The high street high: Is New Zealand turning completely urban

  • Opinion
  • March 23, 2017
  • Idealog Team
The high street high: Is New Zealand turning completely urban

Should our cities have a global focus, or focus their resources on serving the rest of Aotearoa? Contagion chief executive Dean Taylor takes a look.

It’s no secret that over the last 30 years more of us have moved to major cities and this trend is set to accelerate. In many parts of the world, this is greeted with both delight and fear, which oscillates somewhere between metropolitan Utopia and Mad Max wasteland.  

While some might fear the emergence of Judge Dredd-type scenarios there are some signs already that city dwellers across the globe are being quietly homogenised into one ‘global city’ culture.

Let’s also not forget that the biggest city in the world now has 2 billion people conversing within its platform every day. (It’s anyone’s guess what will this bring, but that’s, perhaps, story for a different day).

We conducted research across New Zealand and cross-referenced this with further qualitative groups that we were involved with across Asia, Europe and North America to look at the phenomena of the global city culture and what people are buying, particularly what they are buying into when they buy a New Zealand product.

One element in the analysis that was particularly interesting was the concept of ‘countries within countries’

Walk down to Britomart in Auckland or to a major Westfield in Wellington and you really could be anywhere in the world. The globally franchised High Street brands make little concession to their Kiwi surroundings, relying instead on our emotional needs of wanting to be recognised as hip urban dwellers.

The ‘Truman Show’ High Street is replicated across the planet. Brands such as Bobbi Brown, Ted Baker, Joe Malone and even Nike roll out their standard schtick that plays well in New York’s SoHo. So it will definitely work here, right? Well, looking at the tenure and number of the outlets in our major cities, it seems we lap them up. I walked past Tiffany, the jewellery company, the other day and the outside of the building screamed to be recognised as the best of the best in global capital city chic. The truth is, we could actually be in the airport shopping centre; these shops are all there too.

Is this a good thing? By voting with our wallets we have all endorsed them. Have we played victim to an elaborate confidence trick here? Think about it, for global companies what could be more efficient than having the needs of millions of consumers in massively different cultures being lured into the same psychographics so they could market to us all in one go, with one strategy and one creative message.

They can do this because people in cities have more in common with their metropolitan counterparts than they do with their own country.  

In many ways, big cities are countries within countries. This is genius because city dwellers gather in larger numbers, in a smaller geographic area, we can be compartmentalised, profiled and more cost-effectively ticked off a global marketer’s ‘to do’ list.

These guys are banking (literally) that Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch have more in common with Sydney, London and Frankfurt than they do with Northland, Otago and New Plymouth.

I was going to mention Hamilton, but am reliably informed that this will most likely join greater Auckland within ten years anyway.

The stats also back this shift, showing that over 85 percent of the nation lives in urban areas—making New Zealand one of the most urbanised countries in the world.  

Hell, the cities have such a powerful pull that even the Hilux has left the regions for the suburbs.

In fact, even the Aussies are getting it (now, we can only hope that they eventually cotton on a bit more and legalise gay marriage).

So what separates the urban dwellers form their regional counterparts? Of course, there are the stereotypes, such as doing things in ‘Northland time’ or the fact that my Kiwi friends tell me a great country night out is getting smashed at the pub in your gumboots and going cow tipping.

There is the fact that people have more time and more time for each other outside the cities, consequently, they enjoy the pace of life more rather than forcing it. This is a great thing. There are also stark differences in the brands that do well outside the main cities. Spark immediately comes to mind and the telco’s most loyal customers are here. They are slightly older and more dubious than any other phone company actually has a credible network (something they are marketing hard in their push with wireless broadband).

Both audiences heap disdain on each other, whether calling people JAFAs or claiming that only outside the cities can you find the ‘real’ New Zealand. I reject these labels. Within the urban setting, the New Zealand experience is no less real, no less unique. But this urban New Zealand culture is accelerating at a massive rate and it will take real agile thinking to both understand and profit from it. But it can also live alongside the non-urban experience and be complementary.

The fact is that we need our cities to do well on the global scale because this commercial benefit flows to the rest of the country. Otherwise, it simply goes to Singapore or Sydney.

There are great examples of advertising that play to these two versions of New Zealand. Some celebrate urban diversity. Others go back to a time, which while real to a generation, is simply not the Kiwi experience for millennials or many a Gen X’er.

It’s generally accepted that culture and society evolve, but what has come as a surprise to many is the speed of this.

The ‘City Mega-culture’ has only emerged in the last 20 years. It’s in the interests of economics to both market to it and keep it in check.

I understand the economics of this, but perhaps they are missing some of the emotional point. New Zealand is, in my mind, the best place in the world to live and bring up a family. The diverse cultures, remarkable topography, and unique geographical position are what the people come for, the reason they stay and why we come back.

We have something extremely special and precious here. Let’s further market to the world and put them on our ‘to do’ list. We already have brands such as Icebreaker leading the charge in cities, why couldn’t Fonterra be up there with Ben & Jerry’s? We certainly beat Vermont’s finest hands down. Wellington isn’t the only windy city, the infallible Blunt Umbrellas could be keeping folks sheltered worldwide. Manuka honey should be hailed as a global treasure and the All Blacks are the best sports team in the world. No contest.

We are known to have some of the finest creative minds on the planet, coupled with the thinking that New Zealand business actually wants to make the world a better place. It’s one thing to bring the best of the world to New Zealand, but we have never been in a better position to show the world our best. It’s about time we show them the new New Zealand.

Dean Taylor is the chief executive at Contagion.

This story first appeared at StopPress.

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