A question of purity

Peter Nuttall is sitting at anchor in a 30-knot gale off Fiji. Forty-knot reinforced trade winds are forecast. Peter’s voice is nonetheless clear through the comms link. He is unfazed by the weather above and more focused on the storm brewing back home.

In March this year Peter lodged a complaint with the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) about use of the brand ‘100% Pure New Zealand’ by Tourism New Zealand (TNZ), and apple and honey exporters. His complaint? 100% Pure is a "false representation of the New Zealand environment."

"I was most concerned with TNZ and how its '100% Pure New Zealand' misleads consumers and misrepresents New Zealand," he says. "I felt a bit mean picking on the little honey company as well, but their advertising linked the 100% Pure with New Zealand’s environment like no other, although our environment is far from 100 percent pure and getting worse every year".

The ASA agreed, although they did not uphold his complaint, and 100% Pure New Zealand Honey.com promised to review their website's environmental claims by the end of this month, especially its use of words like “pristine” and “pure” – a small victory, and round one to Nuttall. TNZ and Pipfruit NZ were more evasive.

Round 2: TNZ tried to fend off his complaint by claiming their websites fell outside ASA’s jurisdiction because they were corporate and for consumers outside New Zealand. The ASA disagreed. So far so good.

Round 3: Strangely, TNZ claimed “100% Pure Zealand is not an environmental statement or promise and never has been” although they describe the campaign as about “how our landscape, people and activities combine to deliver a visitor experience that is unique to New Zealand.”

"That sounds like an environmental statement to me," says Nuttall. "Aren’t landscapes and people a big part of the environment?"

Indeed the ASA’s own rules agree with him by defining the environment as “ecosystems and their constituent parts, including people and communities; natural and physical resources; and the qualities and characteristics or locations, places and areas” – very much like TNZ’s description of what its 100% Pure is all about. Nuttall is disappointed the ASA did not apply its own rules by letting TNZ evade in this way.

His complaint against TNZ was not upheld. The ASA decided that TNZ made no environmental claims. Unlike 100% Pure New Zealand Honey.com, TNZ have been very careful not to explicitly link their product, the New Zealand environment, with environmental claims. Did you know you were mistaken when you assumed that ‘100% Pure New Zealand’ was a reference to our environment?

Tourism New Zealand say “100% Pure Zealand is not an environmental statement or promise and never has been.” Really.

You are not alone. At lunch on the a busy street outside the University of California yesterday I asked my new circle of work friends what '100% Pure New Zealand' means to them. Unspoilt and pristine environment were the replies. Poor TNZ. They invested 14 years in the ‘100% Pure New Zealand’ campaign only to find that some in one of their markets, California, still don’t understand what it really means.

Pipfruit NZ has not been nearly as careful to avoid making environmental claims, but they too are being evasive and in ways that also promise to raise eyebrows.

Round 4: Produce of New Zealand.org markets “100% Pure apples from New Zealand” and advertises our countryside as “unspoilt” and “Clean & Green”. In response to Nuttall's complaint, Pipfruit NZ claim these terms are “good use of hyperbole” and that it actually refers to the uniqueness of New Zealand apples.

He is nonplussed. "If I sold mountain spring water as '100% Pure' but then my customers found out it was 10 percent tap water, I could not claim that what I really meant was that my bottled water is unique. No one would believe that I never intended for 100% Pure to be interpreted as 100 percent spring water. No one would accept that a claim that 100% Pure was an obvious exaggeration for effect."

But Prime Minister John Key’s “It’s got to be taken with a bit of a pinch of salt”is also the opinion of the ASA and Nuttall's complaint against Pipfruit NZ was also not upheld. Apparently a brand, or “positioning statement” as they call it, does not need to reflect its product.

He has a different opinion: "A brand should reflect its product or the product should be made good to reflect its brand." The product, of course is New Zealand’s environment – marketed to the rest of the world to sell us as a destination and our products as from an especially unspoilt environment.

The '100% Pure New Zealand’ brand captures some of the ethos of what New Zealand needs to succeed. We are a small country with comparatively limited buying power and dependent on international currencies and capital. This makes our brand more important to us than brands are to other, larger nations: brand America and brand China or even brand Australia.

Our size is also an advantage for branding. We are small enough to ‘speak’ with the same voice, to support and present a singular face to the world. And it must be a single face. We must not be two-faced. We cannot claim we are a pristine nation but hide our scarred face, because it will be seen – lying and cheating not just ourselves but, most importantly, our international customers.

Brands that are not true, therefore, eventually become a net cost. It is not just that they lose value, but that people avoid the products they represent. People hate to be lied to and cheated.

Nuttall is adamant, "New Zealand is playing a game of risk with its 100% Pure brand" – an extremely valuable brand – estimated in 2005 at $20.17 billion a year. "We could have cleaner waters. We could protect and restore our biodiversity. We could be what TNZ is claiming. New Zealand should be a place where environmental standards are upheld, not deteriorating."

"I want the 100% Pure brand to be true, not a green-wash" is his last riposte as we sign off. I’m convinced too. We need to protect our brand. And we do it by protecting our nation’s natural capital. Businesses that benefit from our natural capital, should be its leading proponents. Where is TNZ when landscapes are trashed?

From choppy seas off the Fijian coast, where he is busy applying the findings from his PhD research at Victoria University on sustainable shipping for the South Pacific, Nuttall has appealed the ASA’s decisions.

Good luck.

  • This post originally appeared on Sciblogs.

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