The trouble with logos: Just what's the point of a new flag?

Illustration by Angela Keoghan
It doesn’t matter what flag we choose; it’s the Kiwi substance behind the flutter that’s important

One of the most mind-numbing experiences of my career was changing the branding at one of New Zealand’s larger corporations.

Leave aside the fact that it was felt necessary to bring in a big-foot global consultant who spent a great deal of money to tell us we should do more or less what we were already doing to build a trustable, likeable brand in a sector that was neither trusted nor likeable.

At least the baby and the bathwater remained connected because, after all, what really matters about a brand is its substance, and substance takes time.

Whatever logo you choose is ultimately just window-dressing.  If your behaviour and promise are inauthentic, then the logo is just window-dressing on a lie. That lie simply becomes easier to see if you spend big money trying to make yourself more visible.

Equally, if the brand is authentic, then decisions on a new logo – what colours, shapes, swirls, folderols or gee-gaws are incorporated into the ‘look and feel’ – actually don’t matter nearly as much as marketing experts will tell you.

Nonetheless, when you change the logo, be prepared for the backlash.

When you unveil that new branding, you will unleash a torrent of aesthetic disagreement that will make you wonder why you bothered in the first place.

People will tell you that your taste is all in your month. Rampant negativity will swamp an initial wave of genial indifference or mild optimism.

This is par for the course.

When the 2001 dairy merger happened and the new name was revealed, the nay-saying was as instantaneous as it was inevitable. Fonterra: it sounded silly; it wasn’t a real word; it had a European ring to it, when it should at the very least have paid lip service to our Pasifika heritage; it should appeal to Asian customers; or pay homage to deeply rooted New Zealand dairy brands, like Anchor.

Fourteen years later: who cares? It’s Fonterra. We use the name without a second thought. It’s a big, troubled dairy enterprise that carries our future in its hands to a disproportionate extent.  Please God, let it succeed.

More recently, Telecom New Zealand became Spark.  The cynics flew into that one: too catchy, too chirpy, lipstick on a gorilla etc etc.  The starburst logo came in for a pasting too.  Plagiarism, said some.  Messy, said others.

Today, Spark’s main problem is that some people still call it Telecom.  But that will pass, and its repositioning as a consumer-facing business is well under way.  Changing the name helped that positioning, but didn’t make it happen.

Another example: Z Energy was a gamble, and personally I reckon that purple is awful.  But just four years into its existence, Z has standing as a Kiwi brand that its predecessor Shell never had.  We all call it Z, and Z it is.

Surely, something similar will happen when we change the flag, which surely we will.

The wide international coverage alone of New Zealand’s flag debate suggests New Zealanders would not be so supine as to vote for the flag they already have.

One headline no modern Kiwi wants to see in Britain’s Daily Mirror: “Kiwis stick with Mother England”.

Europe is so last generation.

All the same, it’s a shame not to have seen a a truly indigenous option. We have blue, black and white, and red, white and blue. 

But there is no red, black and white – a combination that encapsulates the Tino Rangatiratanga flag: the Maori sovereignty flag, and New Zealand’s most potent symbol of commitment to self-determination.

That’s a pity.  There, you have my view.

But much more to the point: whether the new flag is blue and red, black and blue, has a fern on it, or whatever, in a couple of years’ time, it will be a non-event. It will be the New Zealand flag and we’ll be used to it.

What matters is what we do under that flag.