In recent years, the breathtaking scenery featured in The Lord of the Rings has driven the image of New Zealand internationally. Anchoring tourist campaigns, the association has created a surge in visitor numbers keen to sample their own piece of Middle Earth. But for New Zealanders keen to export their brand stories to the world, Hobbits have not been ideal heroes in their quest for the 'precious ring' of value-added success.
Ideally a country’s international image is not only able to put tourist bums on seats, but also provide a fertile platform to launch successful homegrown brands. The attention on Lord of the Rings has further entrenched a tendency for New Zealand to be understood in terms of physical attributes, such as mountains and lakes, rather than the nation’s unique culture.
In an increasingly cluttered global marketplace, nations such as Switzerland, Denmark and Chile can claim to global consumers that they are equally blessed by nature. Northern Ireland’s recent attempts to use the hit TV series Game of Thrones to drive its natural credentials are a reminder that New Zealand’s claims to scenic superiority may have diminishing persuasiveness amid similar claims.
Another factor contributing to the narrow image of New Zealand overseas has been the reluctance of local corporate heavyweights to prioritise building brands. Fonterra, the nation’s largest dairy co-operative, has traditionally based its success on selling milk ingredients to international consumer brands. Only recently has the co-op tentatively extended brands such as bone and mobility supplement Anlene and infant formula Anmum to China, New Zealand’s largest export market.
Lacking a clear role model and faced with an overemphasis on natural resources, New Zealand exporters have lacked the ammunition to create compelling brand propositions for the global market. As a result, they are trapped marketing themselves as providers of superior natural products, rather than tapping aspirational and value-added aspects of the country.
In recognition of the current dilemma, the government has launched the New Zealand Story project, an initiative to help local companies achieve competitive advantage by tapping into the New Zealand brand. Economic development minister Steven Joyce described the aim as “broadening the New Zealand international brand beyond the scenic beauty to include attributes like our innovation, resourcefulness, our Maori heritage and our welcoming friendly approach”. Ostensibly, the New Zealand Story project seeks to broaden the nation’s image to include culture, allowing exporters to create more powerful stories.
While the 'new' New Zealand Story is still being created, it is interesting to explore what aspects of Kiwi culture can provide inspiration to create compelling international brands.
A key part of a story needs to communicate the unique character of the nation. New Zealanders, or Kiwis as they are nicknamed, have a reputation of climbing mountains and jumping off bridges with a rubber band attached, something consistent with the pioneering spirit that comes from living somewhere so isolated from the rest of the world. The notion of a 'Brave New World' applies aptly to the healthy level of optimism and resourcefulness that Kiwis habitually apply to challenges. From a brand platform perspective, this sense of character encapsulates the spirit of kiwi entrepreneurs whether they are high country farmers, yacht designers, coffee purveyors or tech-mavericks.
The ability to create awareness about New Zealand’s character will open international consumers to a wider appreciation of the culture that contributes to the country’s exports, rather than just a growers’ Mecca. Knowledge of Kiwi character will inject brands with personality, engendering stronger levels of uniqueness, engagement and ultimately loyalty with international consumers.
Once Brand New Zealand has some character, it needs to talk more confidently about itself. Perhaps a hangover from being a British colony, New Zealand still rarely talks about itself in a self-assured way, despite the country’s incredible natural and cultural richness. There has been unhealthy tendency to try to talk about heritage and reputation when presenting brands internationally, similar to other European nations, something that simply doesn’t make sense for a country so young.
Instead of being respectful, New Zealand needs to challenge and disrupt the perceptions of international consumers. An excellent example of this comes from up-start local chocolate brand, Whittaker’s. Following phenomenal success in local market, where it has taken chunks out of market leaders Cadbury’s share, the brand is looking to expand its export presence. To do this, it enlisted celebrity chef Nigella Lawson to head the campaign 'Taking on the Swiss'. The TV spot Lawson has received a parcel from “Andrew and Brian”, friends from New Zealand, with a gift of their new 5-roller refined chocolate block. After eating a piece, she says she feels sad the Swiss are being beaten at their own game, but cheekily suggests they move out of chocolate and cling to watches.
This idea of challenging established classics and conventions fits well with the ambitions of New Zealand food exports looking to create higher value in mature markets. The claims are strongly backed up by a dynamic local culinary and wine scene that is based on reinvigorating European dishes with new interpretations and local ingredients. To gain traction in higher-value markets, there needs be a culture of challenger brands that talk unreservedly about taking on the worlds best. Not giving the finger, just cheekily calling the bluff of others.
In addition to character and confidence, the New Zealand Story needs to draw attention to the nation’s unique cultural heritage. The richness of Maori culture has rarely been used specifically to anchor brands despite powerful aesthetic properties and incredibly rich narratives. International interest in Maori customs has been seen in reaction to the rituals of the All Blacks rugby team, interest in tattoo art and response to Niki Caro’s 2002 film Whale Rider.
Maori culture offers a natural point of differentiation for New Zealand brands internationally, especially from agricultural exporters making similar claims about natural heritage. The distinct artistic traditions of the Maori provide an incredible opportunity to visually distinguish products and services internationally. Air New Zealand, for example, has successfully employed the traditional Koru pattern as the airline’s logo since 1985.
Harnessing the distinctiveness of the Maori aesthetic is vital to reconnect the positive associations international consumers have of New Zealand with the Kiwi brands they see in their markets. Currently, the fascination with Hobbiton creates an awareness of New Zealand as a location, but does little to create a sense of the culture and ethos that goes into brands. The task of creating a unique and differentiated visual DNA for Brand New Zealand is more essential in emerging economies, where considerable foggy romanticism and confusion surrounds nations with strong European heritage.
So if the New Zealand Story brings out the nation’s character, encourages brands to be a bit boastful and infuses the unique element of Maori culture to how exports are presented, all readers, both local and international, will be better for it.
Jerry Clode, formerly of Added Value, is the founder of House of Jezmo.