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Poppy important marketing and remembrance symbol for Royal Canadian Legion

Last Updated Nov 3, 2015 at 3:10 pm PDT

Peter Melkert, who survived the German bombing of Rotterdam, sells poppies in Halifax on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2015. Melkert arrived in Canada at the end of the Second World War and has been involved with the annual poppy sale for 33 years to thank his new country for the liberation of Holland. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

HALIFAX – There was a time when a poppy adorning an umbrella just didn’t cut it with members of a Royal Canadian Legion committee.

Now, such an item is sold through its online store.

“At one time it was not deemed to be appropriate,” Bill Maxwell, secretary of the poppy and remembrance committee at Dominion Command in Ottawa, said in an interview Tuesday. “Time passes and approaches change and now we do have, I think, a very nice poppy umbrella.”

A symbol honouring Canada’s war dead since 1921, the poppy has been reimagined in the last two years on clothing, as jewelry and even on tote bags and headstones as an important marketing tool for the Legion.

The red flower immortalized in this country by war poet John McCrae’s In Flanders Fields is trademarked in Canada by the Legion, which in 2013 included the poppy as part of a rebranding of the organization.

A poppy logo is now part of the Legion’s public face and poppy-themed products ranging from throw blankets to candles and mittens can be bought online.

Maxwell said the idea was to update the image of the legion as more than a place to socialize, given that it runs a number of assistance programs for veterans and youth.

“We didn’t have a consistent branding that was contemporary,” he said, adding that his committee evaluates every proposed use of the poppy image for marketing with an eye on respectful uses of the well-known flower as a symbol of remembrance.

The money raised by the online store helps fund the operations of legion branches and is separate from the annual poppy appeal campaign that runs through the remembrance period between Oct. 30 and Nov. 11.

“We’ve always had some poppy-related products and that will continue to expand,” Maxwell said. “It’s a very popular item and it has an appeal to Canadians.”

Though it is ever-evolving — as demonstrated by the umbrella decision — Maxwell said the Canadian store’s use of the poppy is modest when compared to what’s offered by the Royal British Legion, which he described as a “major marketing machine.”

“We certainly haven’t made the decision as the Royal British Legion has to commercialize with a whole range of products,” said Maxwell. “We are trying to keep them to a level where they are attached to commemoration and remembrance.”

The traditional poppy campaign has also expanded over time to include poppy stickers and a more permanent pin that can be worn at any time of the year for commemorative events.

Maxwell said the popularity of the poppy saw the campaign take in $16.5 million last year. He said those funds are kept in trust and used for a wide range of support programs, from funding housing and care facilities for veterans to purchasing medical equipment and maintaining memorials.

“The main concern is that the poppy is used respectfully and as a symbol of remembrance,” said Maxwell.

That’s a sentiment that’s important to 85-year-old Peter Melkert of Halifax, a legion member who has been selling poppies for 33 years, including the last 18 at the same grocery store in the city’s south end.

Melkert is a Dutch immigrant, who at 16 was saved from starvation when Canadian soldiers liberated his home city of Rotterdam.

He said he met a Canadian soldier who thrust some raisins into his hand — a memory he will never forget.

“I look forward to it every year to be here for a week putting poppies on,” said Melkert. “It’s a small price to pay for what they (Canadians) did to liberate my country.”