City of tales: Vivien Bridgwater’s search for the Auckland story

Tourism New Zealand has 100% Pure. And Wellington has its Absolutely Positively. Now, after a decade of false starts, Auckland is to get its own global branding exercise, under the direction of ATEED’s newly appointed general manager global destination and marketing, Vivien Sutherland Bridgwater

 “We’re embarking on a research phase to find that authentic and distinctive Auckland story. And it starts at home. It needs to be a story that we as Aucklanders can all agree with.” 

The former AUT marketing boss says Auckland’s international profile is sufficiently different from the rest of New Zealand that it deserves its own international brand marketing campaign.

“New Zealand is recognised the world over as an oasis, but Auckland is an urban oasis. We need to find ways to articulate that in an authentic and compelling way,” she says.

Bridgwater was formerly on the ATEED board but stepped down late last year to assume the executive role. Her arrival coincides with controversial appointments of business development managers in London and San Francisco. A third person is being hinted for China. It signals an increased effort to globally promote Auckland as a destination by the council-funded body.

Goodness knows it’s needed. Auckland’s efforts at branding have been patchy. The decades-old ‘City of Sails’ moniker still sticks despite attempts to displace it with an iconic ‘A’. The idea was first mooted in the late 1990s by then-chief executive of Saatchi & Saatchi Mike Hutcheson as a play on words (as in “Auckland, eh”). Since then the ‘A’ has had two redesigns with Designworks and DNA. Plans to extend the ‘A’ across the super city council were derailed and replaced by a public competition that produced a pohutakawa motif.

Auckland logo by Designworks (L) and DNA (R)

In 2012, ATEED launched an $800,000 domestic tourism campaign around the idea of Auckland as an international city where no passports were required. And it was the biggest domestic tourism push for the region in ten years. And last year it created another domestic advertising campaign (in conjunction with Heart of the City) promoting Auckland with the line ‘the show never stops’ (Sky City has also started talking itself up). 

Bridgwater says a logo or a slogan is often the most visible aspect of branding but it doesn’t form a critical part of her remit. “Destination marketing is a pretty established discipline so there are many precedents that we can examine, including very successful cities like London and New York and Brisbane. A logo is one expression but it’s the underlying story that matters. What’s our international story? We can’t merely pick up on someone else’s. And what we tell the rest of the world probably won’t be the same as what we tell the rest of the New Zealand.”

Bridgwater’s mandate is broad, covering tourism, business events and international education. “Our job is to convince people in these sectors to consider Auckland over hundreds of other cities. I mean, why would, say, a medical convention which brings hundreds of high-spending professionals and their families choose Auckland over Prague? Or what about a Chinese student considering tertiary study. Why would he consider an Auckland university over an Australian or American one?

“Most people in the world have barely heard of New Zealand, let alone Auckland. And then their response usually is ‘oh I’d love to come, but it’s so far’.”

Overcoming those barriers is a huge job, she says, and with such a tiny voice on a global stage it means Auckland needs to be smart. She draws parallels with 100% Pure, which she says has done an incredible job of giving New Zealand positive profile.

Isn’t that profile a double-edge sword?

Everything has a risk, she says, but 100% Pure has worked because it combines aspiration with authenticity. “The aspiration for pure adventure, pure nature, pure hospitality – that resonates internationally and then it’s reinforced by what they experience once they’ve come here.”

So what’s Auckland’s equivalent?

“Well, that’s my first job. We’re embarking on a research phase to find that authentic and distinctive Auckland story. And it starts at home. It needs to be a story that we as Aucklanders can all agree with. I mean, I’ll know that we’ve succeeded when the Indian immigrant who owns the dairy at the end of my street in West Auckland tells the same story as a family in Manukau as does a wealthy professional in Freeman’s Bay. It’s a similar challenge to AUT. When I heard one of the academics say back to me that we wanted to be a ‘university for the changing world’, I kind of knew that we’d done our job. It only took 14 years!”

That sounds a bit like telling people what to say.  

“No, the point is that we’re finding the story first, then telling it to the world. So we’re starting by asking people: ‘what’s your perfect day in Auckland?’ You get a huge variety of responses, of course, which is the joy of it. And we can’t prejudge the outcome, though some themes have emerged with the water and the land playing a central role. But we have to let the story emerge first. Then we can get on with sharing it. What I find inspiring is that I meet the most amazing people who choose this city over anywhere else. When I was young, like many, I couldn’t wait to get out. Now, there’s an incredible buzz. People really want to make this a great city and I love that.”

​Bridgwater is anticipating the first drafts of the ‘brand narrative’ will be complete in August.

How does she respond to the recent criticism of ATEED appointing ‘ambassadors’ in London and San Francisco? She says she cannot comment as there are strict protocols on how ATEED, as a council funded entity, responds publicly. “It’s simply not for me to say.”

That must be frustrating?

“Yes and no,” she says.  “This is council, people have roles and responsibilities. It’s the chief executive who responds on behalf of the whole organisation.”

Bridgwater says she took the job because she wants to make a difference to Auckland. “After AUT I had a number of opportunities. I’m on the global board of Save the Children so there was the possibility of heading offshore for a while. But there’s so much that can be done and needs to be done at home. You know what it’s like when you see the All Blacks or the haka when you’re overseas? It makes your spine tingle. I want the Auckland story to do that to people.”

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