Countries spend millions in promotion to attract buyers for their products and services, skilled migrants, tourism, trade and investment. And while Covid-19 has implications for the movement of people, if international media headlines are anything to go by, New Zealand's brand is arguably stronger now than it has ever been. Now is the time to maximise the opportunity this presents.
As part of a Master's thesis in politics and international relations, I analysed the individual brands of different world leaders and the role they played as their country's brand ambassador, with case studies on Jacinda Ardern, Donald Trump and Justin Trudeau.
Each country puts forward its values to the world, and when it has a leader that epitomises them, presuming those values resonate globally, the impact of the leader's brand on the country brand is strongly positive. This was especially evident for Trudeau and Ardern with Canadian and New Zealand policy platforms on issues such as gender equality corresponding well with the leaders' self-proclaimed feminist positions.
Even though the political terms of leaders are finite, stakeholders can become confused if a leader's personal brand does not align with a country brand that has been built over a long period of time. Indeed, falling rankings for the US brand were attributed in large part to the disconnect between what Trump stands for and what the US has traditionally been known for – for example nationalism rather than globalisation.
Covid-19 can be described as the most significant international event of our time. The response of leaders around the world to this has had implications for their country brands - and again the contrast between Trump and Ardern couldn't be starker.
For smaller countries like New Zealand, which are influencers rather than determinants of world outcomes, a leader that epitomises its country's values and attracts positive international interest, can help belie nation size.
Earlier in my career promoting New Zealand trade, investment and education across Asia over a ten-year period, I always felt fortunate to have strong leaders who were globally respected and who epitomised Brand New Zealand.
In the current time, our response to Covid-19 under Arden's leadership has been hailed as an international success with global media describing New Zealand as a safe haven. Surveys, including one by IDP International Education Specialists of 6,900 prospective international students ranked our response as the best amongst destination countries, and New Zealand as the safest country for students and citizens.
But what use is a good brand if it isn't being used? As a small country at the end of the world, our distance to markets has often been seen as a curse. In a Covid-19 world, it has been a blessing.
However, as a small trading nation, we cannot afford to lock down our engagement with the rest of the world. Smart thinking and technology enable us to remain connected without fully opening borders.
It has been heartening to see the government, together with APEC economies, agree to keep markets open and trade flowing. Recent announcements about the potential to extend our border bubble to include Australia, and to consider an exception for international students if health risks can be managed are positive signals. Microsoft's decision to establish a datacentre for cloud services here is also a good endorsement of New Zealand's attractiveness.
Thought needs to be given to how the brand power we currently have can be leveraged for the greater good of New Zealand now and for the future. Are we for example leveraging our reputation in the best way when promoting the exports of goods and services, when considering attracting investment (rather than people at the moment) into productive sectors, or by sharing lessons with other countries for the greater good globally?
Covid-19 has provided a great opportunity to reimagine our economy to be a true embodiment of our brand – not just clean, green, and "new" in name – but in ensuring that our products, services and technology are good for people and the planet.
Brand personality can create unique and favourable associations. A leader's brand, just as much as a country's policies, provides cues as to how a country can be expected to behave during a given situation. The Christchurch terrorist attack and Ardern's empathetic response is a case in point.
Then, we saw the establishment of the Christchurch Call – a commitment by Governments and tech companies to eliminate terrorist and violent extremist content online. How can New Zealand demonstrate international leadership this time?
In a highly competitive world, successful country brands can increase international political power and partnerships, encourage exports and investment, and encourage others to accept a nation and its people. While we remain focused on fighting a health crisis, we shouldn't lose sight of the value of our brand and the important role it can play in the economic recovery.
- Ziena Jalil is an independent director and strategic consultant.