To the Dominion Post February 2010

If New Zealand is to change its flag, it could have a debate as it is now with everyone proposing from a multitude of possibilities the one they “like”. Or it could have a debate about whether there is any emblem or set of colours which say something about how we see ourselves in this day and age, and then design a flag around that.

There is merit beyond the flag debate in considering this. Seven years ago the DomPost published an article (by this writer) proposing advantages for New Zealand, given its smallness and isolation, in having a single predominant emblem that was identified instantly as representing the country. We used a kiwi for manufactured exports, a crest or departmental logo for all our government publications, a silver fern for our sports teams and other purposes, a Union Jack and Southern Cross on our flag, a koru on our national carrier, and so on. Some reinforcement around a single symbol would have a much greater chance of international recognition, providing a much clearer branding of the country.

Canada is an example where its red maple leaf is used for all these purposes, from its national carrier to its tins of fish, providing instant recognition for all things Canadian. Switzerland’s use of its white cross on red is another example: it is used on the Swiss airline, in its export promotions and for many other purposes as well as on its flag.

While 20 and more years ago it seemed virtually impossible to choose between the competing front-runners of the koru, the silver fern and the kiwi, by the middle of the last decade one of these had clearly moved far ahead in widespread popular use. That was the silver fern. Quite apart from its universal identification with New Zealand sport, it had huge momentum by then from its use in tourism, sector exports, science, finance and commerce, health, quality assurance, the media, communities and charities, and everywhere else.

The responses to the article did not throw up challengers except for a degree of support for the Southern Cross, with suggestions that it and the silver fern be combined. That has been done before, as on the two cent coin. But it is a tough call to promote the Southern Cross, or any other option, as a multi-purpose emblem, against the momentum of the silver fern.

A contrary response came from the DomPost’s correspondent Bob Jones, who thought any suggestion that branding would have benefits was hogwash since consumers buy on price not brand. I know of no business analyst who decries the importance of branding, carefully nurtured and worth so much on so many balance sheets, but the more interesting question is whether the clear importance of branding for so many companies applies similarly for a country. The evidence is less specific but broadly suggests that it does. One survey interestingly rates the two countries above, Canada and Switzerland, as having the best brand recognition while New Zealand drops down in the rankings.

Since the original article, the up-take of the fern leaf has accelerated. New Zealand’s largest meat company PPCS changed its name to Silver Fern Farms and adopted a fern logo, stating it did so because the fern brand represented “quality, consistency and product innovation.”  Our nationalised Kiwi Rail has adopted it, as has the New Zealander of the Year award, and our Business Hall of Fame, and our International Wine Show. It is now on our passports, our postage stamps, even when they are called Kiwi stamps, and all of our immigration material. It is the logo of our term on the UN Security Council, of Aviation NZ, TB free NZ, Education NZ,  The Institute of International Affairs, the Insurance Industry Awards, Antarctic NZ, the WW100 commemorations, my after-hours pharmacy, our foreign aid programme, HEKE (Kiwis abroad),  and on and on. It is going on our revamped bank notes. Perhaps the most telling indicator of the strength of the trend is Air New Zealand’s decision last year to paint the silver fern on all of its aircraft.

The silver fern is now used almost to saturation levels across large sectors of our society and economy, including exports, sport and tourism, and is obviously embedded more than any other single emblem in all other walks of life as well.  It has shown itself capable of acquiring, as the meat company has noted, an association with values to which we attach importance.

Also of interest is the creativity that the fern leaf inspires. Some of the variations, developed for our wine exports (a fern leaf incorporating a bunch of grapes), our rail system (a fern leaf incorporating train tracks) or a supermarket chain, for example, are elegant or stimulating or just great fun.

And so to the flag. Placing a widely used emblem on a new flag would obviously reinforce the strength of that emblem in identifying New Zealand, just as the impact of an emblem used for virtually all purposes but not on the flag would be weakened. This latter situation results in the widespread use of flags that do incorporate the popular emblem, rather than the official flag.

This commentary is not about designing a flag, but a couple of observation may be relevant. One is that the fern leaf if adopted does not require the rest of the flag to be black, which is a common fear. Colourful designs based on the fern abound on various websites. If one is attached to a black background, it is easy to contemplate a square, circle or stripe of black immediately behind the fern leaf with the rest of the flag in other colours. Plenty of flags have some black on them, such as Germany’s with its red, yellow and black stripes.

Second, a fern leaf would appear to be neutral in the various debates that rage in this country about our identity and biculturalism, and carries no particular historic baggage, which cannot be said of many other options.

A suggested next step: those that still use the stylised kiwi for export promotion join the rest in adopting the fern leaf.