Symbols are important. The American flag will fly at half-staff throughout Maine until Sunday, when Berwick firefighter Capt. Joel Barnes is laid to rest. Lowering the flag is one way — a symbol — by which we honor those who have lost their lives in service to others.
There are plenty of other symbols we encounter on a daily basis. President Donald Trump’s red “Make America Great Again” hats strike various chords. The reactionary cat-eared knit caps protesting the president speak to something as well.
All of these symbols do little by themselves to effectuate any change. There are plenty of real issues that have substantial direct impacts, whether MaineCare expansion or proposed new taxes. But the symbols remain important.
They convey a sense of unity and belonging. We see it at sports events; Patriots fans clad in red, white and blue cheer “our” team, although the team is not ours. Towns and schools have their own symbols with their own history. You need only head to Skowhegan to see the impact a symbol — in this case, a mascot — can have.
Indeed, our southern border — at New Hampshire, not Mexico — has become a gubernatorial billboard, announcing the message of the incumbent governor. Paul LePage notably added “Open for Business” to the “Way Life Should Be” sign. Gov. Janet Mills removed both of those in favor of a sign echoing her inaugural address, stating simply “Welcome Home.” She has since said the “Way Life Should Be” will be coming back.
With all these symbols thrown about, the nascent movement to change Maine’s state flag does not seem quite so random.
Our current flag is part of a genus known as a “seal on a bedsheet.” You take the state seal, stick it on a field of blue, and wham, you’ve got a flag. It is the same formula used by at least 24 other states. From a distance, you might think our flag is that of Michigan. Or New York. Or even … Vermont.
Breaking away from that mold presents a real opportunity for our state. Next year is our 200th anniversary of statehood. If we are going to make a change, it presents a good — symbolic — opportunity to do so. And a new flag, whether inspired from our earliest or a more modern creation, could invigorate a new branding effort to attract tourists, residents, and investment.
“I (heart) NY” is a famous tagline for New York City, but it doesn’t work as well when it is “I (heart) ME.” Texas’ flag lives up to its nickname as the “Lone Star State” and is used to brand countless commercial products made there.
Businesses know the power of symbolism and zealously protect their intellectual property. For decades, “Coca Cola” was the most valuable brand in the world. Having recently taken my children to Disney World, I can safely report the reign of Mickey Mouse continues unabated. Google’s simple color scheme and font is instantly recognizable.
The power of symbols can be part and parcel of an economic strategy. “Maine” as a brand means something to those who see it. Canadian lobsters are often sold as “Maine” lobster, leveraging their location in the Gulf of Maine. But with a more iconic flag, our own haulers and processors might be able to counteract competitors’ attempts to hijack what it means to be from Maine.
The same holds true in countless other industries. Maine means something, and symbols are important. With a new flag and a concerted effort to brand our state, we might be able to say to the rest of the world:
“Welcome home. We’re open for business.”