Rebecca Smith on the New Zealand Story, Country Branding and Destination Brands

Rebecca Smith in this interview discusses New Zealand’s strategy and approach to country branding and how destination marketing influences country brands. She also talks about the key ingredients for destination branding success and how New Zealand measures the impact and value of its place brand strategies.

Our interview with Rebecca is part of a special series with country branding professionals facilitated by Bloom Consulting, specialized in place branding and in tracking the digital brand and online reputation of cities and nations.

Key points:

  • “Brand New Zealand”: what it stands for and how its meaning has changed over time;
  • How the 100% Pure New Zealand tourism campaign has impacted New Zealand’s success as country-of-origin;
  • What country branding really means, and how New Zealand measures its success;
  • How the country’s brand managers use digital and social media to get their message across;
  • Major trends likely to influence the work of country and destination branders in the years ahead.

Rebecca, do you remember the first time you heard about country branding in New Zealand, and your initial thoughts?

About five years ago I was developing a global brand and creative platform for New Zealand’s largest exporter. That’s when I started to appreciate how the reputation and perceptions of a country impacted the reputation of, and consideration for, the brand I was developing. My customers in offshore markets saw the country, company and product attributes as interlinked and interdependent.

As a brand marketer though I had to unravel the layers to identify what I could impact through my own brand and what was influenced by the actions and position of the country as a whole. This triggered my interest in the topic.

When the New Zealand Story Group was established in 2013, and the Government sought a private sector leader to take on the challenge of protecting and enhancing the country’s reputation, that experience and understanding led me automatically to the role I’m in now.

As Director of the New Zealand Story, in your view, what does “Brand New Zealand” stand for? And how has it changed during the last years?

When I first embarked on this, the term “Brand New Zealand” was commonly used, but there was no consistent view regarding what it stood for.

New Zealand has a very effective and well-known tourism campaign platform, 100% Pure New Zealand, which has been in place for over 15 years. And, like many countries, we had defaulted to assuming our tourism brand as our “country brand”. It had morphed into meaning “Clean and Green”, as many of our food exporters jumped on the tourism campaign bandwagon, using the tourism slogan to sell their products.

However, this left many of our other sectors out in the cold. How could “100% Pure” or “Clean and Green” help our technology sector, or demonstrate the quality of our education offering, or help services companies position themselves internationally?

We in fact avoid using the term “Brand New Zealand” as it implies that the country can be summed up in a logo, or a tagline, an identity kit, or managed like a corporate brand.

The term “brand” is misunderstood; everyone has a different perspective regarding what it means. Some see brand as advertising, some as identity, and only a few understand the concept of brand as a deeper values-based platform that sums up your intent and belief system and guides your decisions.

The New Zealand Story was established to create a common thread so all sectors, public and private, could work harmoniously to present a consistent and compelling New Zealand story to the world. We researched within the country and gathered perspectives from offshore markets to develop a “story” underpinned by a set of values that resonated both domestically and internationally.

So, what does it stand for now? We describe New Zealand as being a progressive nation of creative, ingenious people who challenge the status-quo to create new solutions, whilst always caring for people, place and planet.

Our nation is built on three values: Kaitiakitanga (a Māori term meaning intergenerational guardianship of people, place and planet), Ingenuity (which is different to innovation), and Integrity (which sums up the trust that others have that we will always do what’s right). Put simply, we’re a nation whose aim is to be good for the world.

To your mind, how does destination branding differ from country branding? And to what extent does the tourism brand impact, for example, NZ’s success as Country-of-Origin?

As I mentioned earlier, destination branding has a significant impact on how a country is perceived in broader terms. Destination marketing, under our 100% Pure New Zealand tourism platform, showcases our pristine nature and outdoor activities, providing the world’s consumers with an attractive and positive reference point. With tourism as our primary export revenue sector – long may this continue.

I differentiate country “brand” as providing an umbrella of messaging that builds favourability and consideration for the country. The job of tourism, education, immigration, investment and trade agencies is to turn that consideration into action – they are the activation agencies. Importantly, the country programme brings all these together through common themes, values, and executional consistency.

Country-of-Origin in our case has over time become less about the functional attributes of our country (the land, water and air) and more about the emotional trust a consumer has in the products, services and people who originate from our nation. Morality, transparency and integrity are more important to a consumer and these attributes transfer to trust in what you produce.

New Zealand has over the last decade repeatedly been criticized for not living up to its brand positioning and promise of a ‘clean and green’ destination and country-of-origin. As country branding professional, how do you deal with such criticism? For example, would you rather urge your government and industry stakeholders to live up to the existing brand, to protect the accumulated brand equity (value), or would you try to change the focus of the brand proposition, to make it less vulnerable to such criticism?

“Clean and Green” was a default term that came about as a result of the images and positioning of our 100% Pure New Zealand tourism campaign. It’s a lesson in what happens when you don’t proactively manage your country brand – consumers will make up their own description or assumptions about what you stand for – usually based on what they see and hear in global media.

For us, the most visible aspect of our country has been our tourism imagery and campaign. With a country reputation programme now in place, it allows 100% Pure New Zealand to be the tourism campaign it was always intended to be.

Whilst some media have highlighted shortcomings against this perceived position, research of our consumers and buyers in our target markets indicates they still see New Zealand as being of high integrity and caring for people, place and planet. We don’t promise perfection – no one can or should, as all countries have their challenges. However, we do promise that we’ll live by our values and hold ourselves to account. We certainly do urge Government and Industry to do what’s right, and to put things right if they’re heading in the wrong direction.

New Zealanders have a strong sense of responsibility, so we tend to self-correct when we perceive we’re creating some imbalance whether it be in nature, the environment, in the community, or in the world.

How do you measure success and demonstrate return on investment of your branding work through the New Zealand Story?

Quantitative metrics are difficult and complex to establish. In my view, pursuing traditional or expected ROI measures can lead to the wrong behaviours.

My sense is that in an effort to prove the worth of a country “branding” programme, leaders often revert to recognisable marketing or corporate style branding practices with visible outcomes e.g. a tagline that is quoted in media, a logo that appears on as many visible touch points as possible, downloads of images, number of likes, etc. Often Government officials want to “see” your efforts as proof that what you’re doing is working.

We do have some quantitative measures to ensure we’re effective and impactful – downloads, dwell times, engagement, sharing etc. However, message out-take and preference are the primary objectives, so we focus more on qualitative measures using our own country perception research, as well as satisfaction and engagement ratings across our public and private sector partners. When the private sector tells you and your Ministers and officials that what you’re doing is helping them – you know you’re winning.

Funding is a challenge but no more so in my opinion than securing funding for brand initiatives in private corporations. As a marketer, it’s familiar territory. You have to be optimistic, articulate, and deliver a compelling pitch. There is no space for self-doubt when you’re leading a country reputation programme. Your job is to lead a movement and create advocates, champions and believers.

More and more potential visitors turn to online platforms and social media for information on destinations. How do you work with Facebook & co. to ensure your message – the NZ Story – gets through to them?

Our Tourism attraction agency has developed a very close working relationship with Facebook and Google. Over the years the team have experimented and refined New Zealand’s destination marketing to exactly target the right profiles and to understand the online trigger points that indicate whether someone is actively considering visiting and how far through their decision path they are.

Serving compelling and relevant content in the right place and at the right time is the holy grail. In terms of destination marketing, over 90% of our spend is digital. The team know what works and what doesn’t, which is evidenced by Tourism now being New Zealand’s #1 export earning sector and visitor numbers rising to over 3.5million per annum. For a country of 5 million residents – that’s quite a result.

Online platforms and communication channels have become very influential in terms of people’s perceptions of places, especially those far away. How important is New Zealand’s “digital country brand” for your work?

Digital engagement is certainly very important, and we are constantly creating content and distributing that content through partner online channels to engage and shift perceptions. We don’t have sufficient funding to mount a large-scale paid programme of work, so we’re very reliant on others to share our content, and earned media placement.

However, the majority of our messages and positioning are delivered through the marketing efforts of our exporters and businesses operating in the markets they serve. It is THEIR communications that provide the relevant reach of our messages that expand New Zealand’s reputation. This is the cornerstone of our programme – it’s private sector led, and Government enabled.

How do you monitor the performance of New Zealand’s digital country brand?

Although we have the usual monitoring in place for mentions, media coverage, retweets, engagement etc., we rely more on feedback, reporting and interpretation from our in-market teams. Each country has its own unique digital engagement pattern and social norms surrounding the use of different online platforms.

In my view, you have to participate inside the social networks of your country to get a real sense of what’s going on, understand the nuances, and read the themes accurately. Again, our philosophy is not to do everything ourselves centrally, but to use the channels and networks available to us to build reach and engagement.

To your mind, to what extent does New Zealand’s “offline” reputation as destination and country match its online, digital counterpart? Or are the two the same thing?

In terms of what influences perceptions, I see little difference as the line between what influences you in the offline world vs. the online world is so blurred.

In terms of how we deliver our messages though there is of course a difference in the degree of control you have over the message. In that regard, online is simpler. However, offline is often more powerful and in the offline environment, reputation management really overlaps into public diplomacy.

Which aspects of telling “the New Zealand Story” online do you find the most difficult?

The most difficult attributes to convey in an online environment are the warmth, accessibility, humour, and ingenuity of our people. We’re a globally connected nation so our outlook and approach to others is often a lot more informed and sophisticated than you might think. Those who have met or worked with New Zealanders know this about us and understand our quirky sense of humour and outlook on life. If you’ve seen Thor Ragnarok by New Zealand Director Taika Waititi, you’ll start to understand us a little more – if you can grasp our accent!

Apart from digitalisation, which other major trends are likely to influence the work of country and destination branding professionals in the years ahead?

Morality and the openness of countries are becoming increasingly important decision criteria for consumers. As such, consumers are broadly categorising countries into open or closed, good or bad. Consumers are wary of empty rhetoric, easily see through aspirational communication, and are fundamentally cynical.

Country brand professionals therefore need to dig deep to find their authentic position and convey true and transparent stories and evidence to back up that position. That means we need to push hard within our Governments to influence decisions that reinforce and build upon our desired position.

Importantly though, we need to be vigilant and not get too carried away with our own inside-out view of who we are and why we should be considered.

Thank you, Rebecca.

Connect with Rebecca Smith on LinkedIn or learn more about the New Zealand Story here.

Bloom consultingThis interview was facilitated by Bloom Consulting, whose Digital DemandD2© tool is designed to help cities and countries understand and manage their brand online. More about Bloom Consulting in our interview with José Torres.

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