I am ashamed to admit that it was only recently that I discovered the existence of a Dorset flag – a daffodil-yellow ground superimposed by a white cross bordered with scarlet.

The Dorset Cross, also known as St Wite’s Cross, apparently won county-wide approval in September 2008, after 2,086 people out of 4,000 voters bothered to give the standard their official blessing.

First and foremost, I would humbly submit that 2,086 votes out of a county-wide population of more than 750,000 (more than 80 per cent of whom are of voting age) can hardly be described as a thumping majority.

However, the fact that the flag exists at all raises interesting questions about “branding” in general. Flags are an emblem of common interest – England football fans draped in the cross of St George, the stars and stripes representing the federation of the 50 United States, and so on.

Brands are similarly emblematic. McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, KFC – all have distinctive brands that say, in old-time computer language, “wysiwyg” or “what you see is what you get”. Brands tell consumers what they can expect.

More importantly, perhaps, they tell consumers what they cannot expect. No-one goes into a Burger King outlet and asks for a lasagne, let alone a rib-eye steak. No-one goes in to Yo! Sushi and orders a steak pie.

Back in the 1950s, a chap calls Kemmons Wilson took his family on a road-trip across the USA. He was so horrified by the lack of consistent standards offered by the roadside motels of the day, that he opened his own hotel – just outside Memphis, Tennessee, since you ask – and established the Holiday Inn chain.

As of last month, there are somewhere in the region of 1,160 Holiday Inns around the world and, like McDonald’s, Pizza Hut and the rest, they’re all much of a much-ness – a burger in Miami is the same as a burger in Moscow, a hotel room in Sydney is basically the same as one in Cincinnati or Sao Paulo.
There’s nothing essentially wrong with Pizza Hut, or Holiday Inn, or any of the others – Costa Coffee, Harvester Inns, whoever. They’re very good at what they do, and they do what they do to the same, consistent standard, and they have an exceptionally loyal customer base.

Where they fail, and fail dismally, is in encouraging entrepreneurship. It’s relatively easy to become a Mr Minit key-cutter or ProntoPrint photocopier, but you’re never going to become a better key-cutter or photocopier unless you shrug off that brand, move out on your own, and do something different.

A “brand” is only as good as the product it represents. Mercedes cars aren’t good because they’re called Mercedes, they’re good because they’re fantastic cars. Parker pens aren’t good because they called Parker, they’re good because they’re fantastic pens.

Fly the Dorset flag all you like, but that won’t drive up revenues. Belonging to a brand – following a flag – is a recipe for anonymity. Make Kemmons Wilson spin in his grave – be different!