remember Hobbiton? But as its use has increased so has plagiarism, with overseas businesses adopting the fern as a quality mark of ‘Made in New Zealand’. Should a national flag be connected to such misuse and reinterpretation?

Silver fern or koru, for many Kiwis the opportunity to finally have their say is the reason the referendum is of value. For others, in particular indigenous Maori, the referendum is an opportunity to update the flag to reflect the multicultural pacific nation New Zealand is today, and remove the overt reference to a colonial past.

As the long list gets whittled down over the next few weeks by the official ‘Panel’, we expect to see designs representing both themes in the short list of four alternatives. After that, it will be up to New Zealanders to decide whether they want a flag that symbolises people and place, or attaches national identity to an existing country ‘brand mark’. We look forward to the results.

Flags as symbols and historic, social and political statements. Here are a few flags that have changed and with them, carried socio-cultural ‘brand’ issues and meaning to help convey and project change in their respective nations.