The Press, November 2009

The world is in love with New Zealand. People want to holiday here, live here, consume our primary produce and wine, and even watch our movies. We’re seen as a peaceful backwater in a harsh world of terrorism and financial instability.

A recently released study by Futurebrand confirms this, ranking New Zealand as the fourth strongest ‘brand’ in the world, behind the USA, Canada and Australia. But are we failing to leverage these positive perceptions to grow our economy?

Futurebrand build their annual index of country brands by gathering the views of ‘residents, investors, tourists and foreign governments.’ The best country brands are those who have created the most attractive perception through a whole mix of economic, political and social activity. They are not created by clever country logos or tourism advertisements, although these play a part, but by delivering the strongest set of experiences to the audience groups.

Why should we care about having a great country brand? According to Futurebrand “well-branded countries can better promote economic value and export products; attract inbound investment, tourists and talent; redress stereotypes or clichés and build competitive advantage.” Basically a powerful country brand can help a customer - whether it is a tourist, a foreign business or a consumer looking at a wine list – choose a New Zealand product or service over another country’s.

It is a fantastic achievement. Tourism especially will gain from the Futurebrand analysis; so will our primary goods and our wine. But what about an emerging export sector like high tech that the government has identified as key to developing a more dynamic economy offering higher value jobs?

New Zealand can’t continue to rely on a small number of large exporters to carry the nation. A bigger core of medium to large exporters in areas like software, electronic, biotech and specialised manufacturing would provide great jobs for Kiwis and give the economy greater resilience.

Various government initiatives encourage our technology sector, and a major campaign has been run by New Zealand Trade and Enterprise to shift ‘brand New Zealand’ to be seen as more a high-tech and creative.

When the dominant perception is of a country with considerably more sheep than people, it is hard to transform our image into one of South Pacific Silicon Valley.

Strong brands are built on the experiences people have with an entity. That’s why the 100% tourism campaign has worked so well. No matter what the greenies say, a tourist will arrive here and experience an incredibly beautiful, peaceful, green country. The promise we make in our advertising campaigns gets delivered.

If a businessmen in the USA has only ever experienced New Zealand in terms of consuming Canterbury lamb or enjoying a Marlborough sauvignon blanc, it takes time for him to see a Kiwi company as a credible supplier of software, electronics or some other sophisticated product.

That doesn’t mean Kiwi tech companies can’t compete; they do, and they do it exceptionally well. But that global perception of a rural paradise means they start behind their competitors from more assuredly high tech economies.

What’s the solution for our high tech sector? To give up and buy a dairy farm, or start a vineyard?

Of course not, but there is an opportunity for New Zealand to encourage technology businesses that are more aligned with our global image. Software, computer hardware, electronics and so on applied to areas like agriculture, viticulture and sustainability are more credible. It is a much easier task to convince the world we have the best software for measuring the purity of water, than software to run a nuclear power plant.

Israel has developed a good reputation for security-related technology, which is hardly surprising. Just as mining-related innovations would seem credible coming from Australia, or technology related to cheating at soccer from France.

There are many good examples of technologies that are consistent with existing perceptions of New Zealand. Hamilton Jet has great products, but it is also highly credible that a Kiwi company developed a new way of boat propulsion enabling people to explore rugged and remote rivers.

Farm management software products, vineyard productivity machinery, GPS tracking solutions for spreading fertiliser, smart sensors for monitoring soil, laboratory testing equipment – the list is healthy, but we need more of them, and more that grow to a large size.

NZTE recently ran a competition called Focus on Health for the many clever Kiwi medical technology companies. The 10 winners will receive support, advice and better access to the huge US health market. It was a great initiative.

Could we do more of this for our agri-tech businesses? Surely they are the ones that have an advantage in the global marketplace by being able to leverage the existing reputation of New Zealand? And that ease means they are more likely to be able to build companies of real scale.

As the All Whites’ win two weeks ago showed, we are a proud nation that loves doing well on the world stage. Companies that leverage our strong country brand make the global playing field more even for themselves, increasing their chances of building large and enduring businesses.

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