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Global cultural currents, local Kiwi codes

While New Zealand occupies an isolated corner of the globe, it’s still affected by global cultural changes. TRA New Zealand cultural strategist Antonia Mann explains how to understand New Zealand’s unique emerging identity in relation to universal cultural trends.

At a time when people choose brands that reflect their values back to them and trust brands based on what they do, not what they say, it’s more important than ever to understand the wider cultural context, read the cultural moment and get the local code right.

While the New Zealand economy is thriving, people believe that social conditions are worsening and so is the environment. Companies willing to step up and show they care about these issues will earn the respect of Kiwis.

Body> For any brand, cultural relevance should be a constant and continuous goal, but relying on what your teenage daughter talks about – or worse, what your core social group talks about – can give you a narrow view of what is a very broad landscape. The need to be relevant in people’s lives not only makes you useful and valued, it is also a way of unconsciously aligning with the Kiwi identity (if you get it right). In the same way that you can recognise a fellow New Zealander abroad and largely predict how they’ll behave and what they’ll roll their eyes at, so can people recognise a brand that aligns with and reflects back the Kiwi identity. Understanding the Kiwi identity means understanding how it is evolving, what is changing and what is remaining unchanged, and also how it is likely to evolve. And though New Zealand is geographically isolated, we are not immune to global cultural shifts.

TRA monitors cultural currents – long-lasting, global phenomena that influence all areas of daily life – for exactly this reason. Driven by a confluence of social, technological, economic, environmental, political and legal events and forces, these cultural shifts keeps us attuned to people’s values and beliefs, allowing us to not only detect and articulate how they are strengthening, weakening and evolving, but also to anticipate what this might mean for the future.

Global cultural shifts manifest in different cultures cloaked in their own local nuance. At a time when people choose brands that reflect their values back to them and trust brands based on what they do, not what they say, it’s more important than ever to understand the wider cultural context, read the cultural moment and get the local code right. Understanding of cultural currents provides insight and context when it comes to understanding New Zealand’s changing cultural codes – what makes New Zealanders say what they say and don’t say. If you want to understand Kiwis, you need to know the codes that shape their identity.

Self-expression and individualism

‘You have the right to be who you want to be but there’s no need to make a song and dance about it.’

Religion, gender, sexuality, how you run your household and bring up your kids – do it how you like, but don’t force it on others. Kiwis are accepting of people forging their own path, as long as it’s real, genuine and not contradictory. Just don’t expect us to make a big deal of it.

The Auckland Pride Parade on Ponsonby Road was half-way through before I realised I hadn’t seen one bare chest. Though I wasn’t surprised that this pride parade was less risqué and hedonistic than its counterparts in, say, Sydney, New York or Paris, I had expected at least a bit of leather and some glitter boobs. At a parade meant to promote sexual diversity and freedom to love whoever you want, sex was barely mentioned and bodies were almost completely covered up. The parade encapsulated an odd cultural tension in New Zealand, one of the most progressive countries in the world yet conservative in many ways.

Within the cultural current of Gender Freedom, which the Pride Parade falls within, two macro-currents immediately stand out. 

Dialogue: Creative and advocacy-driven efforts to create safe platforms and conversational spaces to debate, explore identity and encourage empathy, all towards a more harmonious and inclusive society.

Sex Positivity: Shifting attitudes, more conversation and better education to un-taboo and deshame sex for increased wellness and enriched relationships.

Ironically, the Pride Parade, a platform for conversation about sexuality and identity, seemed too conservative to prompt any conversation (this observation is not meant in any way to knock the Pride Parade at all. It was highly enjoyable and I would encourage anyone to go, and there probably was a raunchier version somewhere that I wasn’t invited to). We know that dialogue and uncomfortable conversations are hard for Kiwis because we are a very polite and friendly people who will do just about anything to avoid conflict. But the cultural currents show us that there are bigger reasons for having these conversations.

 "While the New Zealand economy is thriving, people believe that social conditions are worsening and so is the environment. Companies willing to step up and show they care about these issues will earn the respect of Kiwis."

Shame and taboo around sex has allowed predatory behaviour (such as that at the core of the #MeToo movement) to perpetuate. Only by victims feeling safe(r) to speak out has the extent of the issue been revealed and articulated, and therefore been able to be addressed. Keeping conversations around sex and sexuality secret allows misinformation and predators to flourish.

As described in the Belief in Social Equivalance code, we are self-reflective as a nation, but don't seem to know how to get to where we want to be. Is our ‘don’t rock the boat’ mentality an advantage, or something that is holding us back?

Earned success

‘You can be a tall poppy as long as you earned it.’

Kiwis feel more comfortable celebrating their successes than they used to (think Colin Meads slinking back to the halfway after scoring) and take pride in our wins. However, certain successes are more valued than others and how you handle success is what you’re judged by.

Notions of status and success have broadened immensely. What we gain recognition for has become both more diverse and more niche; the path to celebrity is cheaper and easier than ever; and there are a myriad more ways for word of success to spread. Whether the traditional sporting hero, the successful entrepreneur, the more contemporary travelling yogi Instagram influencer or an accidental YouTube sensation, everyone has the chance to be known for something these days. Tall poppies are running amok.

Consider also that with the digital transformation of business, the nature of work and success today means excelling at social media and building your own ‘personal brand’, especially if you have global ambitions. This shift to shameless self-promotion and breast-beating is difficult for the notoriously humble Kiwi, but is the reality of the workforce today. Being the tallest poppy is more likely to bring you success – it’s survival, not choice.

It’s not surprising then, that celebrating success has become more acceptable. But our Kiwi code suggests that it still needs to be dignified, authentic, done with humility and a slightly collective, patriotic spin. The qualifying adjective is earned. Helen Clarke, Sonny Bill Williams, Lorde, Parris Goebel and Taika Waititi are tall poppies that New Zealanders are happy to see thrive. On the other hand, Auckland’s ‘Real Housewives’, Jake Millar and Sam Ovens, are perceived to be vacuous or individualistic – poppies that need to be cut down.

The shift to daring to be proud of success is also apparent in Outward World View, an emergent code that posits that while New Zealand no longer feels isolated, we still look to the rest of the world to celebrate and validate our ‘world-class’ achievements. It captures the identity transition of feeling like an independent nation with a unique outlook, yet feeling like a younger sibling of the commonwealth who seeks their more established counterpart’s approval. Both New Zealand born Kiwis and new migrants are extremely proud to call New Zealand home and to live the good life here, and whereas words like ‘the homeland’ have disappeared, there is still a sense that "I need the world to show New Zealand success back to me."

Belief in social equivalence

‘We’re known for our equality, egalitarianism and standing up for what’s right – but we don’t see or feel it day to day.’

We know that we are fair, moral and non-hierarchical, but we don’t always feel that we live up to the high bar that we set for ourselves. Equality is an ideal that we need to continue to work towards and we still have big strides to make around the haves and have-nots, women and minorities – regardless of what the rest of the world tells us.

“We’re living in an economy, not a community.” While New Zealanders’ values of fairness and equality stand strong and unfaltering, times are uncertain and getting ahead has become competitive. In a recent TRA study for ASB, 76 percent of Kiwis said they were focused on themselves and immediate family while 24 percent said they were focused on extended family and community. Fearful of getting on the wrong side of the inequality and housing gap, people need to ensure their families succeed. The ‘she’ll be right’ mentality doesn’t fit with today’s uncertainty.

The New Zealand Attitudes and Values Study, led by Professor Chris Sibley of the University of Auckland, suggests that although people are aware of social and environmental issues, they are becoming disillusioned with the impact they can have as individuals. Like many around the world, New Zealanders are recognising that social, environmental and economic challenges are systemic and need to be addressed as such and they are looking at companies to play their part. While the New Zealand economy is thriving, people believe that social conditions are worsening and so is the environment. Companies willing to step up and show they care about these issues will earn the respect of Kiwis.

Problems seem big and intractable, with solutions hard to imagine. Around the world, people are looking for audacious and daring approaches to effect real change, the cultural current we call ‘Audacious Change’. More brands are becoming activists but smart, effective change is hard and takes time. Kiwi pessimism suggests that New Zealanders need some impetus, guidance and lifting up in this context, a role that brands can have a part in.

Connection to nature

‘Nature needs to remain part of the Kiwi identity – a lawn is not a substitute for getting in the elements.’

Kiwis are deeply connected to our natural environment. However, with busy lives, too much screen time and a growing urban population, there is a sense that this connection is not as strong as it once was. Hence nature is a value that we continue to connect with, as opposed to a cultural code that we are currently living by.

The meta-current, Nature – bringing nature back into our lives as we seek equilibrium for the earth and our well-being – is felt all around the world. Driven by climate change, anti-industrialism, urban lifestyles and a digital backlash, disconnection to nature is also being impacted by people living in a more competitive society, loosening community ties, work-dominated and time poor lives, as well as more involved parenting styles.

For New Zealanders, reconnection to nature was the most emotionally charged of all new codes that emerged. New Zealanders sense they are losing a way of life and are nostalgic for the carefree days of childhood when they ran wild in the bush with the neighbourhood children.  By way of close proximity to nature and Maori culture, many Kiwis are able to articulate a spiritual connection to nature.

The desire to be close to essential nature drives worldwide trends such as mindfulness, meditation, and unplugging. However, brands that understand New Zealand’s cultural codes have the opportunity to reach New Zealanders more deeply and profoundly. Because that’s what a cultural code is. It’s how we know we’re from the same place without having to say anything.

Knowing New Zealanders is not about knowing their demographics or levels of ownership of smartphones or cars. Instead, it’s about deciphering the codes that they hold dear, recognising the tensions within them and showing you get them. Tensions is where brands can play.

A code we haven’t mentioned here is humour, which is another key part of the New Zealand psyche. While some of the tensions in our codes are profound, humour is the coping mechanism Kiwis use to deal with tension and awkwardness and can be the way brands acknowledge that they get who we are. So, do you think you know New Zealanders, or are you still thinking in 20th century clichés?

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