Beyond regional doubt —

Market the region, not the country, says the brains behind Zespri, Brian Richards. While Saatchi & Saatchi and the Tourism Board battle to sell little ol’ New Zild as the one-stop adventure destination, one old marketing hand is recommending tourism go in the opposite direction: cut our tiny country up into smaller pieces and market the regions, not the nation. So goes the theory of branding pioneer Richard Richards. "We’ve tried to homogenise our country," Richards says. "Instead we should recognise the value of its tapestry. We’ve always tried to personify New Zealanders as the same sort of people, but we’re not the same at all. The people of Auckland are vastly different to those living in Tokoroa. I think it’s time we encourage that regional diversity again."

The Tourism Board, also known as New Zealand Tourism, is less enthusiastic. Spokesman Peter Laurenson gives the unequivocal thumbs down to the idea. "Regional brands aren’t part of our plan," he says. Seven years ago at the 1992 Expo in Seville, Richards first took note of our conspicuous lack of regional branding. "I was looking around the various stands and I noticed that New Zealand had just one shingle up and it said ‘New Zealand’. The French had lots of signs saying Provence and Burgundy and l’Alsace all the different regions, and all evoking different images and emotions. They understood the enormous worth of that regional diversity, and we’d overlooked it completely." Admittedly, our regions don’t have hundreds of years of history like Bordeaux or Provence says Richards, but "with modern communications you can create an image quickly".

Which is exactly what Richards has set about doing for Tauranga, Manukau City and, most recently, for Marlborough. For every part of the country he aims to find its unique point of difference. In Marlborough, it took months of extensive research and meaty focus groups before Richards came up with the new broken-hearted M logo and the slogan - "Love Marlborough". Not exactly rocket science you might think. But Leslie Cole, executive officer of the Marlborough Chamber of Commerce, says the slogan is deceptively simple - and the region is thrilled with its new look.

"We’re changing the face of the CBD to fit in with the new brand. It genuinely is how the community here sees itself. We do ‘Love Marlborough’, that’s why we live here." What tangible benefit does being branded have for the region? "The same benefit there is for McDonald’s," says Cole. "We’re identifying all the produce of our region with the finer qualities of things that people already identify Marlborough with like our wines." Council fees being what they are, branding a city earns Richards less than his work with products like Zespri and Cervena. So why does this boy from Taumaranui - who now holds court at his home-office in Remuera - care so much about repositioning every nook and cranny of our country?

"I keep doing them because I think they’re important. They’re not highly lucrative, but they’re a better option for me than joining Rotary," Richards says. It’s not all philanthropy of course - certainly it helps Richard’s own cause to let the international business community know where he’s coming from. To that end, he wants New Zealand to pursue the same elite image that Switzerland already projects upon everything they produce, "we need to get a value-added image where people buy our products for a premium because of the country they come from."

Tourism’s Peter Laurenson doubts New Zealand can afford to split its message. "For every market outside the domestic and possibly part of the Australia, it’s far more important for us to send a compelling message about New Zealand as a nation." However, he’s keen to see regions develop branding for local use. "It gives consistency to the message coming from that district. It can define their point of difference. Although, we’ve found there’s a danger that every region wants to portray itself as all things to all people."

Trade New Zealand agrees that the value-added image is "the next step for New Zealand exporters," says its communications manager Maryanne Webber. "We’re becoming a brand-centric organisation. We see regional and national branding as pivotal in terms of the export market. Production won’t generate the wealth; it’s about getting those premium prices for our products." Don’t just double those prices - triple them now, says Richards. "It is urgent that we stop being a volume-driven nation."

"We’re on the motorway of the world economy and we’ve got to decide which lane we’re in. All we’ve got is a window of opportunity for about another 15 years. After that it’s all over for us."