Psychic premiums in brands —

For many of us the gentle slide backwards goes unnoticed as undeveloped nations with cost advantages trade increasingly in our type of commodities. Our reaction is to throw on more fertiliser, build more efficient meatworks and carry on with a vengeance.

Yet why is it when I look in my fridge I read Yoplait or Gervais on the yoghurt pot, for which some French or Swiss company collects a royalty from one of the most advanced dairying countries in the world: New Zealand? New Zealand has only three global brands that we can call our own: Anchor Butter, Canterbury Clothing and Steinlager. There are others such as New Zealand lamb, kiwifruit and even the New Zealand image itself which have never been managed.

We’d all like to think this is New Zealand’s debut decade during which we will add lots of value to products. However the view persists among many of our businesses that enough money, machinery and deal-making will do this for us. We have not, as yet, learned how to optimise product values. Too many of our products are old-fashioned, poorly presented and, as such, fail to reach the price premiums they should.

Until we understand that we have to “pamper the prosperous” worldwide, this lacklustre economy will continue. In moving our products and services from commodity to niche, we are entering a globally competitive arena. Product innovation and design quality are the ultimate values in commanding premiums. To achieve this we need new relationships with the design world. The current gap between business and design is enormous. Commercial people are terrified of designers and the designers often believe they belong to some precious artistic community. As long as designers fail to think strategically about their client’s product or service positioning problem, they will continue to be humbled and kept waiting in foyers.

Beyond utility factors there are many less tangible benefits that brands can offer such as joyful design, consistent quality, sophistication and a healthy image. These can help differentiate products or services which are otherwise similar. Nationality can be a potent weapon as a brand value. But still many New Zealand companies have difficultly in coming to grips with this brand element.

It’s tough for designers in New Zealand to get paid for the intellectual part before they sit at their drawing boards to begin the physical part of design, yet they must think strategically and attempt to solve brand positioning problems in a global context. It’s their skills our economy so desperately needs to innovate and celebrate product and service values through the medium of design. The designer/client relationship needs work on both sides to forge a new understanding. Business has to see virtue in designed product values. And designers must stop being stylists and create their own imprints; be themselves.

Ralph Lauren is America’s first star designer to turn the rest of the world onto clothes which are not merely clothes, but little pieces of an ideal world. Phillipe Starck is very French, very zany perhaps, but certainly unique. Both these designers are passionate about their products and have reached deeply into their nationality for inspiration. Above all, they are both very commercial. Designers can lead business in a new, value-added celebration of nationalism. It’s been seen in Denmark and Sweden, even more recently in Spain.

Enormous psychic premiums could be discovered in everything from mineral water to agricultural machinery, from furniture to homeopathic deer velvet. But we need design understanding and brilliance to exploit them. James K Baxter wrote so beautifully of his New Zealand in the ‘60s: “These unshaped Islands, on the sawyer’s bench wait for the chisel of the mind”, and it seems after 30 years, it’s still the case in so many things.