The Moxie Sessions: What’s the story? Selling tech from the land of sheep and hobbits

Story is so important that the government, via NZTE, Tourism NZ and Education NZ, has set up an entire arm – New Zealand Story – to help exporters tell it.

People don’t buy widgets, advertising people like me continually tell our clients, they buy stories. How the widget was made. Why it’s going to change their lives. Which famous person couldn’t live without one. And sometimes where the widget came from.

As a country that prides itself on its natural environment, New Zealand sees this last one a lot from exporters. Wine from the Awatere Valley, for example, is likely to catch the London shopper’s eye more effectively than a bottle from, say, Poland. (I’m guessing here … for all I know, Poland wine is the best.)

And who hasn’t pulled on an Icebreaker top or, more lately, a pair of All Birds shoes without thinking not of the Chinese factories they were made in but instead the South Island high country station their wool was just recently wandering around on?

Story is so important that the government, via NZTE, Tourism NZ and Education NZ, has set up an entire arm – New Zealand Story – to help exporters tell it.

This all makes sense when you’re talking about products where terroir matters. In the 21st century, though, New Zealand is increasingly looking toward exports that come in data packets, not bottles, tins or refrigerated containers. What role does our story play there? Does New Zealandness have a role to play in selling digital stuff or pitching companies? And what exactly is New Zealandness when it’s at home?

Clearly, questions of this order can only be answered properly by a table full of tech wonks sitting around a table so, just after Waitangi Day, that’s just what happened as The Moxie Sessions again convened at Auckland’s GridAKL.

Leading the charge were don’t-call-me-an-ad-guy Martin Yeoman, of Assignment Group; consultant Dan Witters, of SW and Partners; and Te Aroha Morehu, Ngāti Whātua’s general manager of culture and identity.

For Dan, New Zealandness only goes so far. While not knowing whether a New Yorker is hearing your “six” as “sex” or “sucks” might make for a briefly amusing Flight of the Conchords-like exchange, he advises potential Kiwi dealmakers to school themselves on how Americans do business, and let the pavlova and Swanndri take a back seat.

“Turning up and telling potential partners how special and relaxed New Zealand is was getting us nowhere,” Dan says.

Now, he focuses on training businesses in the practicalities of pitching to Americans – everything from avoiding colloquialisms (“awesome isn’t awesome”) and swearing, to setting up US-based offices, registered companies and billing addresses.

At Assignment Group, Martin Yeoman has helped build a business through telling New Zealand brand stories including Z, Kiwibank and Whittaker’s. Lately, the agency has been working with NZTE offshoot New Zealand Story to bottle that Kiwi magic and make it available to anyone wanting to sell a New Zealand product or service offshore.

While that story is straightforward (ignoring for a moment exactly what percentage clean and green this country is) for tourism, dairy, wine, meat and so on, it’s not so clear what our angle is when it comes to the tech sector. In part, we’ve become a victim of our own hobbit-fuelled success.

Martin and his lucky colleagues travelled to Sydney, Ho Chi Minh City and San Francisco over six months and discovered that from afar, we basically look like a particularly scenic farm.

Shifting business and investor perceptions from this will take some doing – especially as “high tech” and “happy cow in otherwise empty green paddock” don’t naturally occupy the same brand space. Current thinking, Martin says, is focusing on Kiwi values … the country's record for leadership on issues like gay marriage, votes for women, anti-apartheid and becoming nuclear-free could be a good starting point. And tying that to New Zealand's clean image and isolation might not be such a leap, he says, suggesting “blue sky thinking” could form the heart of a less cow-and-hobbit-based New Zealand Story.

Of course, the whole idea of an empty, untouched, potential-filled New Zealand is a largely eurocentric view. For Ngāti Whātua’s Te Aroha Morehu, the New Zealand Story has been going for a thousand years and is about guardianship as much as growth. Occupying land as caretakers, nurturing the health of cities and finding ways for business to fill souls and pukus, not just pockets, are at the heart of Ngāti Whātua’s philosophy.

The approach has resonated with US companies in ways other aspects of Kiwi culture might not have. Te Aroha has recently been invited to discuss kaitiakitanga with Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella – a meeting a planeload of PowerPoint-toting Kiwi CEOs would quite possibly swap their place in the Tesla Model X queue for.

It’s a complex question and not one that we’re likely to solve around a table in an evening. It’s clear, though, that if New Zealandness is to be part of our tech export story – and that’s a big “if” – then that story will need to look quite different from the one we’ve been telling tourists for the last 50 years. A values approach around social progressiveness might work, but I’d argue it’s just as vulnerable to criticism as 100% Pure has proved. Of the options discussed, the one that’s been here since long before a tech sector was even contemplated might well prove most powerful. The New Zealand Story 2.0 could start with partnership, guardianship, acknowledging and embracing the cultural bedrock that sits beneath the buildings our tech businesses occupy.

Paul Holmes got it, I reckon, when he signed off every show with “those were our people, today.” So maybe the New Zealand story we’re looking for isn’t so much about pictures of the whenua, but connecting to the voices and values of the tangata.

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