New Zealand story CEO shares the secrets to their place branding success

When we ask our audience which place brand they admire most, New Zealand is regularly right up there at the top of the list. But what makes their nation branding so successful? David Downs, CEO of New Zealand Story – and one of our CNP Awards judges – shares the inside scoop on how they collaborate with key stakeholders to deliver such a strong and effective place branding strategy.

Firstly, thank you for joining us as a judge for the City Nation Place Awards, David! When we talk about nation branding, New Zealand is often held up as one of the top examples of best practice – what do you think is the secret behind this success?

Thank you for the compliment; we consider ourselves as still a ‘work in progress’, and we are continuing to evolve our approach as we learn what works (and what doesn’t), and have the chance to learn from others. We have had some good successes along the way: we’ve got a rich media and content library; we have a strong research program; we manage some of the government’s trademark portfolio.

But I think the real strengths in the organisation is things you might not see externally – a strong connection with all the government agencies who work internationally has been a critical part of our approach (we call it ‘NZ Inc’). Similarly, we’ve built a strong relationship with the private sector (exporters, education institutes, tourism operators etc) and have great dialogue about what they need from us, and also what value we can bring to them. We’ve established a consulting / advisory service where we work with large organisations, and with major events, to help them tailor ways to bring the New Zealand Story to life.

My overarching theory is that we have to line up efforts from all across the government and business system to tell a compelling, consistent and authentic story.

At a time when we’re facing environmental, social, and economic upheaval, what roles do nation brand organisations play in charting a path through potentially challenging times?

This is something we are tackling right now; how to be authentic, acknowledging that NZ is on a journey in these areas, while also creating an aspirational story. We’ve also become involved with organisations in New Zealand who are actively working in these areas, to give our perspective (and our observation from the research we hold) and frankly at times to create some activity and action.

Nation brand agencies like ours have a responsibility not only to tell a story, but to help create the future we want to project to the world. Strong relationships with other organisations with mutual respect is key to being successful with this approach.

What would be your top tip for another country looking to bring together the perspective of so many different stakeholders to create a collaborative strategy for nation brand promotion?

We have an advisory group which has representatives from our key stakeholders, particularly the large government agencies we work with closely – trade, tourism, diplomacy, education etc. This advisory group is a key way to keep us all aligned, and the CEOs of those groups attend, which helps send the message down into their organisations that we are a key partner.

Nothing like being able to invoke the CEO’s name to help get things done further down the organisation…

We’ve been fortunate to have representatives from Auckland’s city brand join us at events before, and we know that Christchurch are in the process of launching their own city brand narrative. How do city brands intersect with the overarching nation brand strategy? 

We collaborate with the cities within NZ who are working in brand building. We encourage them to ‘dock into’ our overall narrative and provide them with assets and messaging to help. We also collaborate on media and content capture where we can, to get the best use of funds, and we reinforce each others’ media efforts.

One advantage we have is that our country culture, particularly our Māori culture, is a strong thread that binds us all together.

The New Zealand FernMark is one of the earliest examples of nation brand licensing programs in the world. How are you evolving the program to ensure it continues to build trust?

The FernMark is a highly successful programme; we sublicence this trademark to key exporters and other agencies. We carefully police who can use it, and are alert for misuse – and we try hard to build extra value into the program. We promote the mark internationally, we have training resources and assets that licensees can use. For example, we recently started a program called ‘Export Storyteller’ for FernMark licensees which helps them create a compelling international brand and marketing plan, informed through research. On top of all that, we have some tech behind the program to help them measure the usage of their mark with end consumers in the international markets they care about.

In the past year, we’ve grown the program by 20%, and interest is high!

And last – but certainly not least – what would it take to impress you with an entry to the City Nation Place Awards? Is there anything that you would consider to be a hall-marker of success?

I’ll be looking for entries that show a progression from a ‘logo & pretty pictures’ way of working, to something deeper. Branding is so much more than just promotion or presentation, it’s about understanding your values and uniqueness, and finding ways to weave that into your work, and across your stakeholders.

I’m also looking for clever use of funds and resources to show ways of leveraging value through others. And ideally, an entry will be able to show how all this work is landing in terms of a clear outcome.

David will be joining us as a judge at the City Nation Place Awards 2023. Enter before September 7th to celebrate the success of your team and to have your work reviewed by a jury of your international peers. Find out more about the City Nation Place Awards here.

The Place Brand Portfolio is City Nation Place's searchable portfolio of Awards case studies from the past five years.