Place Brand Credibility: Example New Zealand

Imagine you have come up with a branding campaign which you think neatly represents the identity and desired image of your city, region or country, only to find out that the promises you make – directly or indirectly – in your quest to position the place competitively aren’t followed up by business or political elites. Perhaps the government has changed, and with it political priorities, or the public mood and expectations. In either case, your place’s chief brand manager (usually the political leader) will find themselves in a situation where they have to defend – or prove – the credibility and legitimacy of your place brand.

New Zealand is a case in point, as I will show you in this fourth post of my series on the country’s ‘clean, green’ nation brand and ‘100% Pure’ destination branding: a review of literature on the topic based on my 2014 doctoral thesis at the University of Waikato in Hamilton, New Zealand.

How credible? Clean, Green and 100% Pure New Zealand put to the test

Notwithstanding the economic success of the 100% Pure tourism campaign and its high international regard as a country brand, numerous voices, both from within the country and from abroad, have expressed concerns about a growing gap between the country’s clean, green and 100% Pure brand positioning and its actual environmental record (for example, Bell, 1996, 2005; Cumming, 2010; Everitt, 2009; Oram, 2007; Roper, 2010, 2012; Su, 2013).

Roper (2010), who has researched and written extensively about NZ’s global environmental positioning, describes the situation as follows:

The New Zealand brand, 100% Pure, has served the country well…However, as is also often the case, a very successful brand can be vulnerable (Klein, 1999) especially if it is built upon relatively narrow parameters which may be difficult to live up to and which could then be contested by competitors, or subject to consumer perceptions of risk. (p. 1)

With regard to NZ businesses, there is “a growing divide between companies that see advantages in change and those that continue to lobby for ‘business as usual’” (Roper, 2012, p. 13). In 2011, an organisation of business leaders, Pure Advantage, was formed to campaign for stronger governmental support for green growth as an economic necessity and opportunity to maintain and strengthen NZ’s competitive advantage (Morrison, 2011). Themes of competitiveness and economic benefit, rather than environmental or climate responsibility, dominated the discourse of the Pure Advantage group (Roper, 2012).

Exemplary for this argumentation is a declaration by Rob Morrison (2011), chairman of Pure Advantage, in which he noted:

There is no country in the world that promotes its clean and green image as much as New Zealand does and there is probably no country in the world that is as reliant on its clean and green image for exports and tourism. So in the green growth race – and it is a race – New Zealand should be out the front, but it is not. (para. 23)

Moreover, Wright and Kurian (2010) see New Zealand’s environmental image and fragile clean, green identity “threatened in large part by a lack of political will to take steps necessary to protect the environment in the face of a ubiquitous pressure for economic growth” (p. 398).

Rather than abolishing the brand, however, it has been suggested that NZ needs to take a leadership role in promoting sustainability to protect and grow the clean, green proposition (Barnett, 2007; Gibb, 2013; Yeoman, 2009). After all, “the world wants and will pay for green. We need to accelerate our ability to provide it, and take Green Leadership in the industry categories we specialise in” (Everitt, 2009, p. 203).

A similar stance was taken by conservation group Forest and Bird, which considered it “a no-brainer to get ahead of the game on sustainability,” particularly because an “awful lot of our industry trades on our clean, green image” (as quoted in Cumming, 2010, para. 7).

Not just about brand credibility, but legitimacy internationally

Beyond the economic importance of NZ’s environmental positioning as a competitive advantage, Masters (2010) has pointed out that “as a green idea, the brand connotes high prestige to the country” (p. 65). This seems particularly relevant in times of increasing awareness of the environment and environmental issues, such as global warming and the effects of carbon dioxide emissions (Roper, 2010).

In other words, if NZ businesses fail to change and adjust to environmental expectations they not only risk missing out on economic opportunity presented by the demand for green products and services, there is also a risk of “losing legitimacy with a civil society that is increasingly demanding material remedial action against environmental and social problems” (Roper, 2012, p. 15).

Albeit being clean and green by accident rather than conscious effort (Cumming, 2010) and despite their own doubts, New Zealanders still maintain their self-perception of a remote, exotic and environmentally pristine country, not only to support commercial interests, but also to distinguish themselves from the rest of the world (Bell, 2005).

As the late Sir Paul Callaghan, a former trustee of the Pure Advantage initiative, put it, New Zealanders “do not see the lack of honesty which surrounds this branding. We are merely a small population spread over a large area which provides an impression of clean and green” (as quoted in Stewart, 2012, para. 46).

Roper (2010, p. 15) sees “a lack of connection in people’s minds between the sustainability positioning, the country’s actual performance, consumer perceptions, and their long term value to New Zealand,” noting that “maintaining the integrity of the brand is not a collective priority” (p. 15). According to Roper (2010, p. 16):

New Zealand suffers a loss of legitimacy if it is seen to be failing to live up to the claims of its public positioning. As a small country it has to maintain a viable and niche position for itself that has integrity and so can stand up to the external threats to its economy. Its producers will be made to comply with the growing international regulatory framework for climate change mitigation and for sustainability more generally, either directly or indirectly as a supply chain issue.

Roper (2012) also points out that the sustainability issues faced by NZ are common to many nations. However, they are “particularly acute in a country so dependent on the export of commodities and landscape-driven tourism” (The Economist, 2010, para. 9).

Whereas some NZ businesses have been very successful in integrating sustainability into their way of thinking and operating, “this has not been the case for a large number of industries, especially under conditions of economic recession” (Roper, 2012, p. 14).

Business priorities and the role of ideology

Why aren’t New Zealand businesses embracing the opportunity given by the brand proposition and in many cases fail to live up to it or even threaten it through their actions? Ideology plays a crucial role in business resistance to change:

Much of the opposition can be understood as coming from New Zealand’s 30-year history as a free market based economy, with the business sector predominantly embracing neoliberal ideologies of economic growth, including minimal government intervention in business matters and voluntary action for issues such as environmental damage mitigation. …The agricultural industry, for example, is the country’s largest export earner, but with 54% of the country’s emissions (primarily methane), the industry stridently resists climate change legislation. (Roper, 2012, p. 6)

Moreover, surveys conducted in 2003, 2006 and 2010 showed that, while there was an average increase of 10% in the number of companies adopting environmental practices from 2003 to 2006, in 2010 NZ businesses were moving in opposite directions (Collins, Lawrence, Roper, & Haar, 2010; Collins, Roper, & Lawrence, 2010).

The resistance of some of NZ’s key industries to embracing environmental sustainability not only for their own good but also to give substance to the clean, green branding is surprising considering that some of the most credible voices within the business community have left no doubt regarding the urgency of the matter. For instance, Oram (2007) warned that due to “dirty” dairying and other forms of pollution, NZ’s greatest long-term asset, the clean, green image was at stake: “If we get this wrong, we will lose our customers, our livelihood and our reputation” (p. 32).

Equally unequivocal was a statement by business consultancy KPMG (2011):

Like it or not, Brand New Zealand, the intangible association that has developed between New Zealand and clean, green and pure, is one of the most valuable assets the country has. Consequently, the onus falls on everyone in the [agribusiness] industry to act in a consistent manner with the spirit of the message. Failure to do so can bring accusations of ‘greenwash’ from our international competitors and risk access to our markets. (p. 11)

Both NZ’s tourism and agriculture industries seem to be aware of the risks involved in the 100% Pure branding. As the country’s tourism board acknowledged, brands only work as long as they are credible in the eyes of the customer (TNZ, 2009).

In 2010, Mike Peterson, chair of the Meat and Wool Industry Association, noted: “It’s absolutely crucial we ensure our reputation is intact. And it’s not just about meeting legal requirements, it’s about what consumers want” (as quoted in Cumming, 2010, para. 20).

Yet, because clean, green and 100% Pure have worked well in the past (TNZ, 2009), the prevailing desire in the business community seems to be to silence critical debates about environmental issues, rather than to deal with them proactively (Blackett & Le Heron, 2008).

The same attitude was illustrated, for example, in National Government Prime Minister John Key’s response to criticism of the 100% Pure brand due to the poor state of the country’s rivers, arguing that “people did not expect waterways to be 100% pollution-free any more than they expected to be lovin’ McDonalds every time they ate it” (as quoted in Davison, 2012, para. 1).

A similar stance was taken by Key when confronted with evidence of considerable environmental problems in NZ, such as river pollution during an interview for the BBC HARDtalk programme in 2011, in which he fiercely defended the 100% Pure New Zealand brand, arguing that NZ’s environmental record was still good in comparison with other countries.

An explanation for Key’s strong reaction is provided by the observation made by Henderson (2005) that since the 1990s, in NZ neo-liberal political and economic policies had become “commonly accepted as normal, to the point where alternative viewpoints had to compete for recognition against this yardstick” (p.121).

Indeed, there are striking similarities between the dismissive stance of John Key’s conservative Government to criticism aimed at the country’s environmental record and the response of political leaders to the pentachlorophenol (PCP) contamination issue in the 1990s. Used in the treatment of timber, PCP had become a serious environmental issue as it contaminated land and rivers (Dew, 1999). Long ignored by politicians and NZ’s mass media, the issue only received attention when it was reported in international media as a threat to the country’s clean, green image, to which the NZ Government reacted defensively, condemning those overseas articles “as unpatriotic, jeopardising export and tourism markets” (Dew, 1999, p. 54).

In other words, only when the clean, green image was perceived to be at stake, and fears mounted about potential economic costs, was there a political will to address the PCP issue, despite the extra costs and regulatory burdens that this meant for the business sector (Dew, 1999).

Carbon emissions

The transformation of NZ from aspirational sustainability leader to environmental laggard is illustrated in the attitude of its Government regarding global warming and carbon emissions as a cause thereof. Carbon emissions have become a serious issue for the country’s environmental record. In 2012, NZ was ranked worst for climate leadership out of 194 countries participating in the 18th Annual UN Climate Change Conference in Doha by the International Climate Action Network, a global alliance of civil society organisations dealing with the causes and consequences of climate change:

For a country whose emissions are similar in scale to the Canadian tar sands, New Zealand has demonstrated exceptional blindness to scientific and political realities. Surprising many and disappointing all, New Zealand has…[led] a campaign of extreme selfishness and irresponsibility. (International Climate Action Network, 2012, para. 3)

In the same year, a UK strategic management consultancy, in cooperation with The University of Auckland, noted that “when measured on a gross basis before including net removals from forestry, NZ’s emissions of greenhouse gases per capita are higher than the other developed countries…roughly twice as much as France or Spain” (Vivid Economics & Energy Centre University of Auckland Business School, 2012, p. 86). The same report concludes that, in terms of emissions, NZ “has made no clear progress over the last 20 years” (p. 87).

Those, however, were not the first reports stressing NZ’s comparatively poor carbon emissions record. Numerous scholars and institutions have addressed the country’s comparatively high per capita greenhouse gas emissions over the years (for example, Bertram & Terry, 2010; International Energy Agency, 2006; OECD, 2011). As Cumming (2010) wrote:

Under the Kyoto Protocol, NZ committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions below 1990 levels. But emissions in 2007 were 22% higher than in 1990. Methane and nitrous oxide emissions from agriculture comprise 47% of our total emissions…5th highest greenhouse gas emissions per person out of 27 OECD countries (2005). Agriculture: 48% of emissions from this sector. Fossil fuels: Use increased by 22% between 1998 and 2007, mainly road transport. Cars: Reliance on private vehicles over public transport and increased trucking contributed to 39% increase in emissions in energy sector since 1990; 2nd highest in OECD. (p. 8)

Apart from failing its carbon emission reduction targets, delaying and watering down the ETS to near insignificance (Bertram & Terry, 2010; Martin, 2012; Oram, 2007; Renowden, 2007), and boasting one of the highest car ownership rates worldwide (International Energy Agency, 2006; The Economist, 2009), international rankings provide some further indications of NZ’s deteriorating environmental record. For example, while in 2006 it was ranked first out of 133 countries in the Yale–Columbia University Environmental Performance Index (EPI), its position had deteriorated to fourteenth by 2012, with a rank of 66 for climate change (Emerson et al., 2012).

That the country’s actual environmental performance could be even worse was highlighted by NZ freshwater scientist Mike Joy (2013). As he points out, NZ’s three worst environmental impacts [which he identifies as biodiversity loss, water quality and non-CO2 greenhouse gas emissions, especially methane] are not even accounted for in the Yale assessment. In his view, NZ ranking 120th in the world for environmental impact, as suggested in a study by the University of Adelaide in Australia that includes biodiversity loss and water quality, gives a more realistic picture (Joy, 2013).

Main issue: lack of common stance to support brand promise

All in all, review of secondary data and literature on clean, green NZ indicates that the biggest issue regarding the perceived legitimacy and credibility of the country’s global positioning seems to be the lack of a common stance. For instance, Tucker (2011) has noted that:

While the New Zealand Government embraces clean and green and all it encompasses, including the economic benefits of this brand image, the political and economic arguments that come from within the same Government are viewed as contradictory by activists. (p. 117)

A similar picture is presented by industry responses. For example, reflecting on the credibility of the 100% Pure proposition, TNZ (2009) readily acknowledged that “the 100% Pure New Zealand campaign makes a promise of a visitor destination second-to-none to these visitors, so when they arrive it is crucial that this promise is fulfilled” (p. 58) – a view shared by then Air New Zealand CEO Rob Fyfe (TNZ, 2009, p. 6). However, in the same publication, George Hickton, then Tourism New Zealand CEO, states: “I believe the reason that 100% Pure New Zealand has been so successful is not just because it’s a great catch phrase, but because it is true. And it is the people of New Zealand that give it that truth” (TNZ, 2009, p. 4).

Clearly, this is contradictory to evidence of NZ’s environmental record. In the end, trust and integrity are essential to maintain the legitimacy of NZ’s environmental positioning. As NZ Green party leader Russel Norman (2009) has warned:

It’s about trust and integrity. New Zealand is seen as one of the most honest countries on the planet, and it probably is. But if brand New Zealand is saying we’re all clean and green, and yet consumers hear stories about rivers full of effluent, then we will lose their trust. (para. 54)

Norman’s view underlines the importance of taking a closer look at the stories told about NZ internationally. Considering the significant influence of the news media on people’s perceptions and as agenda setter (see chapter two in the thesis), news media coverage linked to NZ’s environmental performance, leadership, and brand image in particular is crucial to determine the perceived credibility and potential vulnerability of the clean, green promise.

In the next and final post of this series on New Zealand I will summarize findings from analysis of international press coverage regarding the perceived credibility and potential vulnerability of clean, green and 100% Pure New Zealand.


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Bell, C. (1996). Inventing New Zealand: Everyday myths of pakeha identity. Auckland, New Zealand: Penguin Books. Get through Amazon US | Amazon UK

Bell, C. (2005). Branding New Zealand: The national green-wash. British Review of New Zealand Studies, 15, 13-27.

Bertram, G., & Terry, S. (2010). The carbon challenge: New Zealands emissions trading scheme. Wellington, New Zealand: Bridget Williams Books. Link

Blackett, P., & Le Heron, R. (2008). Maintaining the ‘clean green’ image: Governance of on-farm environmental practices in the New Zealand dairy industry. In C. Stringer & R. Le Heron (Eds.), Agri-food commodity chains and globalising networks (pp. 75-88). Aldershot, United Kingdom: Ashgate. Get through Amazon US | Amazon UK

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Gibb, J. (2013, 19 October). Call to live up to ‘100% pure’ brand, Otago Daily Times. Link

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Yeoman, I. (2009). Why 100% Pure New Zealand brand is even more important for the future. Link

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Florian Kaefer
Florian Kaefer
Dr. Florian Kaefer is a strategic place branding and sustainable tourism expert, publisher, and speaker with over a decade of experience connecting with and learning from over 500 leading professionals worldwide. He is the founder of both The Place Brand Observer and Sustainability Leaders United. Through his knowledge platforms, coaching, and advising, he helps organizations, destinations, and locations excel in these fields and become recognized as leaders in sustainability and place branding. Book Florian as a speaker for your event.
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