During a staff lunch, an environmentally concerned co-worker once took aim at New Zealand's green image, calling it a disingenuous scam based entirely on empty propaganda.

Everyone at the table laughed off the rant as a fringe idea, positioned uncomfortably high on the conspiracy spectrum.

Fast-forward to today, and you'd be forgiven for thinking the impassioned environmentalist had sent out a series of press releases to international media.

"New Zealand: Contaminated Drinking Water" reads the provocative tagline on a six-minute news segment that aired on German TV at the end of last month.


That was followed by Vice Media pushing out a video on the same topic to its enormous international audience.

Extend your gaze to the final weeks of last year and you also have articles in The Guardian and The Economist to add to this growing chorus of important international voices, hollering to their not-insignificant audiences that it probably won't be safe to swim in New Zealand rivers during a visit.

As is often the case with these stories, much of the blame for pollution has been posited (or perhaps deposited) on New Zealand's major export industry, dairy — a situation Dairy NZ chief executive Tim Mackle describes as disappointing because it doesn't provide a full picture of the cause of pollution, or the work the dairy industry is doing to turn it around.

A consistent theme woven through these yarns is the mismatch between New Zealand's environmental state and the "100% Pure" message that is still delivered in our tourism advertising.

This is perhaps best captured in the German segment, which borrowed local marketing footage of smiling kayakers gliding across a pristine waterway to drill home the point that all is not what it seems.

"Simply put, a brand is a promise" goes the famous phrase often attributed to branding pioneer Landor Walter. And when that promise is broken, the authenticity that holds the brand together quickly starts to unravel.

Responding to the international media coverage, Tourism New Zealand chief executive Stephen England-Hall told the Herald brand authenticity is "extremely important".

"A destination's brand should reflect the conversations people have about a country after they leave and that is why we are looking to evolve the brand to incorporate more of New Zealand's people and culture alongside our beautiful landscapes," said England-Hall, referring to the organisation's recent strategic shift in its marketing.


It's easy to understand why Tourism NZ would want to hold onto the long-running, widely recognised slogan, but influential marketing expert Mark Ritson believes it might be time to move on.

"Claiming that the 100% Pure position is about being 100% NZ is nonsense," the straight-talking Ritson told the Herald.

"Clearly it's a position built from being pure, something New Zealand rivers simply aren't. The strategic choice is simple: either fix the dirty rivers to ensure the brand promise of New Zealand purity is redeemed, or drop the purity claims and look for something a little more accurate.

"Can I suggest '74% Pure' or 'A lot purer than China, for the most part'?"

The issue isn't as clear for advertising agency boss Paul Catmur, who argues that advertising has always been prone to stretching the truth.

"'100% Pure NZ' may be hyperbolic, but it's not so far removed from the truth as some hysterical commentators might suggest," says Catmur, the chief executive at Barnes, Catmur & Friends Dentsu.


"A little bit of exaggeration should be acceptable. Personally, I've never found a book that was physically 'unputdownable'. Diamonds, like marriages, unfortunately aren't actually 'forever'. And I'm pretty sure I have been able to 'buy better' than at Briscoes, but I knew what they were getting at."

Catmur also doesn't buy into the argument that negative international press will do much to damage the local tourism industry.

"It's interesting to note that in Mexico tourism is still going up despite headlines like: '14 murdered in 36 hours in Cancun' and 'Acapulco: Murder Capital'," Catmur says.

"Compared to that, headlines like 'NZ Tourism Industry threatened by cows' probably won't do too much damage."

Also balancing out the negative press is Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who, Catmur argues, has done much more good for New Zealand's image than the damage caused by articles on the state of the country's rivers.

Here's to hoping Ardern's future doesn't involve any salacious rumours which the overseas media is able to report on.


Other broken promises

Tourism New Zealand isn't alone in having its marketing claims questioned. Perhaps the best recent example of this would State Street Global Advisors' 'Fearless Girl' statue, which fiercely faced down the charging bull on Wall Street and evoked a strong message of female empowerment.

The only problem with the campaign was that the financial firm that commissioned it later faced a number of lawsuits over allegations it underpaid female and minority employees. There are few more laughable examples of marketing inconsistency than this.

In a slightly different but equally amusing example, Pepsi's massive campaign featuring Kendall Jenner was widely accused of purpose-washing for trying to latch onto social causes that had nothing to do with the brand or what it stood for. The entire concept reeked of inauthenticity and was rejected wholeheartedly by consumers who saw straight through the tenuous association with the causes portrayed. Pepsi was left with no choice but to pull the ad.

Better than 100%?

For consumers driven by the truth, adman Paul Catmur has a few alternative slogans that could be used in lieu of "100% Pure NZ":

• "New Zealand: Quite like the UK but with more sun and fewer people"
• "Australia's less pushy younger brother"
• "100% Pure (apart from towns, cities, industrial development and areas of questionable farming methods)"