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When Right-Wing Extremists Co-Opted Finland’s National Symbol, This Ad Agency Decided To Design A New One

The lion cross used to represent all of Finland. But now that it’s become synonymous with hate, Finns need something new.

Most national flags and symbols were originally used in war, so it’s not necessarily surprising that in some countries they’ve been co-opted by right-wing extremists. In Finland, that change happened quickly. A few decades ago, if you wore the national symbol–a lion cross–people might have just assumed you were a sports fan. Now they’d probably think that you’re a violent skinhead. So a Finnish ad agency has decided to design a new national symbol that everyone can use.

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In part, it’s meant to help bring together a country that has only recently become diverse, as new immigrants move from places like Pakistan and Somalia. “Our nation is quite a laggard when it comes to becoming internationally open and multicultural, and therefore the reaction to the changing environment has been stronger, and happened later than in some other countries,” says Karri Knuuttila from the Finnish ad agency Bob The Robot, which is leading the project.

While some might argue that a globally connected world has less need for patriotic symbols–or that they drive us apart–the agency thinks the opposite is true. “We strongly feel that maybe now more than ever, people need some kind of symbols of unity, something they can feel connected to, without it disconnecting them from the reality of the diverse and global world,” Knuuttila says.

One Finnish commenter put it another way: “The need for collective stories has not disappeared.” The symbol is meant to celebrate what’s different about Finland. “I couldn’t imagine a more boring world, than a world of a single global monoculture,” Knuuttila says. “People need to be able to connect with something smaller than the entire world, and I also find the special cultural differences of people not only beautiful but also so very human.”

Finland isn’t the only place where national symbols have been co-opted. In Japan, for example, the rising sun flag has recently become associated with ultra-nationalists. While sometimes the use of a flag can change–like in Germany, where it was finally acceptable to fly the flag after the 2006 World Cup after decades of negative associations, or in Scotland, where the flag suddenly became a symbol for independence–in Finland, the ad agency wanted to start from scratch with a new symbol.

In a twist, they decided to turn to Sweden for the design. “We were thinking that there’s nothing new and interesting in having a Finnish designer do this,” says Knuutilla. “After all, there’s a filter in your head when you think about your own country, it’s not possible to overcome the burden of being Finnish yourself . . . We wanted to get a fresh new approach.”

The new national symbol will be revealed in December.

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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