Ahhhhhh....I didn't want to this but....
Read Time: 8 minutes
I’m writing a post about the flag.
Readers of this site not from Mississippi may or may not know of what I speak. Since the massacre at the African-American church in South Carolina, and SC Governor Nikki Haley’s calling for the Confederate Flag to be removed from the state capital grounds, there has been a snowball of removal of Confederate-oriented elements from retail stores and television (TV Land dropped Dukes of Hazzard reruns, if you haven’t heard). Mississippi is the only state that has the old Confederate “stars and bars” incorporated as part of it’s official state flag.
So there’s the background. And as I type this, I still can’t believe I’m writing a post on this topic. Why? Because I think it is mostly a distraction. I don’t say that to belittle the vocal opponents of the Mississippi flag, or to tee-off the vocal proponents of keeping it. Usually when politicians talk of a particular issue being a “distraction,” it usually means that it is a highly relevant and important issue that they quite frankly don’t have an answer for. This, I don’t believe, is such a case.
So as I vowed over and over again to not get sucked into the debate, I realized that I had yet to hear an argument made over the flag from a branding standpoint. I am, after all, in advertising. “Brand development” is in my official title. So I began more and more to think of the case of the dixie flag from the “branding” standpoint. If the state of Mississippi were a client, how would I advise it? What rationale would I put forth – from a branding perspective – to support a recommended action?
Let’s start with one of the basic tenants of branding – the difference between “truth” and “credibility”:
Lesson 1: “Credibility” isn’t the same as “truth.”
Again please let me apologize – I’m sure I’m offending many who don’t care to view this debate in such shallow terms. Blame it on the ad-guy in me. Anyway, it makes sense to me to think of it this way. The dixie flag is a brand. The same way that the Red Cross or the Swastika or Rolex are brands (for the record, I am not drawing any attribution similarities among those examples). A brand is literally something that triggers a strong set of emotions and preconceived notions in people. Isn’t that exactly what the dixie flag does? And through it’s incorporation into the state of Mississippi’s official flag, the state is concurrently associating with and endorsing what that brand stands for.
Many argue that isn’t the case. That the dixie flag is a manifestation and connection to Mississippi’s history – the good and the bad.
Folks, from a branding standpoint, that simply isn’t true.
More accurately, that statement reflects what many people wished to be true, but it just doesn’t pass the credibility test. Allow me to offer a less controversial example: Colin Kaepernick has been the starting quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers for the past few seasons. Until the wheels came off in 2014, Kaepernick was recognized as one of the best young QB talents in the league. The 49ers were back-to-back visitors to the NFC title game. Before the Splash Brothers brought an NBA title to the Bay Area, Kaepernick was the golden boy of the Golden Gate. Then he was photographed in the off season wearing a Miami Dolphins hat.
Now let me say this was the Dolphins. Not the Seahawks or the Giants or the Bears or other traditional 49er rivals. The Dolphins aren’t even in the same conference. No matter. The Dolphins are another football team. Kaepernick was skewered by fans. Destroyed. Called a traitor. Colin – who is quite the snazzy dresser off the field apparently – defended the hat as a “fashion” accessory. Said the green matched his outfit, or something like that. Needless to say, this didn’t help. It didn’t matter that he wanted the public to believe his reason for wearing the hat was simply for fashion. The fact was, the symbols on that hat stood for something, and that something was another football team. It didn’t matter how many insta-twixts Colin posted, it wasn’t going to change that fact.
The same is true with the dixie flag as part of Mississippi’s official state iconography. Just because you want it to mean something, doesn’t mean it really means something else.
And that something else is usually wrapped up in the original intent:
Lesson 2: Original Branding Intent
I’m a big original intent guy in the “constitutional” sense. I don’t buy into the fact that the people who make our laws and social compacts are such cerebral clairvoyants that they can make policy with nuances that will be applicable 100 years the later. The principles that underlie the policy, yes, but not the literal application thereof. I think the policies have to be statutorily adapted to fit the times, not interpreted to mean something they originally did not. So with this mindset, I take a look at the Mississippi flag through the historical lens of branding intent.
A quick trip to Wikipedia uncovers that prior to the 1860s, most states didn’t have their own unique flags. The Mississippi flag design with the confederate symbolism was adopted in 1894, after Reconstruction and just prior to Plessy v. Ferguson that essentially legalized “Separate but Equal.” And this was just after the constitutional convention in Mississippi that authored the state’s governing law that institutionalized Jim Crow. I’m sorry, folks, but I have a hard time believing that the original intent behind placing the confederate imagery in the state’s official flag was not to “stick it” to the feds for years of Reconstruction and carpet bagging. A finger in the eye, if you will, that the south would remain autonomous in spirit if not in practice.
I liken this to the story of the BMW logo. The logo represents a spinning airplane propeller against a blue sky. The tale is that BMW was banned from the aviation industry given their role in manufacturing aircraft engines for the Nazis in WWII. As a sign of defiance, they adapted an aviation-themed logo for their strictly terrestrial company. It was all symbolism, of course, but there was strong meaning behind that symbolic act. I think we’re looking at the same situation in 1890’s Mississippi.
Which brings me to point numero tres:
Lesson 3: Seriously Consider the Power of Brands and Unintended Consequences
Back to my original consideration of advising Mississippi on the level of being a brand. Remember when Phillip Morris (the evil tobacco company) changed their name to the much lighter and no-baggage-having “Altria”? Closer to home, “Cellular South” changed their name to “C Spire” to better reflect evolving from a “hometown cell phone company” to a major data and technology company that is “customer inspired.” These were deliberate changes to address the expected consequences of sticking with their respective old brands. But you also are remiss if you do not strongly consider the unintended consequences that come with supporting a brand.
I don’t think that 99% of Mississippians who want to keep the current Mississippi flag feel that way based on a sense of ethnic identity. To put it another way, they’re not racists. To characterize them in that way just feeds a narrative and perception that is doesn’t do us any good. Do racists exist in Mississippi? You bet. And they are racists of all colors. And the same is true in Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Michigan, as well as every other state that doesn’t start with “M.” We do have to recognize that Mississippi – along with 10 other states – did institutionalize racism in way that other states didn’t. But in basically every state, racism and lots of other isms have been present de facto if not de jurie.
All this to say that I think the vast majority of those in favor of keeping the Mississippi flag as-is are doing so from the standpoint of defiance. Culturally, we don’t like other people telling us what to do. I hear ya. I don’t like anyone telling me what to do, and my first instinct is to do the exact opposite. It’s a visceral, emotional reaction. Thankfully, most of the time rationality takes over (although I still don’t do much as I’m told ; ). When we couple this societal attitude with the fact that Mississippians hold a kind of indignant inferiority complex relative to much of the rest of the nation (and we shouldn’t, btw), you have the perfect stewpot for brewing a contemptuous, misrepresented battle.
So what is the rationality to get beyond that? Again, let’s consider the unintended consequences of keeping the current flag. First and foremost, the rest of the nation/world gets to pile on and paint us (yet again) with the brush of being backwater bumpkins who are still fumin’ sore over Appomattox. This is unfair. This is ridiculous. And it is exactly what will happen. We don’t need to allow the benefit of indulging in this narrative, yet again. And I know what many of you are saying – “Who cares what everybody else thinks?” That would be my first reaction, too.
Poke the defiant finger in the eye of the predictable narrative.
Well the reality is we should care. We should care mainly because we are largely misrepresented. And this misrepresentation can prove an impediment to economic development, adds to our out migration of intellectual capital (brain drain), and hurts the small business owners and entrepreneurs in Mississippi who depend on selling goods and services to markets outside of Mississippi. We’re not going to get wealthier by exchanging our own money with each other. We need to sell outside of our borders to raise our economic fortunes. If a symbol with less-than-honorable original intent and who's modern day meaning is nebulous-at-best stands in the way of this, then let’s address the issue and move on. You want to poke a defiant finger in someone’s eye, this is exactly the way to do it. Poke the defiant finger in the eye of the predictable narrative.
An Epilogue to the Lessons
I also don’t agree with those say, in reference to the 1894 flag: “get rid of it.” I don’t know if they really mean what they say or not, but we shouldn’t “get rid” of the current Mississippi flag any more than we should discount Thomas Jefferson or George Washington because they were slave holders. It happened. We need to face that fact. Washing over it won’t help. It doesn’t need to be “banned from the history books.” In fact, doing so is a seismic dishonor to all the civil rights heroes to fought to overcome the oppression that was the Jim Crow regime and remnant ethnically-based bias. Let’s not ban it from the history books, but let’s confine it to history. I think a valuable lesson can be taken from that.
The Branding Recommendation
Bottom line, the 1894 Mississippi state flag is hurting Mississippi’s brand. It embodies a false and/or misunderstood interpretation in 21st century Mississippi. It is a lightening rod for external agitators, and an unnecessary point of division among our own citizens. It will have always have been the state’s official flag for the entirety of the 20th century. It should no longer be our official state flag. As we rebrand our state, we should consider rebranding the symbols that better reflect who we really are as a people and a place. The fact is, such an exercise holds great potential for a massive creative collaboration among all our citizens. We w0uld all be better off for it.
And one last thing, then I’ll shut up…
I’d like to make a plea to our elected officials. The last thing this state needs is a divisive public debate that draws attention away from important issues that tangibly impact all people’s lives. We don’t need a referendum on this flag deal. We don’t need to give the media a reason to point to Mississippi as and make the “us against them” argument. We don’t need outside agitators – from either side – camped out in the state for months at a time. We don’t live in direct democracy, and we don’t respect mob rule. We have a representative-style government for a reason. If we are to make the right decision and change our state flag, let’s please do so inside the confines of government and move forward with the business of making our state a powerhouse in the 21st century.