The New Zealand Story: Rethinking the stories that sell New Zealand

Two years ago this week, Economic Development Minister Steven Joyce launched the “New Zealand Story”, a project to build a strong, consistent profile for New Zealand, which exporters could use in international markets. Idealog explores the journey.

We’ve all heard the anecdotes: The American who thought New Zealand was in Scandinavia; the Chinese tourist who thought we were linked to Sydney by the Harbour Bridge. Then there are the misconceptions: We are all farmers; the entire country looks like a Lord of the Rings set; we all have outside dunnies. And the jokes: we live in Hobbit holes; we all have hairy feet.

Mostly we take it with good humour. We are laid-back New Zealanders, after all.

But sometimes it matters. Potential tech investors aren’t going to put their money in a country they see as quaint, beautiful and full of farmers. Ambitious parents aren’t going to send their children to study in a country they think is a backwater; highly-skilled migrants aren’t going to choose a country they think has no vibrant cities.

The 100% Pure campaign and Peter Jackson’s movies have done wonders for our tourism industry (as it was designed to do), but it's only one part of our country story, and in some cases can work against New Zealand businesses trying to sell their products and services overseas.

So, with the Government keen to raise exports from 30% to 40% of GDP, the idea was conceived to develop a “New Zealand story” – a framework to tell the rest of the world a consistent story about who we are and what makes us unique.

New Zealand Story has three initial stakeholders – New Zealand Trade and Enterprise, Education New Zealand and Tourism New Zealand. Over the last two years, the organisation has worked with industry leaders, influential and globally-successful business owners, and public-sector stakeholders to distill the elements of what makes New Zealand internationally competitive – and how that story should be told.

Two years later, New Zealand Story is a free, open-source, export-ready toolkit with images, video, presentations, case studies and infographics, which businesses can use as part of their marketing material for international consumers.

New Zealand Story director Rebecca Smith says Kiwi businesses often rely on traditional tourism images, particularly picturesque landscapes. Of course we are proud of our beautiful country, she says, but it’s important to understand that Australians and Americans consider their natural environments to be just as beautiful – if not more so. So that’s not necessarily a great selling point.

It’s also essential to use such images appropriately. Tourism-focused pictures can paint New Zealand as isolated, lonely, and with not a lot going on, which is great when you are on holiday, but not when we're demonstrating our business ability, says Smith.

“Exporters going into the market are often faced with those preconceptions: ‘Beautiful country, but why would I do business with you? You don’t look as though you do much. There’s no industry, no vibrant cities, no buildings, no commerce.

“If you are an IT company in the South Island and you use a picture of Lake Wanaka on your website home page, even if it is uniquely New Zealand, it doesn’t say anything about what you do.

“If we can start to shift that view, and replace it with images that show our technological capability and innovation, we are heading in the right direction.”

Smith says images of contemporary New Zealand architecture in natural settings resonate particularly well in the US, for example.

“We showed people imagery such as the café at Knoll Ridge and the Auckland Art Gallery and it shows that we can combine design thinking with taking care of the land, and it positions open spaces in another way, while also showcasing things like our native timbers.”

Smith says businesses can use the New Zealand Story material as a way to seed their own storytelling when building a new relationship with an overseas customer or supplier, or introducing a new product.

Start with the context of where you are from and establish a mutual connection, before you get into the business agenda, she says.

“Too often we forget to start at the beginning; we leap into product selling or feature selling before we’ve made our audience comfortable or familiar with who we are.

“We suggest that businesses visiting customers in new markets play the New Zealand Story video as a starting point. It’s a little three-minute introduction that incorporates our three ‘chapters’: Open Spaces, Open Hearts, Open Minds. It tells people where and who you are, and lets you start the conversation with a bit of context.

“This is why we created the video – a simple yet effective ‘mihi’. Companies can take and adapt that video, and insert their own material. We would encourage them to create their own version of it to suit their needs.”

Go to www.nzstory.govt.nz to register.