What brand managers can learn from the Flag Referendum

The Flag Referendum was a project to progress our nation’s brand. Like most branding projects this was a chance to develop a distinctive visual asset – a cultural symbol with which we all identify, that would strengthen our unique provenance and personality to the rest of the world.

The ‘rebrand’ clearly didn’t happen, and the whole affair has left many feeling duped. 26 million dollars, 10,292 flag designs, two referendums and 3,687,984 valid votes later, and nothing changed.

We’re interested in how differently a professional brand agency might have approached the process. We’ve outlined some of the issues (‘red flags’) and the branding best practices that could have been applied.

Start with a mandate

Red flag: polls did not show New Zealanders were behind changing the flag

Best practice: start by making a case for change and then unify stakeholders

Successful brand projects – especially large ones – are evidence-based. First comes the business case. Then comes an engagement programme to consult with, and rally, the internal team.

Start with an ad-hoc edict from the CEO or board and ambivalent employees, and you’re almost certainly setting yourself up to fail. Any significant brand project is usually met with some resistance. It’s also time consuming and expensive.

The first challenge is to get internal stakeholders (in this case NZ citizens) understanding the need for change and getting behind the project. This means early consultation and feedback, and convincingly presenting your case – an area where many feel the Flag Consideration Project fell short; a case of too little discussion too late.

The next challenge is to get people to accept the practical and financial realities of the exercise. Things can cost more and take longer than people might first think. Good branding projects will use consultation to adapt and take advantage of stakeholder insights, and look at new ways of engaging people along the way.

Brands are built on a clear and unique proposition

Red flag:  no clear and agreed description of what we stand for (in other words, no clear brief)

Best practice:  brands are developed from a clear and unifying idea (a ‘proposition’ or ‘essence’) that captures an organisation’s unique personality, promise and vision.

The “What do we stand for?” campaign asked Kiwis what being a New Zealander means to them. The most popular terms were then turned into a ‘wordcloud’ – 10 ‘large words’, 14 ‘medium words’ and 15 ‘smaller words’, depending on how many times a term was used. To all intents and purposes, this was the project’s brief. But with so many terms, and some contradictory (for example freedom, independence and Commonwealth), the exercise was near to meaningless, a “covering-all-the-bases” brief.

Much like logos, flag designs are deliberately abstract and simplified representations of a brand. A clear and strong proposition would have made it easier to assess whether or not the flags embodied New Zealand and its people. Without one, it was impossible to judge.

A clear proposition explains your brand. Its point is to provide guidance, to help articulate a bold, unique and compelling idea. It’s this idea you should revisit right through your brand projects – time and time again.

Don’t crowdsource creative

Red Flag:  10,292 designs submitted, none of which became the new flag

Best practice:  engage professionals to produce strong ideas

Crowdsourcing has its place. But it doesn’t generally lead to quality creative, and is certainly no replacement for professional expertise. Turning to the masses may well yield some good ideas, but for significant projects, crowdsourcing deflates the process: good options are drowned in mediocrity; there is far too much choice; and the burden is placed on rejecting many weak ideas rather than discussing the comparative benefits of the few strong ones.

The creative process is just that – a process. Professional designers immerse themselves in the brief and their own methods for arriving at ideas. They go back and forth with clients to review and gain fresh insights.  Crowdsourcing removes these important parts of the process and the iterative nature of client feedback.

Design is idea first, then execution

Red flag:  the ideas submitted (i.e. the flag designs) were presented as final artwork

Best practice:  the concept stage is about reviewing ideas. Once you have approved a direction, then you can start refining them.

When developing creative solutions – whether it’s a new logo, a campaign (or a flag) – it’s important to focus on ideas first. Is the concept the best fit with the brief? Does it meet your long-term objectives? Once the idea is right, then you can move onto thinking about how the idea will be executed or refined. These two stages should not overlap.

An idea can be executed in many different ways – different visual styles, production mediums, emphasising different visual or verbal cues, and so on. There is no point debating the shade of a colour or the look of a typeface, if the overriding concept needs work. This is where the conversation must focus in the first stage. Well managed design projects don’t move on until the concept is agreed.