How *Not* to Rebrand: Lessons from New Zealand

Sigh. Two years ago, my home country of New Zealand embarked upon a mission to reimagine its national flag. The thinking was sound: The existing flag is nearly indistinguishable from Australia’s (our chief frenemy); it’s built around colonial ties to England (another country we don’t really like); and it lacks any relevance to the native people (the Māori) who embody what makes New Zealand special.

“Great idea,” the government thought to itself, “how can we screw this up?”

Their approach is one we can all learn from, as a lesson in how not to go about rebranding.

Step One: Bring millions of stakeholders into the mix

Four people could have made a solid executive decision. Instead, New Zealand took the process to the people, inviting all four million of us to “have our say.” Large groups cannot make (good) decisions, so the situation quickly devolved. People began voting against other New Zealanders instead of pragmatically working together, toward the joint end-goal.

This plays out similarly in large organizations. It’s great to get your wider team’s initial input – but don’t involve them in the nitty-gritty. You’ll spend a lot of time going nowhere.

Step Two: Disenfranchise those stakeholders

You get to decide, New Zealand––you get decide which of these two underwhelming options would best represent our nation. New Zealand Prime Minister John Key selected a panel of VIPs, lacking true diversity and lacking youth. These people decided which of the crowd-sourced designs would ultimately progress. They universally did a bad job and angered many groups in the process, in part by failing to include flags that channelled our Māori heritage.

The lesson? Stay true to your company when branding; the end result needs to be something everyone can own.

Step Three: Make it political

Why make an independent decision on branding when you can tie the issue to a political leader? Prime Minister Key seeded the initial discussion. He spearheaded the flag’s journey and strongly vocalized his opinion that the new flag was far superior. Many voters then took to the polls to vote him down – irrespective of the flag design.

Whether you’re a nation or a life science company, it’s difficult to separate politics from the branding process. But it is worth fighting for to ensure the outcome unites your organization, instead of sparking a civil war.

When the dust settled…

Like the horrible English sport of cricket – which can end in a draw after three days of competition – New Zealand’s two-year flag journey ended with a resounding sense of disappointment. The existing flag (i.e. no change) was chosen by 1.2 of the 2 million voters (56.6%) participating in the referendum. The cost to New Zealand tax payers was a whopping NZ$26 million (approximately half our GDP).

These numbers won’t be shocking to any who have participated in a large company rebranding. Designs, panels and market research all cost serious coin.

Bring back the oligarchy

Democracy in the Internet age just doesn’t work. As proof – anonymous pollers just voted to name a £200 million research vessel the “RSS Boaty McBoatFace.”( I think this more than proves that crowd-sourcing subjective decisions is not the way to go about naming and branding.

Bring back the oligarchy. Pick a diverse panel of three or four people and empower them to make an executive decision. If New Zealand had done the same, it might have saved itself some international embarrassment. As the Sydney Morning Herald sold the story:

“New Zealand Flag Referendum: Kiwis vote for status quo.”

Is there anything worse than the status quo in branding?