Auckland: A City Branding Success Story from Aotearoa New Zealand

What makes a city unique and how do you capitalise on this distinctiveness to build a city brand that is worthy of mimicking?

For the winners of City Nation Place’s ‘Place Brand of the Year 2020’ award, every stage of building Auckland’s city brand is notable. In this interview, Shelley Watson, Head of Marketing and Clare Barker, Brand Manager at Auckland Unlimited explain how their award-winning city brand came into being. They discuss the importance of stakeholder engagement, the power of technology in uncovering their Place DNA™, and how effective storytelling helped them share what Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland has to offer for students, visitors, skilled workforce, and investors alike.


What triggered Auckland’s interest in city branding?

For some time, our organisation, local businesses and stakeholders have been crying out for a cohesive story of Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland. A succinct way to articulate its uniqueness and appeal, that industry and stakeholders can rally behind.

We did a lot of desk research and followed publications such as yours, to get a good understanding of the complexities of city branding. Often this type of work can get caught up in the city logo and straplines, and sometimes it can get derailed by politics. There are so many stakeholders. But ultimately, the city brand belongs to its residents.

From previous experience, we knew stakeholder engagement was critical. We found that ensuring our place brand work was grounded in robust research, engaging our residents, creating advocates and supporters along the way, and keeping as wide a range of stakeholders informed as possible, was key to building the city brand for Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland.

It also helped that our Chief Executive and leadership team were incredibly supportive. They could see the importance of the work from the get-go. And very early in the piece, our Mayor was engaged. He could see the benefits for Auckland in understanding our value proposition.

There were a lot of great cities we looked to for inspiration. Amsterdam, Copenhagen, London, Singapore, Helsinki, Glasgow, Eindhoven, Ottawa, to name a few. Cities that really understood how a strong brand could work for their city, and how place brand overarches everything that a city does – economic development, talent attraction, investment – not just tourism and visitation.

For the cities that do it really well, the place brand goes as far as influencing placemaking, that is, it helps informs city vision and long-term planning, event selection, public art, determines offshore markets, niche markets etc. 

What is Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland’s Place DNATM? What makes it unique and different from other cities in New Zealand – and the rest of the world?

We used evidence-based methodology to uncover what makes Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland unique and we worked with a great partner, Destination Think to help us, using their trademarked process to uncover our Place DNA™.

We had a truckload of research that had been done previously, that we shared at the outset. This, and Destination Think’s initial desk research, revealed that although Auckland has a strong rational appeal, our emotional appeal is relatively low. This matters because it is the emotional appeal that builds reputation and allows people to envisage themselves living, studying, working or investing in a place.

The Place DNA™ discovery work was co-created with our residents through a range of workshops. We also played back the results to those that attended. We did quantitative research across a representative sample of Aucklanders. Our indigenous Māori population was of particular importance and we ran workshops with Iwi (tribe) partners and stakeholders.

We then looked at how the world viewed Auckland. We did a quantitative survey with travellers and visitors from our competitor set of international cities, as well as the rest of New Zealand. We also did a two-year data scrap of publicly available websites, blogs, social media etc., with almost 92 million conversations from over 500,000 sources.

The last piece of the place brand puzzle was understanding what we were telling the world about Auckland. Our organisation, and other key Auckland businesses, organisations and stakeholders’ social media and digital communications were put under the microscope.

It was a massive piece of research work and it was a big job to synthesise and distil it.

We found that it’s the combination of our economy, our urban-ness, our spectacular natural environment, our multi-cultural society and our modern Māori culture that makes us unique.

What we also learnt is that the world doesn’t know our urban story, that New Zealand has a metropolis in Auckland. This is a big narrative gap for us that it’s important to close, to attract talent, investment, business, students etc. who need the city experience, but will also value the impressive natural setting.

The other gap is our modern Māori identity. It’s not common to see indigenous culture as vibrant and living, and woven into daily life, as the Māori culture is here. We need to get better at telling that story to the world as it’s what makes us unique and talks more broadly about our society and values.

The five rational dimensions of our identity – urban, nature, Māori, multi-cultural and economy were turned into four brand pillars, to enable us to tell stories aligned to our brand, so that over time, we will build the emotional connection we know we need.

Our place brand themes are:

  1. Place of Mana, representing our Māori culture and values
  2. Collective Worlds, our multi-cultural population
  3. Playground for Ideas, our business and innovation pillar
  4. Urban Oasis, our city experience set in nature, and the balanced life our city offers its residents

How is Auckland using the power of storytelling to enhance its reputation internationally?

We are very aware that we need to build our emotional connection with the brand of Auckland and that the best way to do that is via stories. We’ve done the foundation work for this through our four brand themes described above. Because they are grounded in research, and therefore are authentic, they resonate with Aucklanders and generate pride and buy-in with those who have become familiar with the work.

One of our focuses for the Auckland brand is to create theme-aligned video and photography to allow us and others to more easily tell stories that are aligned to the brand. Serendipitously, just before our first COVID-19 lockdown last year, we had invested in a helicopter shoot on Auckland Anniversary weekend. This produced some stunning footage that, along with other content shoots we had done previously as part of our brand strategy, meant we had a great asset bank to draw on.

When we first went into lockdown here, about a year ago, our organisation saw a time to connect – with Aucklanders, New Zealanders, and the world. With our stunning on-brand footage and an understanding of the Auckland brand, we created ‘Papātuānuku is Breathing, from home, in lockdown. The video captured the beauty of our region, our Urban Oasis and Place of Mana brand themes, and spoke to how we, and the world were feeling at this time. This storytelling captured hearts and minds across the globe, becoming far and away our most engaging content.

Last year we also built an online home for the Auckland brand. It houses the Tāmaki Makaurau He Aratohu Auckland Playbook, an educational video, theme videos and our asset library. This was created in part so that Auckland businesses and stakeholders could ‘self-service’ and access the brand from wherever they are.

Educating the wider Auckland community to communicate the Auckland Place Brand is a work in progress. There is always more to do. We are currently juggling lockdowns to do a video and photography shoot to represent our economic development brand theme – Playground for Ideas.

Our aim is that the brand is central to all work briefed by our organisation. This is the most effective way that we can build the brand internationally. From tourism campaigns to investment strategies to conference bids and attracting students, skilled talent, screen production etc. Ensuring all our outbound communications, and ‘destinations’ such as our websites and social media, reflect the Auckland brand, will over time build our reputation and attract those that align with our values and who we are as a city.

Our marketing team have really embraced the brand. They are the ones driving it, ensuring that all campaigns and content line up to one or more of the themes. They also contribute substantially to the video and photographic assets that we create. It’s a collaborative effort and the wider marketing cohort are an engine room for building the brand.

Iconic Auckland attractions such as the Auckland Art Gallery, Auckland Zoo, Auckland Museum, and Auckland Maritime Museum, have been proponents of the Auckland brand long before it was articulated, and they continue to be at the vanguard of building Auckland’s reputation. Now that we have the Playbook and related assets, it’s increasingly being done more consciously.

Auckland Unlimited is embracing Māori culture and diversity. How have you managed to bring all the stakeholders together under one shared brand proposition?

Tāmaki Makaurau, Auckland is an indigenous city that was founded on the generosity of tangata whenua (people of the land).  First and foremost we are a bicultural city – Māori culture and values not only influence everything we do, it’s what makes our city unique.

As such, we partnered alongside our key Māori stakeholders and iwi partners from the beginning of the place brand work to ensure any design thinking reflected the role of tangata whenua through Māori culture and language. Through the Auckland place brand process we identified Māori culture as one of our brand themes – He wāhi whai mana, Place of mana – reflecting the role and importance of tangata whenua in telling the Auckland story and connecting us to this land.

Our place brand playbook was designed from a Māori design perspective and was very careful about how we used Te Reo Māori (the Māori language) throughout, investing in an additional specialist copywriter to oversee this.

As a principle, we bring a Māori viewpoint into our campaigns at the onset. For example, the campaign idea for our 2021 Auckland leverage campaign, Auckland is Calling – Tāmaki Makaurau Karanga Rā; designed to align all city marketing under one banner this year; came from the notion of a gateway or Tomokanga, where in the Māori world, you are transported through a portal into another realm.

It’s been a rewarding part of the brand development to see Māori culture recognised as a huge part of our identity and we look forward to seeing it play an even greater role as we evolve as an organisation.

Auckland Unlimited recently released its first Climate Change and Sustainability Report FY19/20. Why does Auckland put so much focus on being a resilient and regenerative economy, in its brand communications?

The current economic model and the pursuit of growth at the expense of our natural environment and societal wellbeing is being increasingly challenged around the world. To deliver Auckland’s climate goals there is a need for a more resilient economy that is regenerative, distributive and enables Aucklanders to thrive.

Disruptions such as climate change and global pandemics have highlighted vulnerabilities in our regional and global economy and also highlighted that some of our communities are more impacted than others.

Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland needs to prepare and plan for both the physical impacts of a changing climate and the risks and opportunities of our transition to a low carbon economy, and we need to work together as a region to ensure no one is left behind.

Clearly, if we don’t value, respect and tend to our precious environment, we jeopardise what makes us special. But it is more than that of course. Sustainability is what it says – if we don’t sustain our environment– that’s not going to end well for any of us.

The indigenous Māori value of ‘kaitiakitanga’ is a New Zealand Māori term used for the concept of guardianship; for our environment, the sky, the sea, and the land. This was the focus for one of our more successful campaigns, ‘Papatuanuku (our Earth mother) is Calling’ which we referred to above. It called out the importance of our natural environment at a very unique period in our history, and it’s likely we’re going to see even more focus on the natural environment when we come out of the pandemic.

Congratulations on Auckland winning the ‘Place Brand of the Year’ at the City Nation Place Awards 2020. What does this recognition mean for your work as city marketers?

As you can imagine, we were absolutely delighted. Such a prestigious award and City Nation Place is such a respected global congress.  The speakers, attendees, finalists and adjudicators were of such a high calibre. We were truly honoured.

We are very fortunate to have a Board and Executive that completely understand the work and have been on the journey with us, we certainly wouldn’t have got as far as we have with the Auckland brand without their support and advocacy.

Winning Place Brand of the Year has been fantastic for us. It’s been a springboard for the next tranche of work we need to do and has given legitimacy to the work. Helping others who don’t live and breathe this discipline understand its value. It’s also given more impetus to engage with others in the international place brand space. There is so much to learn and connecting with our peers around the world is something we hope to do more of.

We also see this award as contributing to growing the emotional appeal of our region. And from all we’ve said previously, as you can imagine, we are very pleased about that!

How has the coronavirus pandemic impacted Auckland as a business and investment location? How have you responded?

When we went into the first lockdown, our number one priority was Aucklanders and local business. The Government provides financial support to businesses and employees affected and as the Government’s regional delivery partner for business and innovation support, a good proportion of our organisation was temporarily repurposed to connect businesses with available support.

Auckland’s billion-dollar screen production industry almost completely halted during the Covid-19 crisis in early 2020, except for some of our region’s world-class post-production and special effects companies which were able to complete work remotely on productions for international and domestic clients. Our Screen Auckland team played a key role in a national industry effort to update health and safety protocols to allow work to recommence, and has helped the three major international productions based here – Amazon Studios’ series based on The Lord of the Rings, Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop, and Hasbro’s Power Rangers – work through a range of issues including border restrictions and international insurance requirements.

The pipeline of international inquiries coming to our screen attraction specialists, and ongoing promising discussions, indicate Auckland is in a strong position to benefit from New Zealand’s relative success at countering Covid-19.

We’re also about to deliver a follow-up conference to last year’s Auckland’s Future, Now. In August 2020, we brought together leading business and economic thinkers to focus on our region’s economic recovery, responding to our contacts telling us they want to contribute to and champion a shared response to the economic challenges Auckland faces in a Covid-19 world. We captured ideas on critical issues, identified areas of opportunity from the day to galvanise Auckland’s economic recovery and how we can collectively support our communities, businesses and industries in these times.

Local support has been the priority. Like others, we’ve pivoted tourism attraction towards domestic and national markets. We’re still keeping Auckland top of mind with our key international markets, particularly Australia, as we are hoping for travel bubbles to operate in the not too distant future.

How do you engage with potential investors and talent during these special times, where almost everything takes place online, rather than via face to face meetings and trade shows?

Our Invest Auckland team have been working hard to move things forward with investors interested in providing capital for sectors such as food and beverage manufacturing, technology, creative industries and health tech, building on fruitful engagements with inbound investment groups from a range of countries and showcasing investible Auckland opportunities during trade missions before Covid-19.

Investors who had not previously considered Auckland as an option were prompted to look at the region by New Zealand’s strong public health response to the pandemic. Major international investors including Shinsei Group from Japan, Microsoft, Made Group (building 2650 homes), Costco and IKEA moved ahead with their investments into Auckland despite the disruption caused by Covid-19.

Our Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern and the Government’s successful public health response to Covid-19 has drawn attention from potential international investors and talent like never before. We would normally quickly convert this interest into face-to-face meetings here in Auckland, introducing these people to prospective investments and employment opportunities across a variety of industries and giving them real experiences of life in Auckland.

However, under border restrictions due to the global pandemic, we have delivered these experiences digitally through creating video content tailored to their needs, holding online meetings across a variety of platforms and completing transactions digitally so opportunities to do business in a timely fashion are not lost. We also hold webinars, present online to investor forums and work closely with our international strategic partners who have teams on the ground in our offshore markets to deliver investment opportunity content to our potential investor clients.

Our world-leading response to Covid-19 has allowed Auckland to remain open for overseas investment and we continue to be delighted by the levels of offshore interest and how we are finding innovative new ways to conclude deals.

We’ve been working proactively with Government, the Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment on managed isolation and safe entry for investors, film crews, and events. 36th America’s Cup has been able to go ahead. We’ve been able to change tack and do virtual showcasing of facilities like land and buildings, so great footage has been hugely helpful to showcase our business and investment opportunities, and our innovation in our key sectors – our Playground for Ideas brand theme.

From your experience, what is the best way to measure the success of city branding initiatives?

Important question. The brand of a city can fall and rise on many things out of one’s control, despite anyone’s best efforts. And with a city brand more widely, reputation is built over time, and some of the benefits are less easily measured than others.

We are currently looking to create a brand monitor index. It will likely involve a series of metrics including aspects of our Tourism Sentiment Index subscription (artificial intelligence sentiment analysis), and customer research monitors.

Currently, Auckland Unlimited’s performance is measured by the Auckland Council. Downloads and use of the Playbook are one way we are measuring how successfully we are getting businesses and stakeholders to engage with the brand. Our priority is getting the city running with this work.

We know a strong brand creates trust in our city, being known for and communicating what we authentically are – what you see is what you get. And we know that having a strong city brand helps cities recover more quickly from the crisis. A strong city brand will help to create better jobs, and a stronger GDP and economy – by attracting the type of investment, talent, business and visitors that align with our values and strengths.

Which cities would you consider worthy contenders to Auckland or good examples to follow, for their innovative and successful approach to city branding?

The global place branding community is very open, collaborative, and supportive. We all help one another in this unique discipline. Ottawa, for example, started their place brand story before we did, and have been incredibly generous in sharing information and advice with us. Holland and Eindhoven city have been generous with their time and sharing their experience.

There are so many great cities and nation stories – so it’s very tricky to single out any in particular. We’ve been inspired by Portland, Nashville, Faroe Islands, Estonia, Finland.

The calibre of the finalists of City Nation Place Brand of the Year was excellent – we were in great company and we’re very grateful and humbled to win. We always look at the winning work. Costa Rica, Helsinki, Copenhagen, Glasgow, Amsterdam, London and NYC are always impressive. We loved the London/Paris marketing collaboration.

We also look close to home at some of the great work being done here. We’re fortunate here to have a great destination branding organization in Tourism New Zealand and a great export branding entity in New Zealand Story. Smaller regional destination marketing organisations, such as Bay of Plenty Tourism, are doing excellent work for their region.

The Place Brand Observer, City Nation Place and Destination Think continue to be sources of information and inspiration.

Which trends are likely to influence the marketing and branding of Auckland in the years ahead?

Sustainability, as you raised earlier, is big for us, with both our Government and Auckland Council taking strong stances on climate change, and there is a lot of work going on in this space.

Our sectors of strength are creative and tech; including screen, film, and music; food and beverage; advanced manufacturing; construction, and tourism. These priority sectors will influence what we promote, and the type of investment and skilled talent we need to attract. Our students are very important to us. Our Universities rank highly and we welcome international students and all they contribute to Auckland, many of them long after they have completed their studies.

We are also interested in passionography. We have some incredible niches here in Auckland; wine, food, birdlife, tramping, surfing for example. Eventually, when the borders open and people are travelling again, we know that visitors with strong interests will stay longer and give back more, and we are interested in exploring that reciprocity. We are a Unesco City of Music, and we’d like to lean into this more over the next while. The world doesn’t know enough about Auckland as a city. And this is one of the ways we want to tell that story.

We also hope to tell our modern Māori story. You could say we are the indigenous capital of the world and we are keen to share more of our Māori culture and values with the world.

We’ll continue to focus on closing our narrative gaps and be informed by our residents about what makes Auckland unique.

In due course, we’d like to take some policy aligned symbolic actions that really articulate, in a meaningful and powerful way, what it is we stand for.

Thank you!

Connect with Shelley Watson and Clare Barker on LinkedIn and find out more about Auckland’s brand here.


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The Editorial Team

Stay up to date on latest place brand insights, strategies, stories and examples: join our mailing list! You'll receive an email summary of highlights every month. Benefit from more frequent updates by following us now on LinkedIn, Facebook or Twitter!