David Downs on the Next Chapter of the New Zealand Story

The door to New Zealand is now open, with plenty of opportunities for visitors, students, talent, and businesses. While the pandemic lingers in some pockets around the world, New Zealand has started afresh after its pause from pandemic restrictions and working toward becoming one of the best and safest countries in the world for investment and living.

We spoke with David Downs, the CEO of New Zealand Story Group, about what is new with respect to New Zealand’s country branding strategy post-pandemic and how, as the new CEO, he is going to take the legacy forward of a nation known for its clean and pure image.

David, you have gained a wealth of experience over the last 30 years in various fields. What motivated you to work for the New Zealand Story Group as the CEO?

The mission! I’ve always been a passionate supporter for, and advocate of, Aotearoa New Zealand. I spent the last ten years working with New Zealand’s trade agency, helping companies grow and the New Zealand Story Group is a natural extension of that work.

The founder of Alibaba, Jack Ma, once commented that ‘New Zealand is not only a good country IN the world, it’s a good country FOR the world’. I agree – and hope that by sharing our values, culture and way of life, others might also benefit.

When did you first hear about country branding and country reputation? What were your first thoughts?

I was involved on the fringes of the New Zealand Story from the beginning, nearly ten years ago. In New Zealand, the idea of branding a country is not well known – we don’t have many other countries marketing to us, apart from Australia and some of the Pacific Islands – so it seemed very innovative. Intuitively though, it made sense to me.

I have studied brand development, and applying that thinking to a country makes perfect sense. I’m still learning in my role, but I can see the principles and approaches of brand management work well for us.

A lot has changed in the world since we last interviewed your predecessor Rebecca Smith in 2018. What does Brand New Zealand stand for? And how has it changed during the last years?

Rebecca and her team set a fantastic foundation for the New Zealand Story and I have had several people and organizations comment to me that the New Zealand Story Group is the one that they admire. So in some respect, I am lucky to be able to build on that legacy.

Recently, we’ve also refined and focussed on New Zealand’s core values – what makes us unique, what value we have to offer others – so we can be clear on how best to add value to New Zealand but also others.

We’ve increased our team size so that we can be more hands-on to help amplify our approach through others, especially other government agencies. We want to project to the world that our country cares for people and place, and this comes through our actions, not just our words. Yes, New Zealand is a beautiful country to visit, but the depth of our culture and values should show that we care for the environment, for people, that we are honest and dependable – and that we have an adventurous spirit.

New Zealand’s focus in recent times has been climate change and the green economy. How has the response been from businesses to innovate and expand in New Zealand?

Interestingly, it’s businesses themselves who are now driving the innovation around the environment, climate and green economy. You could look at this in two ways:

  1. In one way, businesses are seeing that consumer sentiment has shifted quickly, and they are reacting to that change as a priority.
  2. From another perspective, it’s that the values of the country are shining through – as mentioned.

We see New Zealand as a country that cares for people and place, and so in many respects what we are seeing in terms of changing consumer priority and sentiment plays directly into this value system and our strengths. By focussing on core values, we set up a key alignment with consumer sentiment.

After being dubbed Fortress New Zealand for its strict COVID restrictions, the country is slowly easing restrictions to reopen its borders to tourism. How is New Zealand going to detach itself from this image when the tourism recovery process is going to be slow without the lucrative Chinese travellers?

Not slowly! That is a bit of a fallacy. Our borders are essentially open again now, and we are open for business. Over the past two years, our government has prioritized human health over everything, and their careful stewardship has meant we have had some of the lowest impacts of any country in terms of COVID-19 effects. Now we have gotten ourselves into the situation of being one of the highest vaccinated countries in the world, and that means we can reopen with cautious optimism. For tourists, students, business travellers and others.

In terms of our image, we are working to ensure others realize this about us, and our Prime Minister is leading a series of trade missions globally to reinforce the message – we are open!

The Global Pulse Research 2021 has revealed that stringent adherence to border closures has led to economic uncertainties impacting businesses and immigrants, including students looking for higher education. What approach does New Zealand Story Group have to improve the country’s brand perception and its readiness to be open for business?

An unfortunate side-effect of our focus on human health has been the uncertainty of messages about our status. As mentioned, this is no longer the case, and the country is essentially fully open and welcoming to students and tourists.

We are undertaking a PR and Media campaign, working alongside colleagues in other government agencies to inform global consumers and others. It is difficult sometimes to shift incorrect perceptions, but we hope that consistent PR will help.

Last year, we asked our panel of place brand specialists what could Brand New Zealand do differently, and many suggested highlighting the urban and creative side of NZ alongside the 100% pure and green image. What are your thoughts?

Completely agree. In many ways, that is exactly what the New Zealand Story was set up to do. We know through numerous research reports that New Zealand has a very strong positive perception but often that rests on a small number of attributes.

While it’s true we have a beautiful environment and welcoming people, we also are a country of innovation, science, culture and the easiest place in the world to do business. We strive to highlight these extra dimensions of the country wherever we can, to expand people’s understanding and connection to New Zealand. Stories and images of our rich urban and business environment help make sure people realize we are more than beauty.

Which aspects of promoting New Zealand as a preferred destination for businesses and skilled talent from leading economies do you find the most challenging?

We are lucky that New Zealand is a very desirable place to live and work – we have to make sure people know how they could do that, and make it easy for them. A very talented leader in New Zealand once said that to give our economy a super-charge, we need to be the place where ‘talent wants to live’.

I would say that we have the lifestyle that would appeal to many, we just have to get the word out there. That can be hard – it’s a crowded market and getting messages across takes time and money. We don’t have the marketing budgets of other countries, so we need to let our actions do most of the talking.

What suggestions do you have for the country and destination branding professionals renewing their marketing efforts as we all try to put the days of the pandemic behind us?

Focus on the future – the pandemic may be behind us (sort of) but the virus is with us, and we have to adapt. But we also want to get back to some sort of normality – travelling, experiencing other cultures. In many ways, the past two years have made all of us globally short-sighted and oriented inwardly. If we can all paint a collective, positive, open view of a future of possibilities, we can change the narrative. So as marketers, we need to acknowledge the new reality and be optimistic for the future.

Anything else you’d like to mention?

We are on a learning journey about how best to brand a country. I think we do some things well and have more to learn, and we are always open to talking to others and learning from them too. Please reach out if you would like to know more or to learn together. As we say in our local language – ‘He Waka Eke Noa’, we are all in this together.

Thank you, David.

Connect with David Downs on LinkedIn or visit New Zealand Story for more info. You can also follow them on LinkedIn, Facebook, or Twitter.

New Zealand Trade and Enterprise – LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter

Education New Zealand – LinkedIn,  Facebook, and Twitter

Tourism New Zealand – LinkedIn,  Facebook, and Twitter

New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs & Trade – LinkedIn,  Facebook, and Twitter

Enjoyed our interview with David Downs on how New Zealand’s story continues to evolve, and how the country is setting the stage to welcome investments and new skilled residents following the ease in pandemic-related restrictions? Thanks for sharing!


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