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Our flag is an ad

It’s time we had a design that sells Brand Australia

26 January 2013

9:00 AM

26 January 2013

9:00 AM

Harold Mitchell and I used to share a radio spot with the fabulously talented Virginia Trioli. This was my first exposure to contributing to media and I am grateful to Harold for inviting me to share his time, and to Virginia for accepting me onto her show.

In 2008, shortly after the Athens Olympics, I was to do my spot with Virginia and she asked me what I wished to discuss. ‘The Australian flag,’ I replied. ‘Really?’ she said. ‘Do we have to? Well, alright, if you must.’

Being in advertising I see our flag as an ad. This conversation happened just after we had, as a country, been running an ad up the Olympic flagpole for all the world to see. The question remained: how effective an ad was it?

Think of the great flags of the world as advertising posters that build the value of the country they are promoting. Great posters tell a story quickly; they grab attention; they use colour to stand out and differentiate themselves; they are simple; they display unity between their component parts and they emphasise a key message.

Does the Australian flag do any of this? Is our story quickly told, like the Japanese flag? Does it grab attention, like the tricolour? Is colour used to stand out and differentiate, like South Africa’s? Is it simple? Is there unity between the component parts? Do we emphasise a key message, in the way that the original Union Jack does with its graphic and literal symbols of unity?

My view, after the 2008 Olympics, was that our flag does not represent who we are as a modern nation. It does not differentiate us and certainly does not create value for Australia. It is confusing for the international viewer, doesn’t stand out like a great advertising poster, is not single minded in its approach and, importantly, does not create a powerful image that serves as a halo device for our government, business and citizens. (Think of how Canadian government, business and the travelling public utilise their glorious maple leaf.)

Flags are a communication piece for their country. In our case, the flag is a reflection of Brand Australia. So, the question we asked the ABC audience was this: ‘If you see the flag, not as a flag, but as an ad, is this the ad that you wish to represent your country?’

Do we see it as an ad that reflects who and what we are? Is it a flag that acts as an ad and, as a result, builds our brand, differentiates us and creates value for our country?

If briefed to produce a design that would assist in strengthening Brand Australia, I bet there isn’t a creative director in the land who would approve the flag in its current design. It would be returned to the creative department with a stern message to go back to the drawing board.

Interestingly, but perhaps not entirely surprisingly, most ABC callers concurred, agreeing that if we see our flag as an ad then this was not the kind of flag we should have representing Australia on the world’s sporting stage. And it certainly was not the flag we needed our young athletes to wrap themselves in after completing their efforts.

As the British created their empire, they cleverly branded their holdings. They ensured their ownership was well known, with the Union Jack taking pride of place on all their assets — and flags. Canada had it; so did Bermuda, India, New Zealand and many others. Most have moved their flag on; only two nations — Australia and New Zealand (oh, and Tuvalu, population 8,000), retain the Union Jack element. Fiji has commenced the process of change.

It’s interesting to note that the Australian flag used to be a different colour. Indeed, the flag our Diggers fought under was not the flag we have now; it had the same design but was set on red rather than on blue. The change occurred because Australia’s longest serving Prime Minister, Robert Menzies, apparently believed red (in an aggressively anti-communist era) to be profoundly inappropriate for Australia. Menzies made an executive decision and, without consultation, simply changed the Australian flag.

Groups such as Ausflag have been trying for decades to persuade the public and the powers of the day to ‘do a Menzies’ and change the design we fly in order to better reflect our independent spirit and face the world with a flag of our own rather than a flag from our colonial past.

It is surprising just how hard this endeavour has been. It strikes me as a simple and inoffensive notion. Australia should have a flag which does not include the Union Jack. An individual flag for our unique and wonderful country. One that sells who we are — now — to the rest of the world.

A flag which acts as an ad.

I am not anti-British; indeed, I love their flag. There is an idea behind its design — strong, simple and instantly recognisable — which the British use as a tremendous branding device.

We live, as the second verse of our national anthem and as Banjo Paterson so wonderfully observed, ‘under the Southern Cross’. Yes, the Southern Cross sits on our flag, but it is not the dominant element of the design. From a graphic point of view, the Union Jack overpowers our Southern Cross ‘logo’.

Many have been trying for too long to generate debate, and stimulate excitement and support for change. Thus far, all efforts have failed. Perhaps nothing has changed because we have not been able to move the discussion on from being purely a design debate, and we have failed because the notion of a new flag tends to be confused with the idea of a republic. So, to be clear, I am not advocating a change to the Australian constitution. My only concern is with the Australian flag.

The Canadians did it. They removed the British element and now have what could justly be described as a brand flag. A red and white maple leaf design that clearly differentiates their country from all others. It is smart. It is good country marketing. And, we would all agree I’m sure, it has worked for them.

It’s time we had our own brand flag. If total change is too much for some, then we can keep the constitutional (official) version. But the flag should be simple and powerful. Indeed, the use of the Southern Cross is key.

For Australia Day, Ausflag is launching a design for ‘Australia’s Sporting Flag’. A flag in addition to the constitutional flag. A flag which can be used at the next Olympics and other international sporting events to differentiate us, particularly from New Zealand. It’s a flag to give our athletes and their supporters — indeed, to anyone who wishes to promote the unique and wonderful country where we all have the privilege to reside.

So, those of us who support a change are not asking the government to change the Australian flag. We simply wish to give Australia a brand flag. The flag we fly on the international sporting stage that sells us — and us alone.

Russel Howcroft is the former CEO of Y&R brands Australia/NZ and lead panellist on the Gruen series.

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