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Individuality in New Zealand: You can be who you want to be, but don't make a song and dance about it

  • Opinion
  • June 28, 2018
  • Colleen Ryan
Individuality in New Zealand: You can be who you want to be, but don't make a song and dance about it

New Zealand welcomed the nation's – or perhaps more accurately, Jacinda Arden and Clarke Gayford's – baby into the world last week. Head of strategy at TRA Colleen Ryan reflects on how the Kiwi cultural codes of individuality and self-determination have come into play with the birth of Neve Te Aroha and the nation's response to her arrival. 

The nation’s baby has arrived and it’s a girl – go girl power! You couldn’t make up how well this story is playing out in a cultural context. But there are some interesting tensions in the nation’s response, which reflect our deep-seated belief in the right to self-determination and the value we place on individualism.

Jacinda and Clarke’s baby touches so many cultural issues – feminism, parenting, our political structure (a deputy PM we didn’t elect), trends in baby names and so much more.

Meanwhile, across the Pacific a different face of self-determination was paraded by Melania Trump and her “I really don’t care” jacket. A fast response by clothing company Wildfang saw them produce their jacket: “I really care, don’t you”, selling out within an hour. This is cultural disruption played out on a very public stage and is palpable evidence of a cultural tilt that at the very least rivals technological disruption, if not exceeding it in regard to its impact on brands.

It is stark warning for companies who are in danger of being caught heads down controlling their rising fear of technological disruptions, and missing the threats and opportunities that cultural disruption poses. It’s good to see Wildfang are heads up, looking out of the window and thinking how cultural and social disruption of tsunami like proportions might utterly change customer behaviour.

Having a baby while in the highest public office and wearing clothing that says what you feel (even if it is unconscious in the latter case) are both acts of self-determination and individualism. What’s more, they shine a light on what makes our respective national cultural codes very different. In New Zealand, self-determination is coupled with “don’t make a song and dance about it”, “don’t rock the boat” and “support the collective good”. Currently, Brand Jacinda’s personality is largely achieving that, though whether it will continue longer term when her baby becomes one of her distinctive assets is yet to be seen.

I’ll do me, you do you – but let’s not do sameness

What the Kiwi cultural DNA around self-determination and individualism does tell us is that this is a very fertile place for brands to play, specifically because there are tensions meaning we can create frisson that breaks through the sameness of many categories.

But, for example, the climate of frictionless design seems to run counter this. The frictionless world that the ‘wind tunnel’ approach to UX design (which is why every car marque has a near identical looking car in the same model band) produces is not where we will find the edginess of self-determination that runs deep in the Kiwi psyche.

Nor will we find it by celebrating sameness. We have an increasingly diverse population in every sense – gender and ethnicity for example, plus different value structures as Millennials and Gen Z work out what kind of life they are aspiring to both personally and for society in general. And as regards value structures, many new immigrant New Zealanders come from societies where collectivism rather than individualism is the core belief. So our uniquely Kiwi version of individualism that combines with a belief in the importance of the collective makes for harmony but also creative opportunity.

Self-determination in brands

That we celebrate individualism in New Zealand adds fuel to the debate around personalised and tailored products and services, but that misses the point about what is unique about Kiwi individualism. Because it is coupled with the idea of self-determination (meaning that I am a unique individual but also that I am actively selecting and forging my own way), the fertile  ground is about how the brand speaks to that ‘doing it my way’ mentality.

As an example, when Sonny Bill Williams chose to cover the BNZ logo on his jersey with tape, people respected his right to reject a banking system that didn’t align with his beliefs, but rejected how he did it. It undermined the collective of the team because it played out on the pitch instead of dealing with the issue beforehand. Whereas BNZ hit exactly the right note with its response when they acknowledged his right to his beliefs and supplied an unbranded shirt. Bang on code.

Vogel’s also spoke to self-determination with their TVC making individuality the hero and celebrating self-determination. Vogel’s is an iconic Kiwi brand, but just as we are seeing the essence of what makes a New Zealander evolve in response to global shifts and changes in our society, so too must brands stay culturally relevant. Acknowledging to Kiwis that you ‘get them’ in all their different manifestations is the single best way to do that. The Vogel’s ad celebrated dignified difference, not sameness, and spoke to individualism behind closed doors not worn on the back of a jacket.

Cultural relevance isn’t the only thing brands need to consider. Speaking to core human needs is important, of course, so is designing good customer experience and UX,  but none of that will resonate without being culturally on code and relevant. It’s why the big global brands are moving away from centralization and back to localisation.

On air at the moment, the Mitre 10 donkey ad pulls no punches as regards the right to be quirky, even weird in pursuit of what matters to you. A celebration of difference that touches the heart. And that’s the point, emotion. All of the examples above fire an arrow to the heart and they helped to do that by recognising the uniqueness of being a Kiwi.

I see you, I know you

Understanding what makes Kiwis tick is a short cut to recognition. Nothing makes us feel better than seeing ourselves in the metaphorical mirror. It speaks to a core human need whereby the world is not so scary if it’s familiar, if I’m surrounded by people like me. It’s why expats hang out together. And it provides a safety net for us to experience new ideas.

But the times they are a changing and that roguish, anti-authoritarian streak that Kiwis love to see in themselves is evolving. We are still a nation of individualists, self-determined and proud of our ‘live and let live’ approach to life, but cultural disruption is testing us and we are hanging on tightly to our belief in the good of the collective. The brands that get that will hit the emotional bulls eye.

* The Kiwi Cultural Codes was a collaborative project between TRA and True.

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