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Battle over brand NZ

New Zealand’s 14-year-old marketing slogan has taken a hammering, but does it deserve it be ditched?

100% Pure New Zealand campaign posters on a bus stop in New York. Photo/Tourism NZ

An epic battle is raging between Middle-earth and milk. On one side are hobbits showcasing our unspoilt landscapes. On the other is giant Fonterra with its intensive dairying and food scares mucking up our clean, green image. At stake is not a ring to rule the world but a slogan to woo it with.

A blast from the Mail Online.

The 100% Pure New Zealand marketing campaign may have served the tourism industry for 14 years, but lately it has been under attack. “Pure manure” the UK’s Daily Mail dubbed it during the recent tainted-whey fiasco. China’s state-run news agency called it “a festering sore”.

Is the slogan so far from the truth that it’s putting Brand New Zealand at risk? Is it time for change? Or do we need to accept the line as 100% pure spin and take it with a grain of salt, as Prime Minister John Key advises?

It’s true we aren’t environmentally blameless, but other countries also promote themselves with slogans that don’t tell the full story. “Incredible India” – where there are overcrowded slums with leprosy still prevalent. “Fiji, where happiness finds you” – where citizens live with the aftermath of a military coup. “South Africa: Inspiring new ways” – where there is a high crime rate. Or there’s “Discover the spirit of Japan” – a country where there’s a nuclear crisis. And let’s not even get into “Colombia: The only risk is wanting to stay”.

The Advertising Standards Authority is backing 100% Pure. Earlier this year it refused to uphold Fiji-based academic Peter Nuttall’s complaint that the slogan misrepresents New Zealand, ruling that it is a positioning statement rather than being inextricably bound to environmental factors.

However, some business people, brand-builders and academics are increasingly concerned that that position is risky.

Trish Sherson of communication-strategy agency Sherson Willis agrees the 100% Pure campaign has been highly effective. “Do I think we should drop it just because the Daily Mail has given us a bit of a knock? Absolutely not,” she says. “But we have to be alert to the fact that, even though we’re using it to market tourism and experiences, the world is measuring us on it as a promise for environmental standards and the safety of our food. From a perception point of view, it’s a big stick to beat us with when things go wrong.”


Still, don’t junk the slogan, she says. Instead, aspire to it. “If the world sees it as a claim for New Zealand Inc, we’re going to have to start living up to it. We need to make sure that if we’re tested on it, we should be able to stack up, which at the moment we can’t.”

What has muddied the waters for 100% Pure is that businesses are capitalising on the slogan and the clean, green image it implies to market such products as food, clothes and skincare. Juliet Roper of the University of Waikato has been tracking the changes as part of a study into sustainability practices since 2003. Back then, only 17% of companies surveyed said they marketed based on environmental image or clean, green New Zealand. The latest research shows that figure is now 34%.

Roper, who received a Marsden Fund grant in 2010 to look at the vulnerability of our clean, green image, believes we need to recognise that our environmental credentials are our economic backbone.

“The spin-off for local industries is hugely valuable. It gives them an edge,” she argues. “We’re never going to make it 100% pure, since people live and farm here, but we can maximise our responsibility and care to protect our brand. If people come here and see dirty water because of farm run-off, read about overfishing or the mining of conservation areas, these things fly in the face of the brand and it’s in the interest of our competitors to question it.”


New Zealand’s profile has increased in recent years, thanks in part to sporting triumphs, Peter Jackson’s movies and Tourism NZ’s marketing spend.

Wellingtonian Mark Tanner has experienced that first-hand. The founder of marketing and research agency China Skinny, he has been based there for four years. He rarely meets a Chinese person who doesn’t know something about New Zealand – a stark contrast to his US experiences in the late 1990s.

“People would hear my accent and ask if I was from Canada,” he recalls. “When I said New Zealand, often I’d get something like, ‘Is that near Boston?’ So it’s quite impressive that virtually every Chinese person, especially those with the means to buy our goods and services, has heard of the country.”

Tanner says most Chinese view New Zealand as beautiful and uncrowded, with good weather and stunning wedding photo locations. Having China’s social media queen, actress Yao Chen, advocating for us has also raised its profile.

But when it comes to marketing our products, he says it’s vital not to underestimate the importance of our clean, green image.

“The average Shanghai consumer is bombarded with three times the advertising of their British equivalent – you have to see it to believe it,” he says. “Our country’s brand gives New Zealand companies a strong, trusted base to piggyback on, although not all of them are using it as well as they could.”

Tanner says the Fonterra scandal has been damaging in the short term, but Chinese consumers aren’t dwelling on it. “The Fonterra story was on the front page of every newspaper, but now the few mentions are commending dairy companies for their transparency and stating how Chinese companies wouldn’t do that. There’s a fondness for New Zealand here, but we shouldn’t take that for granted. We should be working hard to restore the damage that’s been done. If we do it right, we could come back stronger.”

“Green growth” is the great catch cry. It has been taken up by Pure Advantage, a group of business leaders, including Sir Stephen Tindall, Geoff Ross and Sir George Fistonich, who are pushing for research into the monetary value of our ecologically clean image and who are actively looking for opportunities to benefit from it.


Icebreaker CEO Jeremy Moon: “It’s time to tidy up our environmental credentials.” Photo/Richard Robinson/NZH

“I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t have an overwhelmingly positive view of New Zealand,” says Icebreaker CEO Jeremy Moon, whose merino clothing company trades globally on our unspoilt natural image. “I can’t think of any country in the world where people say ‘I love New Zealand – I wanna go there’ as enthusiastically as they do about our country. It’s a key part of Icebreaker’s success.”

Moon is among those who maintain that our environment and the culture that results from it are our strongest assets. “So far we’re still in good shape as a country because of the overwhelming positive equity that has been built up, but that’s beginning to be chipped away and it’s time to consciously tidy up our environmental credentials with the appropriate level of regulation and care.”

However, not everyone agrees that cleaning up our act is enough to insulate Brand New Zealand. In a recent radio interview, Professor Malcolm Wright of Massey University described 100% Pure as “a piece of puffery”. His argument is that although it has been wonderful at grabbing attention, we can’t rely on it. As a small country, we need to integrate all the elements of “New Zealandness” – from the silver fern and Maori culture to the kiwi and the All Blacks – into a strong, multi-dimensional brand story. Let’s not abandon 100% Pure but give it some mates, he said.

Building the shining reputation required for genuine green growth will require more than marketing spin, warns PR consultant Deborah Pead. “It’s a great myth that PR can manufacture a reputation. It can’t. What it can do is shape it, refine it, communicate it. But the intent has to be there and it has to be filled with integrity. If it’s not, you’ll be exposed, and in the days of social media, there is no disguising it.”

She believes we’ve been cavalier with Brand New Zealand and to turn things around requires buy-in not just from the Government and the private sector, but from all of us.

Her suggestion? Develop a code of conduct that all New Zealanders live by – a set of rules that eventually will become as natural as putting on a seatbelt.

“It’s going to take a lot of brains to develop a simple code that New Zealanders abide by and support to deliver on 100% Pure,” she admits. “But this brand belongs to us like the All Blacks and Team New Zealand do. There’s no reason we can’t get behind it in the same way.”

Tourism NZ is understandably loyal to the marketing campaign that has kept visitor numbers healthy through the global recession. CEO Kevin Bowler may have inherited the slogan when he took up his position, but his challenge is to try to position it back into the job it was intended to do – as a tourism advertising campaign.

“It’s filled a vacuum where other industries have failed to do as good a job of promoting their aspect of New Zealand, whether it’s products or other services,” says Bowler. “But it was clear to me when I took on this role that 100% Pure shouldn’t and couldn’t be our national brand position. As a way to encapsulate visitor experience, it’s doing a great job, but I don’t think it’s the right way to promote our products. And that’s the context for a piece of work I’ve been doing with Trade & Enterprise.”


The new initiative, the New Zealand Story project, was inspired during the Rugby World Cup. “The centrepiece of that [event] was the Cloud. Visitors there would have seen a lot of pieces of the puzzle. Imagine if we could have been a bit more articulate about what our story was.”

Bowler has spent a challenging 18 months thrashing out ideas for this consistent country brand. “What we are trying to do is take the fern and New Zealand name and articulate what many exporters are doing in their own right for their products and services and give them some foundation to build on.”

He is working with advertising and marketing agency Assignment on tools to tell the story, including a video, a website and visuals. And yes, our clean, green image will be part of that.

“But we have to tell a broader story of who we are as a people and what we have to offer the world. It needs to do a job for our education services and technology industries as well as our product exporters,” says Bowler.

“The way we approached the project was to take what people could readily associate with New Zealand and figure out a way to build on it. It feels like we’ve got the opportunity to say, ‘Here’s what you know about us, but there’s a bit more to our story than that and here’s another chapter and another.’”

So when people see our latest 100% Middle-earth 100% Pure New Zealand campaign, it’s not unreasonable to expect them to accept that in Hobbiton they’re burning fossil fuels, running dairy herds and may even have the odd product recall?

Says Deborah Pead, “That 100% is a very high benchmark. We could probably do 80% and still get by.”