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The Blackrock contract raises the debate on Brand New Zealand

Jon Carapiet

Jon Carapiet

Auckland, August 16, 2023

Some people may be surprised at the criticism of the New Zealand government for partnering with Blackrock, an American multinational investment company, to create a $2 billion climate infrastructure fund. The aim is to help New Zealand become one of the first countries in the world to reach 100% renewable energy. 

Sounds good.

Prime Minister Chris Hipkins called it “a watershed moment in our transition to 100% renewable electricity generation and our goal of net zero emissions by 2050.”

But concerns about greenwashing have been raised by the announcement.

Questions are being asked about the impact on New Zealand’s reputation from the association. Blackrock’s ‘big problem’ includes a commitment to investing in destructive and exploitative industries. This is not the first time that ‘Reputation Risk’ has become a hot topic.

Brand New Zealand has been hooked up before with brands that have dubious credentials.

All Blacks Sponsorship controversy

Recently, the Guardian reported criticism of Altrad for spending millions as a sponsor for the All Blacks to whitewash its image.

“The owners of a company that was one of the UK’s biggest manufacturers of asbestos have been accused of whitewashing their reputation by spending tens of millions of pounds on sponsoring the All Blacks Rugby team while rejecting pleas for a £10 million donation towards cancer research.”

The same concerns were raised when New Zealand Rugby confirmed petroleum giant INEOS as a new sponsor of the All Blacks.

Under the new six-year deal, the All Blacks, Black Ferns, Sevens, NZ U20 and NZ Māori teams agreed to carry the new sponsor’s logo on playing shorts and training jerseys.

“To partner with INEOS and be part of such a unique and diverse global sports performance group is an exciting new venture,” New Zealand Rugby Chief Executive Mark Robinson said.

Environmental groups called out the problem of linking New Zealand’s reputation with INEOS – one of the largest manufacturers of chemicals and oil products.

Greenpeace criticised INEOS’s investment in the sport as a way to distract from its environmentally unfriendly practices, including opposing proposals to regulate toxic and persistent ‘forever’ chemicals in microplastics.

“As the world turns against the corporations driving climate catastrophe, New Zealand Rugby must not sell our soul to an English oil corporate, which is cynically wanting to greenwash its image by associating with the All Blacks and our environmental reputation,” a Greenpeace spokesman said.

The issue is not just one of sports sponsorship or even just a New Zealand problem. Arts and culture are part of an expanding repertoire of sectors from education to health that companies use ‘to give back’ and gain a halo effect for their efforts. Until they are called out.

In 2022, the National Portrait Gallery became the latest UK cultural institution to sever fossil fuel links, by terminating its more than 30-year partnership with BP.

A difference of views

For Brand New Zealand, the issue of other brands wanting ‘what we have got’ sits at the heart of the sponsorship dilemma. The sponsor usually has ‘what we have not got,’  which is money.

Problems arise when a shortage of money overtakes all other ‘human’ considerations. But people make judgements on the ‘company you keep’, and that goes for Brands as well as for people.

Indeed Brand theory positions brands as ‘people’ – what they do, what they stand for and believe in, their brand values and mission, how we feel about them, and who we trust. The ultimate negative manifestation of this is in the ‘rights’ that corporations have secured to allow them the freedom to sell their wares unhindered by wider human and environmental considerations.

Which is where the argument arises.

What one New Zealand organisation may see as a boost to their bottom line, other stakeholders in Brand New Zealand consider detrimental to an authentic and positive stance in the world.

In the example of the All Blacks sponsorships, there is a conflict between those making the decisions and the wider community questioning the brand fit. The implication is that custodians of Brand New Zealand, i.e. the people with decision-making powers, are out of touch with the wider values that New Zealanders hold dear.

The concern for Reputation Risk usually gets resolved by ignoring mismatch and the naysayers.

At least for now. (Rarely in New Zealand have organisations chosen to do the right thing and drop a sponsor, as has happened in the UK. It seems more often to happen the other way around with sponsors pulling their support when something negative hits the news).

Getting away with it

There is real-world evidence and quite a few academic reports that suggest  ‘you can get away with it.’ For a while.

Contributing to the debate about how New Zealand should regulate Gene Editing are a number of published studies claiming to show there is no long-term harm to Brand New Zealand from the release of GMOs.  The studies go back decades, sometimes using dodgy promises that mislead consumers and show a ‘good number’ of people will buy GE food if you spin it and price it right.

In these experiments, the key to success is to discount the price of the GE product.

Price it cheap enough and they will buy it.

Note to Kiwi farmers, Fonterra, Federated Farmers, Beef+Lamb NZ et al: this is not the best strategy for growers or exporters.

The conclusion from such studies is that consumer preferences for organic and non-GMO food can be overcome. They just need to be told; explained to and made informed.

Brands can get away with doing the wrong thing in the knowledge that people are busy and have short memories and by the way, who really cares anyway.

Confusion Marketing

That is the same secret sauce exposed by Theresa Gattung in her famous comments naming the ‘confusion marketing’ used by telecommunications companies.

This was the view of some academics ten years ago, and still some today. The National Party’s policy to encourage the commercial release of GE organisms is intent on overriding consumer sentiment by excluding New Genomic Techniques from tracing and labelling, taking away the choice.

If the National Party wins in the upcoming election, it will seek to ‘get away with it’ and put Brand New Zealand in the firing line.

In the firing line not just from overseas customers looking to New Zealand to be authentic in producing clean, safe GE-free and organic food, but from the lost opportunity to deliver wider benefits to the economy, environment and public health from a move to organic and regenerative agriculture.

However recent headlines are a disappointment and wake-up call for those promoting commercial release of GE organisms.

Newsroom’s investigation into the failure of GE ryegrass trials in the US shows that the repeated promise of GE ryegrass to solve farm emissions is not credible compared to existing and better options.

Research by Plant and Food with the Urban Consumer found Gene Editing was the most rejected of all the new ideas explored in their study.

In contrast, is the demand for Brands to live up to what they say.

The aim is to be authentic. “Do what it says on the tin,” assuming that it is properly labelled.

Many businesses and organisations have taken this to heart, rather than trying to whitewash or greenwash.

Real change to authentic sustainability and ethics are important for Brands to navigate the future.

Brands gain leadership and advantage with consumers and employees when they consider environmental and social responsibility as a must-have, not nice to have.

When a company has genuine intentions and is doing its best the consumer is much more likely to be forgiving when something goes awry.

Who owns Brand New Zealand?

It is easier to say who owns Brand New Zealand than it is to say who is in charge of managing it.

Brands represent a set of associations and feelings that serve as a shortcut to evaluating what is on offer. Instead of having to read the back of the label, the name on the tin delivers a sense of trust and confidence in what we are getting.

As such, Brand New Zealand is collectively owned in our imagination, and distributed across the minds and hearts of all of us as stakeholders. It is this shared ‘ownership’ that leads to public concern when Brand New Zealand gets it wrong and gets hooked on the wrong types.

In terms of who is the Brand Manager, a similar argument can be made that it is a collective effort, built by the small businesses and larger exporters who leverage their brand association with New Zealand.

Sitting outside the corporate brand model, there is also the role of tangata whenua as kaitiakitanga giving Aotearoa its unique identity.

There is also official custodianship through the New Zealand Story, the government agency in charge of Aotearoa country branding. Their work includes licensing FernMark to promote trust and authenticity in our products.

The FernMark Licence

The FernMark is a registered trademark in 13 countries across 44 classes and provides an added layer of legal protection in key export markets.

Interviewed by The Place and Brand Observer, Rebecca Smith, former Director of the New Zealand Story said: “The New Zealand Story was established to create a common thread so that 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 Brand New Zealand stand for now?

It depends on what aspect of the economy we are looking at. There is a different lens for food, tourism, technology, the employment brand and our digital presence. But it is the commonalities that serve to guide the brand’s collective advantage and trajectory.

“We describe New Zealand as a progressive nation of creative, ingenious people who challenge the status quo to create new solutions, whilst always caring for people, place and planet,” Ms Smith said.

“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 are a nation whose aim is to be good for the world.

“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,” she said.

Which is all good but casts a shadow over the INEOS All Blacks, concerns about greenwashing by Blackrock and the National Party’s push for the commercial release of GMOs.

Removal of transparency for Gene-Edited food denies consumers at home and abroad their right to choose. It is not moral, transparent, building trust and not on Brand.

Jon Carapiet was born in Ghana and educated at Cambridge and Auckland Universities. He is a consumer researcher and advocate, photographer and writer. He is a spokesman for GE-Free NZ (in food and environment) Twitter: jon@brandnewzealand. The above article, which appeared in The Daily Blog has been reproduced here with the author’s permission.

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