This is a guest post by Tom James, who is doing his Honours in Political Marketing.
There has been a lot of speculation on why Prime Minister John Key has decided to suddenly announce a referendum on the New Zealand flag if he wins a third term. Key says that it was the looming centenary of ANZAC day that spurred him to think about the future and to move towards a flag that shows our nationhood distinct from the UK. Certainly he didn’t do it due to public demand. Leader of the Opposition David Cunliffe and others are more cynical and believe that Key has introduced this in order to distract from the big issues this election, such as inequality. Some think that it was a ploy to outflank Labour and bring the attention back to Key and National.
While any number of these things may be true, I believe that there are two more possible reasons why Key chose to introduce a debate on our flag.
The first is what legacy Key will leave behind when he is no longer Prime Minister. Helen Clark left behind several important enduring changes to New Zealand, including introducing a supreme court, establishing Kiwibank and Kiwisaver, and also reducing poverty through Working for Families. What legacy will Key leave? Partial asset sales? The National Cycleway Project? Appearing on a US talk show? I think Key has been thinking about this as well, and wants to leave his mark on New Zealand through changing the flag.
The second is nation branding. Believe it or not, our flag is not particularly distinctive. As Malcom Wright points out “Our flag is in effect New Zealand’s logo, and in that role it does not pass muster. It simply says that we are one of several ex-British colonies. From a commercial point of view, the response would have to be – “who cares?” From a consumer point of view it would be more simple – “who?”” I agree with Malcom that the Fonterra botulism scare and the resulting fallout and attacks on the “100% pure” slogan show a lack of depth to our nation brand. Successful brands have strong brand values and distinctive positive associations linked to them. However, to build up these values and positive associations in the minds of our target international markets we need New Zealand to have a consistent and distinct visual profile. This could potentially be partly achieved through changing our flag.
Key has laid out his personal preference as the silver fern on a black background. This is funnily enough the same design as the logo that is used for all the government departments that work overseas promoting New Zealand financial interests under “NZ Inc.” (For examples see http://www.nzte.govt.nz/, https://nzbn.business.govt.nz/, http://www.tourismnewzealand.com/, http://www.enz.govt.nz/). I don’t think it’s a giant leap that our Minister of Tourism who has a background in international business has some knowledge about the importance of presenting a strong, consistent nation brand to the world.
If the potential reasons why Key introduced the idea of changing the flag outlined here are true, I doubt he would ever say so. “Because I want to leave a positive legacy” and “because it’s good for business” are not things New Zealanders want to hear from their Prime Minister as reasons for changing our flag.