What does it mean to be a New Zealander in 2020?

Everyone talks about the ‘new New Zealand’ – but what’s really changed? What does this mean for your business and brand? And why do we see the same well-worn imagery of a New Zealand of the 20th century, rather than the 21st?

Global movements have meant that national identity has come to the fore. After months of global change which brought the concept of identity politics into the public consciousness like never before – True’s Janisa Parag was prompted to question, what does it actually mean to be a New Zealander today? And what does this mean for Kiwi businesses as we build brands fit to the face a disrupted future? 

First, the cultural codes challenged the well-worn tropes of ‘old New Zealand’

New Zealand’s rugged, farming ‘Number 8 Wire’ identity has been firmly rooted in our colonial settler past and iconography which for so long dominated over indigenous and diverse voices. And this cultural identity was reflected in our brands – our marketing and communications across the past 30 years have drawn on the same homogenous cultural roots. ‘Kiwi’ was represented by three “isms”: individualism, pragmatism and isolationism. But New Zealand’s population shift from agrarian to urban has meant these tropes are no longer relevant.

Secondly, the codes break the myth of ‘new New Zealand’ 

As journalists, marketers and business leaders we’re often referencing this idea of the ‘New New Zealand’ but what has actually changed? As one of the youngest countries on earth, waves of immigration have built our nation. The recent election prompted much discussion about the future direction of the country, and the impact migration will play in this future.

And herein lies the problem. By calling this audience ‘new New Zealand’ we are immediately making sectors of New Zealand different, not ‘one of us’. When in fact no matter how long you’ve been here, we are in fact all ‘new New Zealanders’. It’s this strong sense of collectivism amongst New Zealanders that unites us.

In identifying the six cultural codes of New Zealand with Colleen Ryan and the TRA team we’ve uncovered the key seismic shifts in our culture – and the implications for New Zealand businesses:

Seismic shift #1 from Number 8 Wire to earned success

The Number 8 Wire mentality describes a Kiwi’s ability, borne out of isolation, to improvise and adapt in order to solve problems often using more readily available resources such as the (then) ubiquitous Number 8 fencing wire.

This idea of cobbling together, making do and a “she’ll be right” attitude worked in a commodity market. Getting by and even flying by the seat of our pants was essential in colonial days when we were so far away from resources. But improvisation isn’t the same as invention.

Earned success recognises that we should aim for excellence, and invest in innovative thinking. In a global knowledge economy, this is a big win. 

Seismic shift #2 from Tall Poppy to outward world view

Chief among the cultural behemoths we stared down was the so called “tall poppy syndrome” and our constant undervaluing of global success. For too long marketers have been telling New Zealand that the tall poppy syndrome was good for us, it made us stronger as a nation, by hardening those who do succeed they can push harder. But success is a hard road to follow, why should we make it even harder? 

New Zealanders turned understatement and self-depreciation into an art form. Globally, Flight of the Concord’s billed themselves as “New Zealand’s” fourth most popular fol-comedy duo” (which is tall poppy in meta). But now we’ve moved on from putting on a pedestal those who succeed against the odds and instead celebrate those who achieve commercial success through intellectual prowess and meticulous planning.

Outward world view is New Zealanders saying ‘welcome to world- class’ and championing those that are succeeding because that was their plan. 

Seismic shift #3 From Jack’s as good as his master to social equivalence

Since the 1900s, New Zealand’s positioned itself as the ‘classless society’. Far from the Motherland, the idea that ‘Jack’s as good as his master’ was liberating and empowering. But in truth, the idea of class-lessness belied the gulf emerging in the nation. From the 1980’s urban/rural, young/aged, professional/ trade became the new class wars. 

In fact, New Zealand is still a country of many landings – from the first waka and the first sailing ships to the numerous flights landing every day. 

That common experience of arrival, whether it be long in the past or only last week is democratising. But the rate of change in our society is testing this value. So, while we know that we are fair, moral and non-hierarchical we don’t always feel that we live up to the high bar that we set for ourselves. 

Social equality is an ideal that we need to continue to work towards, we still have big strides to make around of the world tells us. 

Seismic shift #4 from straightforward humour as a leveler

We have developed a worldwide reputation for being direct, blunt, honest. There is an enormous distrust of intellectuals and ‘fancy talk’. Calling a spade a spade is a compliment – laboring a point seems self-indulgent. Rather than ‘talk it out’ we’ve encouraged people to pipe down and move on. However, this abruptness has held us back in addressing and confronting serious issues in New Zealand such as mental wellbeing and the cycle of violence. 

The self-deprecating wit of kiwis is still relevant today, but straightforward laconic-ness is now used to tackle bigger issues. Our humour diffuses hierarchy, tradition and conflict and hence, is used as a coping mechanism. 

Seismic shift #5 From ‘Man Alone’ to self-determination

Barry Crump was larger than life owing to the ‘good keen bloke’ he portrayed in novels and magnified in the iconic Toyota campaign of the ‘80s. Because of this there’s an assumption many New Zealanders still identify with the traits of Crump and his literary characters. Traits that are seen as likeably roguish, and maybe even anti-authoritarian.

Self-determination is recognizing that religion, gender, sexuality, how you run your household and bring up your kids – is your choice as long as you don’t force it on others. We are now 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. 

Seismic shift #6 From conquering nature to connecting with nature

Self-described “average bloke,” Sir Edmund Hillary’s most famous quote post summiting Mount Everest with Tenzing Norgay on May 29, 1953, was a simple aside to expedition mate George Lowe: “Well, George, we knocked the bastard off.” But it was another quote of his that demonstrates the shift in our relationship with nature, “All of my life I’ve been afraid of having nothing to do, having no challenges to meet, being bored. The whole of my life has been a battle against boredom.” 

Today, rather than nature being the antidote to boredom, nature is the antidote to overstimulation in a digital world. We are deeply connected to our natural environment – in almost a spiritual way. However, with busy lives, too much screen time and a growing population, there is a sense that this connection is not as strong as it once was. Nature grounds people and puts us in our place, which is why rather than exploiting nature for its benefits businesses must recognize New Zealanders want organizations to value its protection. 

So what does this mean for your brand?

The idea of holding onto the cultural icons of our past will be even less apt now than in the future. Instead, it’s the shifts in our culture that marketers need to recognize to be relevant to the New Zealand of 2020:


  • Succeeding against the odds
  • Making do, getting by and flying by the seat of our pants
  • One off, sporadic 


  • Success is part of the plan
  • Lean, agile and planned 
  • Continuous scaleable and replicable 
  • World leaders in our own right 

Janisa Parag is head of strategy and planning at True. True partnered with TRA who identified the Cultural Codes through significant qualitative and quantitative analysis. 

The study is designed to inform strategy not just ads, and takes a longitudinal view by looking at data over the past 27 years. 

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