Every national government is an employer. Like every other big enterprises, nations are in the business of staying in business and in a big way.

This requires the recruitment and retention of government employees and successful enterprise promotion and performance to protect both the jobs and the organization, including marketing of the national brand, through iconic branding as well as through various maneuverings, a successful “product and service line”, e.g., citizenship,and a stable revenue or borrowing stream.

Designed by Kids with Crayons?

So, the question that occurred to me as I gazed at the flags mounted on the window shown in the photo I recently took during my stay at the Guest House Asahikawa, Hokkaido was why are the majority of national flags so boring that they look like they were designed by seven-year-olds equipped with only a set of crayons, a ruler and the imaginations of seven-year-olds?

Taking that question very seriously may provide insights into a branding concept that, although counter-intuitive, is apparently very successful when applied by nations: boring branding.

Contrary to the conventional expectation that a brand should be visually distinctive and engaging, the world’s flag designers and approvers seem to be fixated on the least imaginative designs since Neopolitan 3-flavor ice cream blocks.

The easiest part of the analysis is demonstrating just how boring most national flags are: For example, there are way too many, barely distinguishable variations on the pure tri-color bar theme, i.e., three horizontal or vertical bars and three colors.

These include Armenia, Yemen, France, Ireland, Italy, France, Russia, Estonia, Holland, Germany, Bulgaria, Hungary, Belgium, Romania, Luxembourg, Slovenia, Chad, Mali, Colombia and Gambia (sort of, against a white background).

What ever happened to product differentiation, ease of recall, prevention of brand confusion and the delightful element of creative surprise?

But don’t get me started (although I already have): Then there are the stars, the moons (mostly crescent), the birds, the suns, the crosses, the triangles, the bars and stripes, and, of course, combinations of these.

Without bias, and being as objective as anyone can be, I have to credit the Canadian flag with two distinctions: the maple-leaf design is not only unique in being the only obvious single leaf (although Somalia’s flag has clusters of them), but also in being an approximate, albeit fuzzy fractal—with its basic smaller 3-prongs within a bigger 3-prong design fuzzily replicating the bigger core’s details.

Anyway, you get the idea, dramatically illustrated by the vapid array of tricolor flags that are about as interesting as any of Piet Mondrian’s simplest colored grids, themselves  candidate flags for some as yet unfounded nation.

Maybe Deliberately Boring

But before considering applying the boring branding approach to other large-scale enterprises, e.g., Coke, or examining them to see whether they are already utilizing it, it behooves me to consider why on Earth boring branding of flags or anything else would seem like a good idea, especially given the risks of confusion and flagging interest (yes, that was a pun).

When I mentioned the concept to the hostel manager, Yukari, she agreed that they indeed could be drawn by a child. That triggered the idea that ease of imprinting and replicating the brand is a big plus in flag design and other branding, especially when patriotism is stronger the earlier it is implanted as an emotion and commitment.

This may also partially explain the appeal and durability of religious symbols as faith “brands”, e.g., the simple Christian cross, the crescent of Islam and the somewhat more complex Star of David. (Notice, however, that one key principle of boring branding has not been adhered to in the case of religious branding: indistinguishability from rival brands.)

More strictly adhered to, the principles of boring branding would result in at least sect and denominational differences being somewhat obscured by very similar variations on the basic design, e.g., the simple cross vs. a Coptic cross.

Among possible rationalizations of boring branding, several immediately come to mind:

  • Confident understatement: It’s widely understood that the wealthiest among the wealthy are the least ostentatious, being far less inclined to flaunt their riches than the nouveau and less-riche. Likewise, a boring brand can communicate a quiet, indeed utterly mute(d) confidence in a nation’s or organization’s identity and mission.

This bland, unprepossessing, nondescript image may be especially appealing to faceless bureaucrats and civil servants, who, in general, will be very inclined to maintain a low profile—in part because they don’t want to attract attention to their incredible perks and salaries, because they want to be hard to find when you are frustrated or angered by them, because they want to appear to be utterly innocuous and non-threatening, and because bland near-invisibility is of particular value in spy and other governmental snoop services.

That pretty much explains the basic two-piece suit, white shirt and tie of FBI agents, while inviting reflection on why the U.S. Air Force has opted for the Grim Reaper as part of its drone-force logo.

  • Ease of redesign: Consider the case of the American flag. A grid of stars lends itself to easy redesign. Just add or subtract stars as required by the vicissitudes of statehood. A national flag or corporate logo that serves as a visual map of territories or organizational elements is obvious and adaptable.

Indeed, when Alaska and Hawaii joined the United States, the change in the flag was barely noticeable.On the other hand, look at what happened to the Soviet Union: the bold and distinctive, asymmetrical hammer and sickle apparently couldn’t be salvaged (from at least the ideological perspective) and some serious distancing seemed obligatory.

Now, the current Russian confederation simple tricolor, in its bland simplicity, blends in nicely with the neighborhood and, in virtue of not being at all startling, can be tweaked, like the U.S. Stars and Stripes as necessary with barely a ripple—make that barely a flutter.

  • Subliminal advertising, promotion and propaganda: The more boring the icon, the more likely it is to be confused with something else, especially a very ordinary, commonplace something else. You are eating your breakfast and staring at your fork-ready fried egg, sunny-side up.

Unconsciously you associate the pleasures of it with Japan and experience a blip of subtle pro-Japanese sentiment. That may sound like a joke, which it was, but consider the Nike check-mark logo, which is about as boring as an icon can ever be. When checking off items from your shopping list, don’t be surprised if you are seized by the urge to add a pair of running shoes to the list.

  • Ease of recall and replication: Mentioned above, this is a huge consideration. Standardizing consciousness of and identification with a nation or organization is a key management task. The less challenging recalling and replicating the iconic representation of the identifier, the more assured the desired result of broad—ideally universal—identification of and with the symbol.

Hence, if a seven-year-old can create it, everyone else can easily recognize and disseminate it.

What About the Money?

Curiously, this rationale seems not to apply to currencies—another national symbol, which, in general, are designed to be extremely difficult to replicate (and therefore to accurately recognize), despite whatever other boring elements they embody.

Viewed as a form of boring branding, currencies tend to be somewhat less so, despite their predictable insistence on displaying august dull personages along with various unexciting wildlife, such as birds.

One exception, of course, is the U.S. dollar, which, if even half of the dark allegations about it are correct, embodies enough complex, esoteric Illuminati and Free Mason occult symbolism to make cracking the WW II German Enigma code look like an easy breeze through a middle-school crossword puzzle.

Anyway, when it comes to what’s boringly, if not brilliantly simple as a brand, I’ll put my money—coded or not—on the average world flag.


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