Red Peak: The importance of context and learning from the wine industry

With the announcement of the four shortlisted flag designs to replace New Zealand’s existing flag, growing support for Aaron Dustin’s Red Peak to be reconsidered has gained favour in social channels. Choosing a flag could be predicted to be something to divide opinions, but the support for Red Peak shows the value in getting your message across with the right context. In this sense, lessons can be learnt from wine.

New Zealand is heading towards a referendum in November 2015 to choose a new flag design. A second referendum will be help in March 2016 to chose between adopting the new design or maintaining the existing. From over 10,000 public submissions, a long list of forty were chosen which was recently whittled down to a short list of four. The long list and short list were chosen by an appointed Flag Appreciation Panel.

Whether you like the submissions chosen for the long and short list are not the topic of this article. Rather, how these flags have been presented to the public and the subsequent comment that has developed: with a lack of context that I would consider as being crucial to forming comment. Hence, it doesn’t surprise me that Aaron Dustin’s Red Peak has steadily been gathering support. By depicting his design in a way that shows his flag doing what flags actually do has made it easy explain his stance and promote the virtues of his creation.

It reminds me of Coca-Cola and wine.


The success of Pepsi’s marketing against it’s bigger rival Coke is well known. Pepsi capitalised on the fact that in double blind tests, people preferred Pepsi over Coke. The nature of having people make a decision from drinking only a small sample amount gave the advantage to Pepsi which stood out with its sweeter taste. But a small mouthful isn’t how people consume soft drink. If the test subjects were to drink a more usual amount such as a can, the results would likely reflect their standings today.

Karl Storchmann of New York University explains a similar experiment he runs in Episode #60 of the Slate Money podcast. In his class, he gives his students 3 samples containing either Pepsi or Coke, i.e.: two of the samples are the same and one is different. The students state their preference (usually Coke) and then try to identify which of the samples is the odd one out. They find it extremely difficult to tell and their accuracy is no better than if they were to just guess at random.


[yellow tail] by Casella Wines (

This example by Storchmann was a small aside as Episode #60 is all about wine, and in that regard:

Context matters, and context is part and parcel of the whole package.


A well known study into the validity of medals awarded to wines comes from Robert Hodgson, a winemaker and part of the advisory board for the California Wine Fair. Suspicious about the quality of the judges, he conducted a study in 2005 to gauge their ability to accurately judge wines in the blind tasting process. In theory, a capable judge should, if given the same wine multiple times, give those wines a similar rating. To test this, Hodgson gave the panel of judges 30 wines to test with 3 being from the same bottle. If the judges were accurate and reliable, those 3 wines should be awarded a similar medal. In practice, less than 10% of judges were able to do so.

In case he was being to strict, Hodgson relaxed the criteria to allow for a range of two meaning that if one sample was awarded a gold and the other samples a bronze, that still qualified as being the same. Less than 20% of judges met this more relaxed standard. Hodgson kept repeating the test each year finding that only around 10% of judges were able to give a similar rating to the identical wines. Worse still, it wasn’t the same 10%. Judges who were consistent one year weren’t the next meaning that there was no consistency. The awards given appeared to be, essentially, luck of the draw.

Having found that judging within the California Wine Fair was inconsistent, was there any consistency between fairs? In 2009, Hodgson published a second study having analysed 4,000 wines submitted to 13 US wine competitions. If there was consistency between fairs then, if a wine received a Gold at one competition, it should have a high probability of receiving a Gold in subsequent competitions. If there wasn’t consistency, wines would have the same odds of receiving a gold medal at each competition. When he analysed the results for the medals awarded, they matched the later case. His conclusion:

An examination of the results of 13 U.S. wine competitions shows that (1) there is almost no consensus among the 13 wine competitions regarding wine quality, (2) for wines receiving a Gold medal in one or more competitions, it is very likely that the same wine received no award at another, (3) the likelihood of receiving a Gold medal can be statistically explained by chance alone.


His advice to winemakers: submit your wines to as many awards as you can. You’ll receive a Gold somewhere in there to put on your label.


If you buy your wine based on how many medals are on the label, perhaps you may be perturbed that those medals might be meaningless. The greater attention though is that there is nothing comparable between the context in how those medals were awarded and how you’re going to consume that wine.

Robin Blackburne judging at the California Wine Fair (Robin Blackburne)

Wine judging involves experts tasting an unusually large number of different wines in one sitting on a morning / afternoon and being forced to make a judgement between them. Your consumption of wine is likely to be from one bottle over an evening meal with family / friends with no thought of what’s in your glass besides “take it or leave it”. In addition, the factors which influence your enjoyment of wine include things which have nothing to do with the wine; how you were feeling that day, the company you were enjoying it with, the meal you were eating, where you were having said meal…. etc. A cheap wine while on holiday is likely to taste better than an expensive drop from a paper bag under a bridge.

The fact that the tastings are by appointed experts also skews the context. Traits deemed as being desirable differ between expert wine tasters and regular consumers. This was successfully exploited by Casella Wines when they created their [yellow tail] brand in 2001, as described by Kim and Mauborgne. Wine, and other things that have an element of learning to enjoy it, simply does not taste nice to many people regardless of how many accolades have been bestowed upon it. With [yellow tail], Casella Wines produced an easy drinking wine that a wide range of people could enjoy on that basis alone without needing to consider the concentration of tannins or the lingering notes of oak on the palette. Consumer orientated wines have grown with more varieties of cask wine, wines being sold in other forms such as cans, and bars serving wine on tap. Such forms would be seen as lesser to the faithful ~750ml bottle with cork (screw tops anyone?) but making something that consumers like seems to be a viable strategy instead of standing out in the conditions of a wine tasting.

Or worse:

Recently the California State Fair competition had become an embarrassment for the entire concept of wine judging.

Charles Shaw won best Chardonnay at the state fair in 2007 with a wine that was apparently created just for the competition. “The characteristics that we look for in our gold medal winner … a nice creamy butter, fruity … it was a delight to taste,” judge Michael Williams told ABC News. The award validated Two Buck Chuck drinkers in the idea that there’s no point in spending more than $3 for a bottle of wine.


I had paid little attention to what was happening to the flag until the 40 shortlisted designs were shown to the public.

The first thing that stood out: the abundance of ferns, koru, and the Southern Cross. Classic New Zealand symbols that we like to call “Kiwiana”.

In wine tastings where judges have to make decisions while sampling an abnormally large number of different sips of wines in one sitting, it’s beneficial to stand out from the competition in the way that Pepsi could. Whether or not it’s what you’d like to drink is another matter:

But another part of it, I think, is that the kind of wines one loves in blind tastings are not necessarily the kind of wines one actually likes to drink in real life. As Bob says, they tend to the soft, and fruity, and sweet. If you normally like that sort of thing, then great, but if you tend to prefer something a bit more austere or elegant, then you might well end up doing yourself no favors at all if you taste a lot of wines blind.


In this regard, perhaps we should be grateful that Red Peak by Aaron Dustin and Wā kāinga/Home by Grant Alexander, Alice Murray, Thomas Lawlor, and Jared McDowell are included in the list given that they seem plain in comparison as the only two without the common New Zealand motifs present in all the other flags.

The second thing: the repetition of very similar designs that use the fern or the koru in a similar way. Perhaps there’s a clue in the selection panel’s open letter that accompanied the release of the long list:

The message was clear, and the Panel agreed. A potential new flag should unmistakably be from New Zealand and celebrate us as a progressive, inclusive nation that is connected to its environment, and has a sense of its past and a vision for its future.


There is nothing objective in this statement and the criteria mentioned are wide open for interpretation (having said that, the panel would need something meatier than “looks nice, colours not too crazy, no kiwis with lasers“). This statement could apply to any country; just substitute their name in for “New Zealand”. Perhaps though, like wine for consumers, it’s not about being told what the flag is about but what people choose to do with flag in hand that matters. France’s Tricolore, adopted in 1794, represents substantial French history, but not through the story expressed through three vertical bands of colour.

Liberty Leading the People - Eugène Delacroix

The third thing: not only is there repetition of similar designs, but repetition of the same design. Kyle Lockwood had five designs in the long list of which four are the same but in different colour schemes. Similarly, Andrew Fyfe, Otis Frizzell, and Dominic Carroll each have two entries differing only in colour while Alofi Kanter has two with the second being a cropped version of the first. For the long list to contain several options that are identical in all but colour or shape suggests that the other ~10,000 flags weren’t that great (here’s 15 for good measure) or they were quite clear that what’s appropriate is ferns, koru, and the Southern Cross, and it’s just a matter of details as to which one to chose.

The short list. Clockwise from top left: Silver Fern (Red, White and Blue) - Kyle Lockwood, Silver Fern (Black, White and Blue) - Kyle Lockwood, Koru - Andrew Fyfe, Silver Fern (Black & White) - Alofi Kanter. (NZ Govt)

That was the feeling I had when the short list was released. Of the four options, two were Lockwood’s Silver Fern design in different colours meaning that that particular design constituted 10% of the 40-strong long list and half of the short list. The remaining two feature a fern and a koru. This selection gives the impression that the Lockwood design is the panel’s own preference and the choice of the four being a variation of common pricing strategies to funnel New Zealanders to the desired outcome:

  • With three of the flags featuring a fern, the koru option (which has affectionately been labelled the Hypnoflag) appears as the outlier.
  • Of the three fern flags, two are very similar while the third is different. Given that it’s easier to make a decision between more comparable options rather than between different, contrasting options, there’s a tendency to choose between those that are similar. This tendency can be accentuated when it’s an unfamiliar choice that’s having to be made, such as picking a national flag.

One thing is clear: well done to Kyle Lockwood. He was motivated enough to get off the couch, produce several designs, and submit them to the open process for which he dominated at both stages of selection.


After the announcement of the long list, the news cycle was full of segments where members of the public were shown the designs as presented by long list document and asked to pick their favourite. Watching these segments on TV, typical reasons for why they chose what they chose were because it featured a piece of Kiwiana and the colour. Understandable reasons given they were asked to judge in an artificial setting where the flags were shown with no context of situations where they would actually be used. Perhaps if the flags were shown in a representation of them in actual use the result would be no different. At least then the choices would have been made with better knowledge of how it would suit situations such as an ANZAC dawn ceremony, when the Prime Minister stands with other world leaders in front of a wall of flags at the G20 summit, or when carried by our flag bearer into the Olympic stadium.

Red Peak by Aaron Dustin (

It hasn’t surprised then to find Aaron Dustin’s Red Peak riding a late wave of support. Dustin has promoted his flag in which he shows his design as an actual flag in the context of various situations that it would be used in to explain it’s merits. From informal polls after the release of the long list, his option seemed to make little impact, possibly because it (and several other more understated options) did not stand out when viewed alongside the 40 long listed options when people were asked to judge.

The Red Peak movement to include it in the short list has gain momentum in social channels. It has my support for being included in the short list, but it’s unlikely that that will happen. Whether or not it matters is possibly moot with other movements afoot to boycott the referendum, mark their referendum forms as invalid, or to lend their support to the Hypnoflag as a protest vote – believed to be the least popular option.

Whether the chosen challenger can defeat the existing flag in next year’s referendum (it’s all very America’s Cup) is another story. The incumbent has the advantage of being the status quo, but it also has the benefit of every New Zealander having seen it in context in all uses. The challenger enjoys no such comfort.

Whether ferns, koru, or the Southern Cross appeal to you or not, they are subjective. But, my fellow New Zealanders, I know of one thing that has universal appeal from Kaitaia to the Bluff. In fact, if you don’t like what I’m proposing then you’ll never be a Kiwi unless you do.

I present to you, Option 41.


Ode to New Zealand

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